“eGrams will help realise Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj”

The eGram programme is one of the most lauded initiatives in the field of rural development. In conversation with Anand Agarwal, the state’s self-effacing Additional Chief Secretary, Panchayats, Rural Housing and Rural Development Department, R M Patel, talks about the idealism that drives the eGram project. He sheds light on the plans that are afoot for taking this ground-breaking programme to a higher level

R M Patel

Additional Chief Secretary, Panchayats, Rural Housing and Rural Development Department, Govt of Gujarat

eGram initiative in Gujarat has been one of the most successful e-governance endeavours in India. Please share with us its vision.

eGram is all about bringing empowerment to the people by ensuring popular participation towards peace, prosperity and sustainable development in rural areas. The objective is to develop Gram Panchayats by providing necessary infrastructure for ensuring that they become the focal point for various e-services. The idea is to infuse the five E’s – ease, economy, efficiency, effectiveness and ethics – into governance. By bridging the rural-urban digital divide, we hope to implement the objectives of the 73rd Amendment in letter and in spirit.

The eGram project is the result of CM’s vision, he is the main driver behind the successful implementation of the programme. Even the logo of the eGram Vishwagram Society – the SPV that runs eGram – has been conceptualised by him. The eGram project became operational in March 2003. At that time, we started by providing computers to Panchayats in the districts of Anand and Kheda. In January 2008, we rolled out Asia’s largest VSAT network and connected all Gram Panchayats in the state to broadband.

What were the challenges faced in execution? How were these overcome?

The geographical spread of the programme is the main challenge. It is spread over more than 13000 Village Panchayats across the state. This includes tribal areas, hilly areas, remote areas, coastal areas and basically all the difficult areas in the state. Coverage wise, this is a major challenge.

Another challenge was finding PPP partners. The Village Computer Entrepreneurs (VCEs) – have to work without any salary, as the entire model is based on per-transaction commissions. Technical manpower to run the system is difficult to get in required numbers. Securing the involvement of Panchayats in running the system is also not easy.

Because of the well-planned mechanism, we were able to surmount these challenges. We made the District Development Officer the officer-in-charge of the eGram centres in districts, and District Statistics Officer was assigned to assist him. Now this has been transferred to the Deputy DDO. To offer technical support, a strong network of executives has been created across the state.

To tackle manpower needs, we used Rozgar Talim, ITIs, and also got trained people from the teaching community at polytechnics, ITI faculty etc. In this way, we got a list of potential candidates for VCE and then we could select from this pool.

We have transferred technical tasks to professional agencies. Airtel is providing broadband connectivity. Few other professional agencies are undertaking supervision of the system on our behalf and are providing technical support wherever required. Six agencies have got representatives at the state level. Similarly, there are representatives at the district (District Coordinator), taluka and village level. For every 30 VCEs, 1 TLE is looking after their needs. In addition, IL&FS is supervising the system and performing Third Party Audit (TPA).

How would the recognition of eGram Centres as CSCs by the Government of India benefit rural areas?

As far as the basic CSC idea is concerned, we are far ahead of Government of India. The Centre’s CSC scheme targets 1 CSC per 6 villages, but we have already covered more than 13,000 Village Panchayats. In Gujarat to date 13,685 Gram Panchayats have been covered by the VSAT-based network, which goes by the name of PAWAN. We have already covered all village Panchayats with broadband connectivity and we are now moving towards providing broadband connectivity to every single village in the state.

Recognition of eGrams as CSCs will help the Government of India in reaching their countrywide target. This will also help the eGram centres to avail benefits of applications/services developed for CSCs, which are under the Government of India. In this way, any application developed for CSCs in any state will also be available to eGram centres in Gujarat. Similarly our applications will be available to all the states across India. eGrams are already offering G2C services and some B2C services. A framework for B2C services is under consideration, which will allow such services on a larger scale across all eGram Centres. Eventually, we can also introduce C2C services over the eGram network.

The most important target for us at present is ensuring integration of PAWAN and GSWAN

What are the services presently being offered at the eGram centres? Are there plans to offer more services in future?

A number of services are presently being offered at the eGram Centres. Some of the G2C services available at these centres are: issuance of important certificates such as birth, death, farmer’s status, caste, income etc. In addition, several application forms for various development schemes are available through Gujarat portal.

Some B2C services are being provided by enterprising VLES. These services include: e-ticketing for train, GSRTC, flights, utility bill payment,; online results, computer education, matrimonial services, resume writing, DTP jobs, recharge of mobile and DTH, etc.

We are presently developing a comprehensive framework for B2C services through eGram Centres. Once finalised, this framework will ensure uniform availability of a wide range of services. This will increase the public utility of eGram Centres, as well as substantially improve the economic prospects of the VLEs. Overall, one can expect a sustained increase in the number of both G2C and B2C services available at these centres.

What are the other major e-governance initiatives the government is planning for rural development?

The most important target for us at present is ensuring integration of PAWAN and GSWAN networks. GSWAN has connectivity upto the taluka level, whereas PAWAN has connectivity at state, district and village level. Integration of the two will help in extending the reach of both networks and ensure seamless connectivity across the two. We will also be covering the remaining 5000 villages with broadband connectivity – a feat that no other state in the country has been able to achieve. Expansion in the number and type of services available over eGram network, both from government and from businesses is taking place, and this will make rural areas much more dynamic and liveable.

What has changed in the last six years in e-Governance in India? Where do you see e-governance moving in the next six to ten years?

We have been able to penetrate rural areas and establish our presence. This is a major achievement. The rural-urban digital divide is in the process of being bridged.

I see inclusion as the major issue of concern, and within it financial inclusion, to be more specific. As eGram centres (or CSCs elsewhere) become more sustainable economically, VCEs and VLEs would benefit and these centres would offer remunerative employment at the village level itself. Benefits of growth will percolate down to rural areas and we will be able to realise objectives of inclusive growth, which is the core concern of the 11th Plan, as well as the 12th Plan.

The Government of Gujarat is developing the Gujarat Portal, which will provide more than 50 services from line Departments, including Panchayats at a single site. Birth, death, income, caste and other certificates will become available at the click of the mouse. Social security schemes such as old age and widow pensions, ration cards etc., will be available online through the eGram centres in rural areas. Additional services such as payments of taxes and revenues, applying for passports and licences etc. will also go online. We can go on adding more and more features, so that no one will have to venture out of the village for accessing basic services. This will help realise Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj.