Interview

Aiming to Service the Citizens at their Door-Steps : Syedain Abbasi, Director, Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and IT

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Syedain Abbasi, an officer from the 1990 batch of Indian Administrative Service joined the Department of Information Technology in February 2004. Currently he is handling the preparation and monitoring implementation of the National e-Governance Plan.

Please tell us about the vision of the Common Service Centres (CSCs). What implications does it have towards making government services available at the door-steps of the citizens?

CSC is really a front end mechanism for the delivery of private and government services at the door steps of citizen.  While earlier some efforts at privatising citizen service delivery were being taken by individual departments, for the first time, the Government of India has sanctioned a scheme in which it is clearly stated that government services would be provided through a private front end across departments, across the country, which is a very significant change from the past. Earlier, If you had to get a birth certificate you had to go to the collector office and take it. If you had a public grievance and  wanted to bring it to the notice of the collector, you had to go to collectors officer and give the application, etc. But with the implementation of the CSC scheme  one can get this done through CSCs. So, the situation of government services being provided from a government  physical space, would no longer hold true.

What is the budgetary outlay for the CSC programme component of the National e-Government Plan? What is the central and state government share in the total cost of the project?

We had estimated that we require INR 57,420 million to set up this infrastructure and run it for over a period of  4 years. Out of this total outlay, the government expected to provide INR 16,490 million of which INR 15,860 million would go to the SCA, i.e., the bidder who bids for setting up this CSC infrastructure. The government of India and the state government share the support to be provided to the SCA equally. INR 600-700 million is required for programme management and monitoring assistance etc. The balance out of the Rs 57420 Million  was expected to be brought in by the private sector. However, the picture emerging from the actual bids  is that the the government investment would be half or slightly higher than what has been estimated, which comes to be INR 7000-9000 million instead of INR 15,860 millions earlier estimated. Agencies bidding to become SCA are being very  competitive and they are reducing the support they are requesting from the Government. A lot of agencies  are very positive about being able to make this work with minimal or no support from the Government.

What is the implementation strategy being adopted?

As far as the implementation process is concerned, the state government manages the bid process for selection of service centre agency (SCA). SCA could be an NGO, a corporate entity, a trust or society with reasonable financial strength to sustain capital and operational costs. The government provides only financial support, and that too only after the centers are setup and start delivering services.

What is the current stage of progress? What are the various services planned to be delivered at the CSCs? Actual implementation is on in fi ve states: Jharkhand,  Bihar, West Bengal, Haryana and Tripura. The actual work will start shortly in Gujrat as well

The bid process has been completed in a number of states including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam, Sikkkim,MP, TN, AP, etc. Bids have been fl oated in almost all the   states. Regarding the private services planned, different SCAs have different models ranging from education, fi nancial services, voice-over-Internet, agriculture etc. The government services, whatever currently available are of course there, including land records, utility bill payments etc.

Is impact analysis being conducted regarding the role of CSCs?

It is too early to make an impact analysis. Right now things are getting implemented on the ground, but impact analysis, of course, is planned.

What are the business opportunities for the private sector? How keen do you think are the private sector towards PPP?

Business opportunity for the private sector is enormous. Banks & insurance companies look at this as a channel for getting them business. This business could be in terms of credit or opening of savings accounts. A lot of companies in the education sector are looking at CSCs for computer training, which is a very viable model and then of course we have agricultural related services including supply of inputs and agricultural procurement.

How does the department of IT plan to create a marketable
and sustainable framework for the CSCs?

That really is a part of the design. We could have very easily provided the capital subsidy upfront, but experience has shown that such models generally are not viable since the primary mover for the scheme is the incentive or subsidy being provided. But when you ask entities to fi rst invest in the scheme and then only the Government would provide any support, only people who really believe in the long term business model participate. Generally  one feels that the model is sustainable, provided people do not bid just for the sake of  winning the bid. The risk is when you are not bidding on the basis of your business model  but on the basis of what you think others will bid. In such cases the business model has a high risk of failing. Another risk is if you overestimate the revenue potential of rural areas.

What are some of the implementation challenges and
how are they being overcome? What steps are being taken with regard to ensuring alternate technologies for uninterrrupted running of the CSCs?

Implementation challenges are huge. Connectivity is a very big problem. An off-line system is of very little utility. So when bids are received, the connectivity plan of the bidder is looked at very closely .

We along with the Department of Telecommunication are also working on a three pronged  approach to ensure that connectivity and that too broad band connectivity is made available  in rural areas which can then be accessed by the CSCs. First BSNL has 25,000 rural  exchanges which have optic fi bre. We are providing fi nancial support to BSNL by sharing the  one time capital cost for providing equipment to enable DSL connectivity. As a result of  this initiative these exchanges would be able to provide DSL connectivity in a 4-5 Km radius.  Some 20-25000 CSCs would get connectivity in this manner.

Secondly, BSNL has towers throughout the country and there are certain areas where within  a certain radius there are only BSNL towers. Using that as backbone for providing Internet  connectivity, we will be providing wireless connectivity to another 20-25000 CSCs.

The third and the biggest initiative is being taken by the Universal Service Obligatory Fund  (USOF). The USOF is expected to shortly fl oat a bid inviting Telecom Service Providers (TSPs)  for providing broadband as well as voice connectivity in rural areas. This would take care of  the balance 50,000 CSCs.

As far as power is concerned, quite frankly the problem of lack of power in large parts of rural  India is well known and hence the SCAs are looking at providing adequate UPS backup, some  are looking at generators in addition to this and some are even looking at having solar power  options. Manpower as such, is not being seen as a big problem.

SCAs are confi dent that they will fi nd enough people with basic computer training to work as  CSC operators. They feel that what is critical however is to select people with the right entrepreneurial spirit and ability to man and run the CSCs. Unless they have the  entrepreneurial spirit they would not succeed.

One larger goal of the CSC programme is to promote rural entrepreneurship. What are the  road blocks in realising this and what is the uptake by the rural community? As mentioned  earlier, entrepreneurial spirit and ability is critical for making the Scheme a success. What  we will have with the 100,000 CSCs is really 100,000 businesses. Hence the scheme will help  in promoting these entrepreneurs.

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