Thanks to the National Optic Fibre Network, the gram panchayat is among the ones that has 100 MBPS broadband internet connectivity.
But, last-mile connectivity still remains a big challenge.
Just 30 kilometres or nearly an hour’s drive away from Bengaluru, off the National Highway 44 connecting neighbouring Tamil Nadu, is Neraluru Gram Panchayat. This is the gram panchayat which covers Neralur and nine other villages, serving various needs of all these 10 villages.
Thanks to the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN), the gram panchayat is among the ones that has 100 MBPS broadband internet connectivity. The connection, through the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), is in many ways proving to be a boon for the gram panchayat, says Panchayat Development Officer (PDO) Rahman Shariff.
NOFN is a government project to provide broadband connectivity to 2.50 lakh gram panchayats across the country in an effort to boost last-mile connectivity. The broadband connection is being provided with Rs 20,000 crore outlay from the Universal Service Obligation Fund. The funding has helped the creation of Bharat Broadband Network Limited and this is actually a takeoff from a pilot project launched by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2012, launched in 59 places. Until now, according to the Bharat Broadband network, 1.08 lakh gram panchayats have been connected by NOFN.
The one problem for people in Neralur gram panchayat is that its taluk office at Anekal and district headquarters in Bengaluru are both 25 kms away, an onerous task given the traffic to both places. Until two years ago when the NOFN reached them, the villagers of the gram panchayat, near Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, had to travel to the Anekal taluk office to get their documentation done for anything from buying land to birth or death certificate or even to pay their bills. That forced them to wasting their precious time in trying to get their documents. Indirectly, these also gave way to corruption.
“Things have changed now. With BharatNet connection, we are able to access all government websites without any problem, make entries and get documentation done by sending them to the respective departments,” said Shariff.
At the Neraluru Gram Panchayat Office, people are helped with documentation on altering their property assessment list, building licence, trade licence, birth, death, crop, cattle, below poverty line details, payments and jobs under the rural employment scheme, payment for development works undertaken and remittances of taxes for water and sanitation.
Gram panchayats in Karnataka are obliged to provide services to citizens within a stipulated time limit under the The Karnataka Sakala Services Act 2011 that was passed to cut red tape and provide timely services to citizens. Nearly 475 services are covered under the act, which was amended in 2014 to include e-services. The act stipulates a penalty of Rs 20 a day for the period of delay with a cap of Rs 500 on the concerned government officials.
Despite the act being in place, there have been complaints of delay in getting the services done as the penalty is seen as too low to deter official delays.
There are both advantages and disadvantages with the NOFN, said Shariff. “The advantages are, of course, getting the documentation quickly. Access to government websites is quick and we are able to upload and download faster with this broadband connection which private players can’t offer,” he said.
The only problem is the time BSNL employees take to fix any disruption in internet connectivity. “There are so much of development activities taking place all around here. Laying of pipeline or underground cables result in our network being cut. It then takes two-three days to get the connection back,” said Shariff.
What the PDO points out as problem is that citizens, most of whom are employed in industries nearby, approach the gram panchayat availing of leave and having to bear with delay due to problems of connectivity. “Our problem is that we face such connectivity issues once in every two months or so. When it takes three days to revive the connectivity, the public has to suffer the delay,” said Shariff.
The gram panchayat, during times when the BSNL connectivity is affected, tries to access the web using internet connections provided by private companies. But government websites are best accessed through BSNL connections alone. “Some of the websites don’t respond or show error when we try with private internet connections, which are also slow,” said Shariff.
“We are unable to log in to government websites, if the connection is private,” he said.
But the progress on NOFN ends for all practical purpose at the door of the gram panchayat office. One of the reasons is that the Karnataka government hasn’t made any effort to get the broadband connections to all homes in villages as envisaged through BharatNet or try and provide Wi-Fi to the public. Probably, the fact that many people own smartphones and have their own private net connections is the reason.
Shariff said Neraluru Gram Panchayat is in the process of providing Wi-Fi to the public. “We hope to get this done in the next six months. We are planning to set up an internet parlour or a library for people to access web,” he says.
But the obvious thing what he doesn’t say is that the gram panchayat is starved of funds to get the last-mile connection to the citizen or providing Wi-Fi facility. “We are talking to some of the industries here to help us set up the parlour,” Shariff said.
The industries could be funding the parlour or library under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.
On the other hand, despite the high-speed Internet connections, there is no guarantee in speeding up the delivery of services, say a few of the citizens, who spoke to Swarajya on condition of anonymity. “It still takes anything between three and 45 days for the documentations to be done,” said a staff of the gram panchayat.
“The maximum time taken is for sale and transfer of properties,” said a property dealer. “There were allegations that some of the staff who worked here earlier demanded bribe. One person went public with his grievances of property registration getting delayed more than 45 days,” he said.
Another person pointed towards a few people hanging inside the gram panchayat office to point out that some still continue to call the shots through their connections.
However, a staff said that those applying for registration of property had to ensure proper payment of fees for conversion of agricultural land to residential ones, comply with panchayat layout rules and guidelines and must have proper paperwork including payment of stipulated price for the land bought in gram panchayats.
Since Neraluru Gram Panchayat is close to Bengaluru, the problems of internet connectivity for the citizens aren’t an issue. Most of the citizens have smartphones, thanks to jobs offered by the industries nearby, and manage with their own 3G connections. In addition, farming in the outskirts is almost non-existent with industrial units bordering some of the agricultural fields.
The advantage then for the people living on Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border is that most of them are employed and are communication savvy and many of them use their mobile phones to find their way in and out of Hosur, Bengaluru, the Electronic City or other places. But the fact of the matter is that there are miles to go for high-speed internet connectivity at every home as far as Neraluru Gram Panchayat is concerned.