This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on June 15, 2016.
There has been much talk of connecting panchayats through the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project. Last month, minister for communications and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad announced, “As of 2 May 2016, the OFC (optic fibre cable) pipe laid is 139,582 km, optical fibre laid is 111,726 km. OFC pipe is laid in around 61,000 gram panchayats and optical fibre in 50,500 gram panchayats.”
For those hearing about NOFN for the first time, it’s a government project aimed at providing broadband connectivity, of say 100Mbps bandwidth, to 250,000 gram panchayats in an effort to provide last-mile connectivity. Funded with Rs.20,000 crore from the Universal Service Obligation Fund, Bharat Broadband Network Ltd was created to implement the project and a pilot project was completed across 59 locations in October 2012.
However, while these figures are impressive, little is said about how many kilometres of this optic fibre is actually functional or how many gram panchayats are actually utilizing this connectivity to access the Internet or how “connected” gram panchayats will distribute the facility to other village-level institutions and households. Incidentally, after almost four years, even the pilot locations are not fully functional.
Penetration of optic fibre is extremely important in a country like ours. One of the reasons why a major part of India remains marginalized is because there is no access to the Internet—and, therefore, no information. It is because of lack of access to an operational optic fibre network that people do not receive their entitlements, their grievances do not reach the authorities, and they find it tough to make the most of entrepreneurial and business opportunities.
The reason why it is important to talk about NOFN is because not only is it a matter of mass connectivity, but a massive amount of public money is involved. And, if a project like NOFN were to become a reality, it could reduce the need for several social welfare schemes.
Recently, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) team was in the Ballabhgarh block of Faridabad district in Haryana and the Dadri block of Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh. We visited eight and six villages in these two blocks, respectively, where fibre has been laid. However, to our surprise, we found that none of these fibres were operational even though four villages had Wi-Fi towers set up.
The sarpanch of Raipur Kalan in Ballabhgarh told our team, “I don’t have any idea about NOFN, but a few months ago, a meeting was organized here with the district collector where sarpanches of nearby villages were informed that free Wi-Fi will be provided to villages, and gram panchayats will be made ‘digital’ with their own authenticated websites.” The sarpanch is still waiting for the promised Wi-Fi.
In Palla village of Dadri, the village head informed us that NOFN cables had been laid in the area 18 months ago, but there was still no set-up box or Wi-Fi tower.
This is alarming because Ballabhgarh and Dadri are within a 50-km radius from Delhi. If this is the state of operations in areas that are fairly developed and in close proximity to the national capital, one can only imagine how things must be in the villages of states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya.
In December 2014, the DEF had visited several sites to analyse connectivity in the pilot locations of the NOFN, spread across 30 gram panchayats in Rajasthan, 15 in Andhra Pradesh and 14 in north Tripura. The analysis found that more than 67% of the NOFN points were non-functional. Not much, it seems, has changed in two years.
While the government is making a large amount of information available online, especially since the Digital India initiative, it has to ensure that this information is actually accessible to the people. Connectivity can bridge this gap and provide access to not just the Internet but also to food, health, education, jobs, rights and opportunities. This is the reason why progress or the lack of it on NOFN is a matter of national concern.