Even though there has been progress on laying cables, there is a serious lack of planning and strategy to make sure that these are fully functional and available to the people, organisations and government offices.
The difference between cities and villages in India has always been stark. Services that people in urban areas take for granted are often simply not available in the countryside. This is particularly true when we look at the digital divide that creates a gulf between urban and rural India.
Tilonia is a small village in Ajmer district in Rajasthan that has a panchayat (village council). The village has been made globally famous due to the great work done by Barefoot College, a voluntary organisation set up by Bunker Roy active in the fields of education, skill development, health, drinking water, women’s empowerment and electrification through solar power for the upliftment of rural people.
The panchayat building in Tilonia is quite vibrant, buzzing with various activities. It has two ancient but functional computers operated by Kaushalya, a volunteer from Barefoot College. The sarpanch (village council chief), Kamla, is never afraid to speak her mind. The village is quite progressive, and the panchayat has ensured equal wages for women, implemented the Right to Information Act and so on. It also has a telephone exchange operated by state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.
Despite all this, Tilonia panchayat does not have Internet connectivity. The government may have installed a cable under its National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) programme, but a connection to the Internet remains a dream in this village that is just 8km away from the National Highway 8, also known as the Delhi-Mumbai highway.
A little background will help here. The central government has established a company called Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) to implement an ambitious Rs.20,000 crore programme to provide broadband Internet connectivity across the countryside to bridge the digital divide and deliver a clutch of government services through electronic means.
The company’s mandate is to ensure that every one of the 249,450 panchayats in India has a 100 Mbps dedicated optical fibre line to ensure government services at the last mile is adequately and efficiently delivered.
However, the real story is that the NOFN line that is hanging from BBNL box on a wall in the panchayat house in Tilonia is lifeless. The people working there said the box and the wire have been there for about a year. The dead NOFN line at Tilonia panchayat office is symbolic of the fact that laying and installing optical fibre cable across India is just one part of the task; breathing life into the cables by having free flow of data is another matter altogether.