Recently the Cabinet gave its approval to set up one lakh Common Service Centres. What implications does this have for the estimated 13,000 kiosks currently operational in the country? This article highlights some of the lessons learnt from the existing CSCs and the issues that need to betackled for the ambitious roll-out.
The Union Cabinet has approved a Rs. 5,742-crore scheme to set up 100,000 Common Service Centres (CSCs) in rural areas across the country that will offer a basket of Government to Citizen (G2C) and Business to Citizen (B2C) services. These CSCs have been conceived as a strategic cornerstone of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) which is envisaged to ensure anytime, anywhere web-enabled delivery of Government services. The CSCs are expected to be rolled out over the next 18 months, by March 2008. Each CSC would be Internet-enabled with broadband connectivity with a speed of 256 kbps. The whole scheme would be implemented as a public-private partnership (PPP) with involvement of government, civil society and industry. The CSCs would provide video, voice and data content and services in the area of e-Governance, education, health, agriculture, etc. They will also make available application forms and certificates and have facilities for payment of electricity, water, telephone bills. They will also offer services such as e-enabled vocational training, rural BPO, weather information and market & supply chain linkages.
Out of the estimated 12,000-13,000 kiosks currently existing in the country; 45 percent kiosks are owned by the government or government mandated agencies. Out of these over 65 percent kiosks are located in rural and peri-urban areas and remainder in urban areas. Regarding ownership and operation there are four models: (a) Government kiosks (b) Private kiosks (c) Public Private Partnership (PPP) kiosks and (d) NGO/Civil Society kiosks.
(a) Government Kiosks: Since the government has a major stake in the delivery of its services to the citizens, majority of the kiosks are owned by the government. Broadly the government owned kiosks offer services like provision of various certificates like land records, birth and death certificates, caste certificate, etc; payment of utility bills; and provision of information about government schemes.
(b) Private Kiosks: The private sector has a major interest in expanding its market share in the rural areas as well as to tap the rural market for its supply chain. Large number of private companies including top corporate houses like ITC, Tata, Unilever, ICICI Bank, and Mahindra have set up private kiosks in various parts of the country. It is estimated that 35 percent of the kiosks are owned by the private sector.
(c) Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Kiosks: A PPP framework involving the government and private sector or NGO brings together multiple stakeholders working together towards shared goals and objectives. Each PPP partner contributes time, money, technical expertise and other resources in kind for the sustainable running of the kiosks. Less than 10 percent kiosks operate in the PPP mode. The prominent ones are: eSeva in AP, Bangalore One in Karnataka, eMitra in Rajasthan and eSampark in Chandigarh.
(d) NGO and Civil Society Kiosks: NGOs and civil society have a major interest in leveraging the over-arching role of ICTs in rural transformation. Therefore large numbers of donor-driven NGO models have been working in rural areas on wide ranging ICT for Development and e-Governance issues. The Right to Information Act (RTI 2005) and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has provided further impetus to the information kiosks run by NGOs. Kiosks run by M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Dhan Foundation and RASI are examples of kiosks run by civil society organisations.
Issues Concerning CSCs
In light of the rollout of the CSCs we briefly touch upon the operational issues with the existing government kiosks.
(i) Multiplicity of authorities: For the roll-out of services multiple authorities from the State HQ level to the District, Tehsil, Block and Panchayat level are involved. The involvement of various authorities including the presence of a large number of government departments raises accountability issues. Creation of IT Departments in various states and setting up of e-Governance not-for-profit societies have tried to streamline some of the operational issues; yet a lot needs to be done.
(ii) Government projects need champions: It has been conclusively established that the presence of a project champion has a catalytic role in the project implementation; and the absence of a project champion retards project implementation. The pace of the eMitra Project in Rajasthan significantly slowed down after the transfer of Director (IT), and even the running eMitra societies in different district started experiencing difficulties in getting requisite support from the District Administration.
(iii) Low usage of government services: A primary reason for low usage is that there are very few services available from a majority of the projects including Rural Digital Services (RDS) of Karnataka offering 7-8 services at this point of time in which Bhoomi Land Record has been integrated; eMitra of Rajasthan (6 services), Akshaya (6-7 services).
(iv) Downtime of computers and peripherals: In 75 percent of the government kiosks during last one year, hardware downtime and breakdown in the service delivery was a critical issue. Printers are most prone to breakdowns due to lack of timely servicing in rural areas. Hardware majors do not extend services to stand-alone installations in rural areas. They insist that the PC and its peripherals be brought to the nearest service centre. This is a time-consuming and costly affair for a rural entrepreneur.
