National Optical Fibre Network: Why Modi’s Pet Project Is Languishing

by Arihant Pawariya - Dec 12, 2016 08:18 PM +05:30 IST
National Optical Fibre Network: Why Modi’s Pet Project Is LanguishingDigital India Optical Fibre Network (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)) 
    • Digital India is not possible until the infrastructure for that is in place
    • While the Modi government has sped up the projects related to it, there is still a long, long way to go

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project Digital India has nine pillars. India Program National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) is one of the most important of those and is also the building block of the project. Without NOFN, Digital India cannot be realised.

Under NOFN, the government aims to connect 2,44,729 Gram Panchayats (GPs) in the country through optical fibre cable (OFC). Out of these, 97,480 had to be covered in Phase-1 by 31 March. Now, the government has set 31 December as the new deadline. But it looks unlikely that even this will be met.

The project was rolled out by the UPA regime in October 2011 and was expected to be complete within two years. But here we are. Even after five years, two years of Modi sarkar included, the project is languishing.

Present situation

This Economic Times report says that considerable progress has been made under the current government. The paper quoted some Telecom ministry officials saying that “only 500 km of cable had been laid when the Modi government assumed power in May 2014. And that the figure is now over 1,30,000 km. However, only 7,000 GPs have received final connectivity.”

But consider the magnitude of the task still left: Out of 97,480 GPs, only 7,000 GPs have been connected. So, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology will most likely miss the December target also.

The culprits

To execute the project, the UPA government had created special purpose vehicle, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), as a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU). Presently, three state-run executing agencies — Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) are working on the project under the supervision of BBNL. In the first phase, these three have been entrusted to lay the OFC in 84,366 GPs, 8,678 GPs and 7,156 GPs, respectively.

They are running way behind their targets. RailTel is slowest in implementation. By 2015 end, BSNL had laid 37,822 km of OFC (22 per cent of its target), PGCIL laid 3,110 km of OFC (14 per cent of its target), but RailTel could lay only 1,717 km of OFC (8 per cent of its target).

Frustrated with the slow progress made by RailTel, the Minister Of Communication and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad had shot a letter to Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu early last year. The concern was also conveyed to the RailTel’s CMD too.

Recently, there has been some progress in RailTel’s execution. While it had laid only 1717 km of OFC till May 2015, the figure stood at 6,152 km in March this year which roughly translates to laying 500 km of OFC per month. But this isn’t enough. One DoT official, in his letter to RailTel, has exhorted the company to expedite the work and instructed it to lay at least 1,000 Km of OFC per month.

Why is the project consistently delayed?

#1 Lack of autonomy in decisions related to costs is cited as one of the biggest obstacles. BBNL established the reference prices for each activity. So, BSNL, RailTel and PGCIL, responsible for trenching, ducting, and laying of OFC, had to go back to BBNL for approval in case their costs exceeded more than 10 per cent threshold of reference cost. This resulted in cost-over-runs.

#2 In its ground report, The Hindu’s Business Line (BL) identifies the lack of coordination between the stakeholder agencies as a major problem. The BL team visited some villages in 2014 who were roped under the Pilot project. It visited these same villages this year and found nothing has changed. The Committee set up to look into delays gave a set of suggestions. Trai rubbished those suggestions.

To overcome the problem, the Prime Minister has cautioned officials not to work in silos.

#3 High maintenance costs are also a hindrance. The BL team which visited Tripura in 2014 found that at that time when the pilot project was still running, “the entire administration was geared to make maximum use of the facility. Health centres at Jalabasa, Panisagar or Tilthai were conducting e-OPD services at panchyats. The education department lined up teachers to offer free coaching to high school students in the block using the video-conferencing facility. Schools were downloading lessons from Youtube to make teaching methods interactive. Even the agriculture department participated in a few video-conferences with farmers.”

But this was short-lived. When the team visited these places this year, the NOFN link was not working due to defunct computer hardware. Bandwidth is still there but due to unsustainable maintenance costs the facility has become unviable.

These systems would work better if the local administration is handed over the responsibility. The government should consider devolving the project’s implementation and monitoring to states. It is simply impossible to control and coordinate with the facilities from Delhi.

The whole project needs rethinking and re-strategising in terms of both implementation and fixing accountability. The Ministry seems to show signs of this.

The officials reportedly have told the Prime Minister in one of the review meetings that they had to go for fresh tenders and that new electronics are being procured. These are expected to be in place by September after which they believe they would be able to achieve the first phase target by December.

One hopes that the government is on the right path. Because, without laying the basic OFC infrastructure, the larger goal of Digital India will remain unrealised.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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