More than five crore rural citizens of Andhra Pradesh have been bereft of promises of utility payment services, land records and information services and computer literacy, with a key partner walking out of the prestigious PPP-mode RAJiv Internet Village Centres project amid challenges of its sustainability.
The RAJiv project was launched with much fanfare in August 2005 by the Y S R Reddy government. Under it, 8,618 e-kiosks were to be made operational within a year covering every panchayat of the 22 districts of the state with the goal of empowering the rural masses. More than two years have passed and the project target is yet to be achieved, with only 600-800 centres operational till date.
Even these 600-800 functional centres are now being subsumed into Common Service Centres, under the National e-Governance Plan of the Central government, as they have proved unviable due to failure to deliver much promised G2C, G2B, B2C, and C2C services.
Of the two programme partners in the project, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) was assigned 5550 centres and TIMES (an ngo) received the rest 3068 centres. BEL has already quit the project, apparently having failed to establish and run the centres. While TIMES has only been able to keep nearly 600 centres operational across the state.
The programme of setting up e-centres in every corner of the state had its roots in the Rural Service Delivery Points (RSDP) project that began in 2001-02 with the intention of providing e-services through selected 1000 plus PCO & STD booths. The project was not a success as many of the kiosks became non-functional due to non-availability of services and financial problems as the target of minimum number of transactions was not met.
In 2005, the state government came up with a Broadband Policy, under which broadband connectivity was to be provided at the village level. The outlets for providing host of citizen-centric services to the villages were named as RAJiv Centres. According to one view, the RAJiv proposition came in the wake of plugging up the loopholes which resulted in the failure of RSDPs.
Availability of Services
The number of services provided is a critical factor making these e-Centres operational in the long run. The more the services offered in these centres, the greater would be the number of transactions, which has a bearing on their financial status.
As per the Request for Proposal (RFP) for RAJiv project, the government services in these centres were to be made available through e-Seva and AP Online centres, under a special revenue sharing arrangement. But in reality, the situation is different. A top official from TIMES commented on the aloofness and lack of interest on part of the government departments in extending services through RAJiv. “We sent many letters to the department of IT&C and other concerned departments like Land Revenue for extending their services to the Rajiv Centres, but we hardly got any response from them.”
Sources in BEL echoed a similar sentiment, “G2C services are very critical in rural areas, since it ensures a minimum number of transactions. Throughout our operation in Andhra Pradesh on the RAJiv project, we frequently approached the IT&C department for providing more G2C services, but it hardly fetched any results. Also, given the fact that people in rural areas have comparatively lesser purchasing power, you can not rely heavily on B2C services.”
A senior officer in the IT&C Department offered a different perspective. He commented that the RAJiv Centres cannot depend solely on the G2C services for its viability. They have to promote more and more B2C services.
On whether the government is obliged to provide a set of G2C services in order to support minimum functionality, the official said in an ideal situation the government is supposed to provide as many services as possible. But it is a herculean task to pull every department and put them on Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) and ICT mode, given the administrative set-up.
One of reasons for the present condition of RAJiv Centres is the lack of financial assistance to the operator till they are self-sustained, unlike the case of CSC
Financial Viability and Sustainability
Unlike Akshaya Centres in Kerala, which has evolved across the state with different business models to suit local needs, many RAJiv Centres have failed to shape business models for its sustenance. Like Akshaya, RAJiv too has a provision of providing computer education to atleast one person in each family. But it seems, providing training and education has been undervalued in terms of ROI and revenue.
Lesser number of G2C services is a factor strongly corroborated by the implementing agencies for failure of the project. And it seems genuine, considering the slow pace of process transformation and automation going on in the government departments, barring some of them.
States like Karnataka have done enormously in IT infrastructure and computerisation of the government departments. Bhoomi, one of the landmark projects of the Karnataka government, overcame the expenses in just two years of its implementation and is now a revenue source to the state. The same was tried in Andhra Pradesh with the Online Transaction Processing (OLTP) project, but it got lost in the official corridors.
One of reasons for the present condition of RAJiv Centres is the lack of financial assistance to the operator till they are self-sustained, unlike the case of Common Service Centres.
Giving another reason the IT&C official said: “At the time of bidding, organisations make their bids in negative. In the given situation there is nothing we can do, since it is in our interest to opt for the bidder who quotes the lowest.” However, this development, which was also witnessed at the time of bidding for CSCs in most of the states, has raised questions since the bidders have not been able to continue with the projects within the bids they offered.
Constraints and Challenges
A biggest constraint in any of the government projects involving inter-department participation is the lack of co-ordination. Lack of mechanism to pull a department and make them responsive to the change, is a serious issue. In case of RAJiv, all the issues regarding the project are handled by the EDS (Electronic Delivery of Service) section of the Department of IT&C, which has a limited role in advising other departments for BPR and work automation.
Broadband Policy failure is another well acknowledged factor that gave a setback to the RAJiv Project in its initial phase.
A significant factor is the allocation of a centre for a fixed number of population. In RAJiv’s case, the criterion earlier was a centre per 5000 population. Later to expand the coverage, it was changed to one centre per 2000. Because of providing services to proximate areas of rural households, the viability suffered, another official in IT&C department said.
Failure of the private players to bring in B2C services into the picture is another reason. In the given situation where G2C services are not ready, extra caution and endeavour was needed from the implementing agencies for inducing business services according to the specific need of the locals.
The inability on part of the state government in providing G2C services to these kiosks is also an important factor. Claims and cooperation penned in the 100 pages of the RFP, like offering services of various government departments to these centres and conducting joint promotional campaigns, were denied to the implementing agencies.
|Objectives of RAJiv Project
Key Lessons Learnt
In the words of the IT&C official, “To make an ICT project like RAJiv a success, we need to understand the value and importance of recognising the specific needs of the local population and accordingly improvise the bouquet of services to the people.”
Also, the ratio of a centre to the number of population has to be decreased, say, a centre for 10,000 to 15,000 of population so that the number of transactions can be increased.
A government machinery needs to be in place to put the government departments on the ICT mode, if the government is serious about pursuing the ICT4D concept.
Over and above, it needs to be understood that if there is a political will at the top level, the chances for the success of the project increases manifold, as in the case of e-Seva (Andhra Pradesh) and e-Gram (Gujarat).
The comprehension of ICT4D among many of the political executives has been poor, which is unfortunate for them as well as the citizens. At the beginning of the RAJiv Project, the state government had shown much enthusiasm, which waned over a period of time. With the RAJiv Centres being converted into CSCs in the state, only time will tell if lessons have been well learnt from the past.
Pratap Vikram Singh,