In addition to the operational issues listed above there are lessons learnt from the existing kiosks in government, private, NGO or PPP mode. Some of them are as follows:
(1) Balance between supply and demand: From the sustainability point of view the supply and demand of services has to be balanced. A case in point is Akshaya. Despite the number of services being offered from the Akshaya centers, some kiosks have shut down since the ratio of 500 households per Akshaya Center was unviable. Five hundred households did not generate enough demand for the government services, as well as for the private and education services. Consequently the operators were not able to recover the costs. All across the country rural kiosks are languishing due to low footfall and inadequate usage.
(2) Integration with village level governance structures: From all over the country it has been conclusively proven that the support of the village panchayat is one crucial element in the success of rural kiosks. It is even better if the CSC is housed within the panchayat premises. This not only ensures panchayat ownership but also eliminates delays due to the absence of panchayat officials when signatures are needed on government documents.
(3) Inclusion of all sections of society: For long-term sustainability inclusion of Dalits, backward classes, women and physically challenged people into the CSC programme is essential. For example rural eSeva centres in predominantly Dalit villages in West Godavari district of AP see very low usage due to lack of integration efforts.
(4) Over-reliance on revenue generation from utility payments: Over 85 percent of the transactions in CSCs are related to payment of water, electricity and other utility payments. This uneven revenue generation pattern poses a threat to the long-term sustainability of the CSCs because: (a) Utility companies use CSCs for supplementary collection. They have not discarded their own collection arrangements nor their tie-ups with banks. Therefore the total no. of transactions gets distributed over a large no. of collection centres, leaving each with a small share of transactions. (b) In large parts of rural India households having legal electricity and water connections is too few to translate into a viable business opportunity.
(5) Integration of the CSCs with other initiatives and programs: The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Govt. of India is setting up Panchayat level ICT centers apart from converting these into Rural Business Hubs (RBHs). Likewise Ministry of Agriculture as part of its extension activities is rolling out Agriculture Information Centres. Given the handicap of limited viability there is no scope for such competing structures in rural India. Apart from working at cross-purposes competing structures would threaten service delivery quality and create confusion in the minds of the consumers where to go and for what. Consequently it is very crucial to integrate these efforts with the CSC roll-out.
(6) Felt need for educational services: It is seen that education services offering basic ICT literacy, advanced computer skills and e-Learning modules on Maths, Sciences and English constitute over 40-45 percent of the services delivered from rural kiosks. This indicates that this is a felt need of the community and this segment of the market is growing significantly due to an evolving knowledge economy wherein even rural citizens understand the value of good education and want to avail quality, value added educational services. This is evident from the huge demand for Ara bic learning modules implemented by a large number of Akshaya kiosks in Kerala, and skills enhancement modules implemented by TaraHaat.
(7) Felt need for information: There is a demand for information on different government schemes, subsidies and benefits. Currently the information is scattered across hundreds of different government websites. There is a need to evolve a pan-India information platform in different languages to enable people to get the information they need at the click of a mouse.
(8) Local content for the kiosks: Absence of local language, usable content impedes the usage of the kiosks by the rural users. Therefore substantial investments in developing useful, value added content needs to be undertaken as part of the CSC roll-out.
(9) Need for reliable and clean power supply: Most of the country, specially rural India, faces huge power cuts, ranging from 2 hours to 18 hours per day, and some parts of the country do not even get power supply for days at a stretch. A large number of projects spend huge sums of money for purchase and operation of generator sets, invertors, etc. Power supply in rural areas is beset with problems of over-voltage and low voltage which causes heavy damage to appliances. Sustenance of the e-Governance initiatives in the absence of reliable and clean power supply is very difficult.
Appropriate and alternative cost-effective power sources need to be identified very quickly, to help the CSC initiative take-off, consolidate and upscale. Renewable energy based solutions viz. solar panels, agriculture waste enabled power generation systems, bio-gas and co-generation power options need to be examined carefully for their low-cost and high yield advantage.
(10) Need for a rugged, dust and dirt-proof, low power consuming PC: In the rural conditions, many kiosks face down-time due to equipment malfunction because of the conditions under which they have to operate. Therefore it is crucial to devise a rugged, dust & dirt proof PC which can work in the heat, humidity and dusty conditions of rural India. In addition a low cost, low power consuming battery operated cost-effective PC is necessary since there are frequent power outages. There is lot of work being done in this area by Intel, AMD and they have given such PCs for field trials to a number of private organizations like Drishtee, TaraHaat, Datamation Foundation, etc. The results of field trials of these PCs may be examined very carefully for a long term policy perspective.
With the imminent roll-out of the CSCs it is imperative that there is a debate on the operational issues and the learnings outlined above. The concerns of the existing stakeholders who are currently running kiosks also need to be addressed. A holistic perspective on all issues would ensure that overlaps are avoided, long-term sustainability of the CSCs is ensured and that the community for whom the CSCs are meant really benefit.
The article is based on a case study prepared by Chetan Sharma, Datamation Foundation, for NISG.
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