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A policy framework for community telecentres in India - Building on the experience of different projects

A policy framework for community telecentres in India - Building on the experience of different projects

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Published by IT for Change
India is known as an IT powerhouse but still has the greatest number of poor people in any country in the world. India's experience with policies for digital inclusion therefore may offer some useful lessons for other developing countries. This policy brief looks at a range of initiatives in India including the ambitious Common Service Centres (CSCs) scheme of the National e-Governance Plan. It looks at the challenges faced by the scheme in ensuring the delivery of development services in a socially inclusive manner using this infrastructure
India is known as an IT powerhouse but still has the greatest number of poor people in any country in the world. India's experience with policies for digital inclusion therefore may offer some useful lessons for other developing countries. This policy brief looks at a range of initiatives in India including the ambitious Common Service Centres (CSCs) scheme of the National e-Governance Plan. It looks at the challenges faced by the scheme in ensuring the delivery of development services in a socially inclusive manner using this infrastructure

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Published by: IT for Change on Dec 15, 2010
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IT for Change Policy Brief 
India is known as an IT powerhouse but still has the largest number o poorpeople in any country in the world
2
. India’s experience with policies or digitalinclusion may thus oer some useul lessons or other developing countries.This policy brie looks at a range o initiatives in India including the ambitiousCommon Service Centres (CSCs) scheme o the National e-GovernancePlan (NeGP). It looks at the challenges aced by the scheme in ensuring thedelivery o development services in a socially inclusive manner using thisinrastructure.
A brie background to policyinitiatives in India
As the global debate on the possibilitiesor using Inormation and CommunicationTechnologies or Development (ICTD)developed in the late 1990s, IndianICTs policies, like those o most othercountries, were inuenced by a drivetowards privatisation and liberalisation.Digital inclusion policies in this early phaseconsisted o using unds rom the astswelling Universal Service Funds
3
to provideuniversal coverage o rural telephony.However, even with near universal landlinecoverage and subsidised taris, ruralteledensity
4
had only reached 12.6% o thepopulation in December 2008
5
, with mosto the growth in the last ew years comingrom the mobile telephony sector. Use o theInternet in rural areas was much lower, evenin areas which had good dial up connectivity
6
.Signifcantly, there is a well-developedfbre optic backbone that runs within 15-20kilometres o 85 percent o villages o India
7
 
A Policy ramework or community telecentresin India - Building on the experience o dierent projects
1
IT or Change2009
Beyond being a servicedelivery platorm, ICTs alsohave the potential to be ameans or the empowermento communities towards sel-determined goals.
which remains mostly unutilised due to theabsence o viable business models.People in rural areas do not seem to havenot ound much use or the Internet perse. This is understandable because in orderto use a phone, others in your environmentneed to be using phones. However, to be ableto use and beneft rom the Internet thereare a range o other actors to be consideredsuch as the availability o relevantapplications and digital services, as well aslocal language computing. This has meantthat most o the stand-alone telecentreinitiatives that have emerged across ruralIndia have ound themselves unctioningalmost exclusively as centres or computer
 
