"e-Panchayat is a serious threat to CSCs"

Interview with Meena Chaturvedi, CEO, SREI SAHAJ e-Village

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Samir Sachdeva | February 16, 2012



Meena Chaturvedi is an Indian Audit and Accounts Service official of 1987 cadre. After a 23-year career which included a number of key assignments in the central and state governments and in the comptroller and auditor general (CAG), she took voluntary retirement to join SREI Sahaj e-Village Limited as chief executive officer (public services and e-learning) in October 2010.
SREI Sahaj is a leading industry player which has participated in the central government’s common services centre (CSC) project, aiming to deliver various online services in rural areas. In an interview with Pratap Vikram Singh and Shubham Batra, Chaturvedi speaks about the challenges in executing the project.

Could you tell us what prompted you to move from the government to the corporate sector and take up the CSC project? 
After spending 23 years of my career in the government, two things became very clear to me. First, the biggest reality of India is that 42 crore people still live below the poverty line. All government and private sector efforts were making only a marginal dent on this issue. Second, a large part of this population continues to live in the rural areas. Also, the lack of transparency and monitoring mechanisms in the delivery system, particularly in the rural areas, was making futile the huge amount of investment the government has been making in the social sector.
My joining Sahaj was also because I wanted to make a persistent dent in this economic reality. So here was this CSC programme which was catering specifically to the underprivileged. Today knowledge is power. When you sit here and download anything from the internet, you are empowered. You can access the government and private services and content on health and educational, and I think that is empowering. CSCs aim to replicate this in rural parts of the country. 

How much investment SREI Sahaj has made in the CSC project?
The model that we have adopted varies from state to state. But by and large we envisaged an investment of Rs 1.60 lakh per CSC, under which two laptops and a printer have been provided per CSC. The VLEs (village level entrepreneurs) were supposed to bear this investment. We provided support to the VLEs in mobilising loans. We have a team in every district for support and maintenance of IT systems. Also, as per RFP (request for proposal), we have created a state-of-the-art data centre and the VLE is connected through a portal and he or she does business through that portal.
On the whole Sahaj itself has invested Rs 200 crore in this project in six states in providing initial support to VLEs in procuring equipments to expedite the process, thinking that VLEs will pay back. We haven’t received dues from VLEs of Rs 50-60 crore. But we have done our bit. We have made an investment of Rs 200 crore in the project.
 
You are running CSCs in Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. Tell us about your experience of running CSCs in these states with different levels of e-readiness and automation.
In Tamil Nadu, we are present only in four districts so the entire network in the state is very small compared to the same in West Bengal or Bihar. We are doing good business-to-consumer (B2C) business and, yes, the infrastructure constraints are not as severe as in West Bengal and Assam. But in Tamil Nadu, we have the same challenge that we have in other states – we don’t have any G2C (government-to-citizen) services in these states to offer through the CSCs.
It is a big challenge to earn revenues. But I must say that Sahaj takes credit in running CSCs in ‘BIMARU’ states, which are among the most backward and underdeveloped states. There are 10 centres in Kalahandi (in Odisha) which are doing business and are viable. All stories we have heard about Kalahandi are of starvation and deprivation but these centres are running successfully. We have a centre in Sundarbans just 55 km away from the Bay of Bengal.
 
Do you see the service delivery through e-panchayat as replication of work, as it would create a service delivery network parallel to the CSCs? 
I don’t know why there shouldn’t be any authority which says here are CSCs and use them. Why create multiple parallel networks? Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) also wants to create parallel kiosks and the ministry of panchayati raj wants to create e-Panchayat centres.
Interestingly, we were asked to open our CSCs either in a panchayat or within two kilometres of it. If the VLE has already done that you just need to provide G2C services. If a panchayat is providing certificates, then who will prefer going to a CSC for these services? This is a very serious threat. Why should taxpayers’ money be used to replicate an effort? By spending a fraction of that money you can strengthen the existing CSCs. You can actually make them viable; make them effective channels for service delivery. The whole e-Panchayat initiative will take four to five years in implementation.
 
Given the challenges faced by most of the existing CSCs including business viability issues, how optimistic you are about additional 1.5 lakh CSCs?
I think our priority should be more in consolidating CSCs rather than expanding it. If I was in DIT (department of information technology) my primary aim would be to concentrate on using the capacity which I have already created. The plan was to establish one lakh CSCs in the first phase. Then add 1.5 lakh centres, assuming that by that time the existing CSCs will have enough business and would not be able to handle more business.
Maybe at some point of time we may require one CSC per village. But they need to first fulfil this dream and take it to its logical conclusion. But then e-Panchayat and other initiatives are totally divorced from it. That’s why I say it has to have a push from the DIT, cabinet secretariat, prime minister’s office (PMO), ministry of panchayati raj and representatives from states... to decide the future course of e-governance. Why open CSCs in places where the DIT dictate doesn’t work? All of them came have to come to a common page.
 
Will you participate in the expansion of CSC project?
My first request to the government would be: first concentrate on consolidating CSCs and providing them with infrastructural support. And once they are firmly in place, have become sustainable, then expansion can be thought of.
Even one CSC over to six villages is not a profitable proposition. When the scheme was launched in 2006, everybody was euphoric about rural India. Everybody thought there was going to be a major trickledown effect and the government initiatives like the Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) would bring money to rural areas. In addition, there was 9 percent of GDP growth –definitely some of it would go to rural India. So euphoric were we that we quoted many bids in negative. In 2007, recession came and its impact has continued. Till today, I don’t think there has been a significant rise in per capita income of rural India that can create that kind of sustainability for the rural CSCs.
My plea to the government would be that some dispensation in the form of solar panel or broadband connectivity [which are promised for the next phase of CSCs] should be made available to the existing CSCs, because they are the pioneers, they have put their blood and money. They are the ones who stood for four years despite all adversities.
 
Should there be an inter-ministerial group for CSC to resolve the problems you have mentioned?
Someone from the planning commission or cabinet secretariat should be in charge who can ask departments to deliver the G2C services through these centres to the extent possible, as soon as possible. We have come through a competitive bidding process. How many price discovery mechanism we need to go through to get work for CSC? But every time we go to some department we get to hear that since we are not empanelled with the agency (or department) we can’t be given work. The department will do through RFPs (the usual tendering process). If the government bodies had to do the same, why did the government create the CSC network? How many agni parikshas we need to go through to get business – which was the very reason to create the whole CSC network?

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