education (in English) and or services likeprinting and digital photography with littleuse o the Internet by the community.The frst Indian rural Internet ServiceProvider (ISP), N-logue, soon realised thatin order to be relevant, Internet connectivityhad to be bundled with services that ruralpeople needed. Until 2007, N-logue claimedto run thousands o telecentres in manystates o India, providing a number odigital services under its ‘
Chirag
’ brand
8
.However, the initiative seems to have moreor less olded up, ater some unsuccessulattempts at partnerships with governments,the latest with the government o the stateo Gujarat
9
.Another private sector-led initiative,
Drishtee
, which began by working closelywith many governments to providee-governance services, now seems to havemoved completely into the domain o privateservices
10
. This is despite the act that manystudies have indicated that e-governanceservices are the ones most in demand inrural areas.
Drishtee
’s present approachseems to ocus on higher income groups invillages and does not appear to be engagingwith socially and economically backwardcommunities
11
.
Common Service Centres(CSCs) – A service deliveryinrastructure
The current policy ramework o theGovernment o India or providing ICTsto disadvantaged sections builds on thethree key policy lessons learnt rom thepre-2005 experience with telecentreinitiatives in India: (1) people need realand relevant services rather than ICTs
per se
, (2) governance services are among thekey needs o disadvantaged groups, and(3) building the inrastructure required ordelivering such services requires a ocusedpublic sector eort guided and supported bythe highest policy levels.The union government o India announcedthe NeGP
12
in 2005-06. It is beingimplemented by the IT Ministry, whichhas inrastructural responsibilities. A keyobjective o this plan is to set up a networko CSCs in rural India. Under the CSCscheme, 100,000 ICT-enabled centres arebeing rolled out: one or every six villages,covering all villages in India. This is beingdone in sync with extensive back end re-engineering to develop digitally deliverablegovernance services in various governmentdepartments. While the IT departmento the central government retains theoverall project management role, stategovernments will designate a state levelbody to coordinate the CSC scheme
13
. Theconnectivity up to the block level
14
is to beprovided by NeGP-unded State-Wide AreaNetworks (SWAN). Last mile connectivityup to the CSCs is being provided using undsrom the recently launched National RuralBroadband Plan
15
.In terms o on-the-groundimplementation, however, the CSCscheme has ignored the evidence romearlier initiatives delivering e-governanceand other services which are mostrelevant to disadvantaged sections. TheCSC scheme has chosen private sectorleadership and does not build any clearstructural relationship with the district
16
 administration and local sel-governancebodies. Private companies willing toimplement 500-1,000 CSCs each arechosen as Service Center Agencies (SCAs)through open reverse bidding
17
. SCAsselect village level entrepreneurs and setup CSCs. The project documents clearlyairm the central role o the SCA: ‘TheSCA would be the prime driver o theCSC scheme and the owner o the CSCbusiness’
18
.
2
IT or Change Policy Brie, Community telecentres in India
 
Since N-logue and
Drishtee
pioneeredthe large-scale, private-sector-led ruraldigital services model, and have extensiveexperience with it, one would normallyhave expected them to make some o thebest SCAs. Surprisingly, neither o thesecompanies is participating in the CSCbidding, even though the scheme seeksto ollow almost exactly the same ruralservices model as employed by N-logueand
Drishtee
, with some important addedbenefts or the service providers. Thispoints to a likely gap in the CSC model.There is also no evidence o the CSCscheme learning lessons rom ruraltelecentre initiatives, such as
 Akshaya
and‘rural
eSeva
19
, where district and localgovernments played a driving role, andwhich have been much more successulin delivering e-governance services in asocially inclusive manner.The CSC scheme aims to build a new ICT-based rural inrastructure across India,which is to be used to deliver governanceand commercial services. However, itremains stuck with an identity crisis in beingunable to defne whether it is primarily agovernance services outreach plan or ageneral rural IT inrastructure plan. Asa rural inrastructure plan, it has beenguided by the current policy emphasis onusing public-private partnerships wherevereasible. Accordingly, it seeks corporatepartners with an interest in rural marketswho can beneft rom such an inrastructureand thereore may be ready to bear parto its cost. Governance services outreachhowever ollows a very dierent logic asthey are designed to prioritise the needso the disadvantaged sections. Corporatepartners deraying the cost o laying ruralinrastructure are obviously aiming primarilyat prosperous rural sections. A simplisticconation o two very dierent sets oobjectives and approaches into a commonrural service delivery inrastructure isunlikely to serve the interests o thedisadvantaged sections.Development services that are mostimportant or disadvantaged peoplehave much lower than average revenuepotential and higher than average resourcerequirements, or instance
vis-à-vis
 the intermediary agent’s time. A poorilliterate woman is unlikely to be able topay much to get inormation regardinggovernment assistance that she may beeligible or. At the same time, she is likelyto require considerable support to accessthis inormation. The incentive that anintermediary, who sees service deliveryonly as a commercial business, will have inserving her as compared to a rich armerlooking or, say, insurance services or arminputs, is not obvious.Beyond elementary services, such asbill payments, government certifcates,provision o entitlement applications, it isdifcult to see how corporate- managedCSCs can acilitate community levelgovernance activity, which is a muchlarger and more complex domain. A jointstudy by the government agency NationalInormatics Centre (NIC) and StanordUniversity o many rural telecentres andgovernance initiatives, concluded that localgovernance services and other entitlementsshould not be subcontracted to privateplayers
20
.
The CSC scheme remainsstuck with an ‘identity crisis’in being unable to spell outclearly whether it is primarilya governance servicesoutreach plan or a generalrural IT inrastructure plan.
3
IT or Change Policy Brie, Community telecentres in India

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