No service is common at these centres

The CSC scheme in Assam is a poor advertisement for both the centre’s e-governance drive and the public-private partnership model. Common service centres have sprung up here with few government services on offer and appear to exist only to profit private partners availing of the government's subsidy

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | July 19, 2010




Welcome to Assam, where as many as 4,375 CSCs have come up but you cannot get a land record or birth certificate, or any other document for that matter, at any of these centres.

What you will find instead are centres struggling to stay afloat by churning out the odd digital photograph. Running most of the centres are local entrepreneurs who have paid Rs 40,000 upfront as security to the private partner selected by the government to equip these centres. Besides that, these entrepreneurs need to pay back Rs 1.2 lakh to the banks that have provided the rest of the capital to compensate the private player for the Rs 1.6 lakh worth of equipment that the latter claims to have supplied to each outlet. Plus, of course, there is the rental for the premises that the local entrepreneur needs to pay every month.

Yet, it is not the local entrepreneur but the private player that is pocketing the subsidy that the central government will provide until these centres can earn revenue from government services. Little wonder then, the local entrepreneurs have formed an association, Arunodoy Kendra (common service centre) Owner’s Association of Assam to voice their collective grievances against the private companies as well as the government.

But why aren’t government services available? Saumar Jyoti Baruah, an office bearer of the association, says it is simply because government records in the state are yet to be digitised.

The processes required for digitisation of data haven't been initiated either. Amtron, the nodal agency for e-governance and the designated agency for the CSC scheme in the state, is curently in the process of inviting bids for the setting up of the state data centre where the digitised records will be stored. So, Baruah reasons, the state data centre will take at least another two-three years to come up. No government services can be offered through the CSCs unless the data is digitised and the departments are connected through a statewide area network with the state data centre.

Ask anybody in the government and you will be told that this is precisely why there is a provision of subsidy during the interim period. The centre approved Rs 5,742 crore to subsidise the CSC operations until government services start flowing through these centres.  The state governments were also expected to lend some financial support to this project. In the absence of funds, though, the states had the option of using the additional central assistance available under the National e-Governance Plan for the CSC project. Most states naturally queued up for additional central assistance.

As per the plan, the private players, Srei-Sahaj in two zones and Zoom Developers in one zone in the state, were to provide the infrastructure for the CSCs. However, even as it is the local entrepreneurs who are bearing the costs, Srei-Sahaj is getting up to Rs 7,500 a month as subsidy for each centre, while Zoom Developers is getting Rs 2,450 per centre.

Jyoti Prasad, project manager with Amtron, said it was up to the private partner to decide whether to share the subsidy with the local entrepreneurs. Braj Kishore, head of corporate communication with Srei-Sahaj, said the issue of subsidy was too technical to be discussed over the phone.

As for the lack of government services, Prasad said a few were available in two of the 27 districts and that too because Sonitpur and Goalpara districts have have implemented the e-District project. Prasad added that in some areas the CSCs also serve as collection centres for government forms etc.

The local entrepreneurs, who are actually running all the risks (see box), allege that Srei-Sahaj never spent Rs 1.6 lakh per centre in the first place. The Wipro laptops with 512 MB RAM and 60 GB hard disk given to them are obsolete and would have cost much less than claimed, for instance, they say.

This is one reason why the entrepreneurs came together to form their association. Still, they have little choice but to share even their current income with the private operator.

So disgusted have the local entrepreneurs been that they actually asked the State Bank of India, which was sanctioning Rs 1.2 lakh loan for each centre, to stop this funding. Since the infrastucture is already in place, the local entrepreneurs wanted to get some relief from at least the instalment towards the bank loan.

Dipul Bezbaruaah, who runs a CSC in Koria Bijulightat, Nalbari district, earns just Rs 3,000-4,000 per month by offering computer education, desktop printing and digital photos. He has even employed a computer faculty, Anamika Vashya, at a monthly salary of Rs 1,000. He has taken two schemes from Srei-Sahaj, one that offers equipment at Rs 1.6 lakh and another that offers equipment at Rs 12,000 on his sister-in-law’s name.

Under the second scheme, Srei-Sahaj is offering a laptop, solar inverter and laser printer. Even though Bezbaruaah has become a businessman in his own right, he is unable to meet even his monthly expenses of Rs 7,400. Like many other operators, he too refused to sign the bank's loan documents.

Gopal Krishnan Vaishya of Morowa village is surviving by printing ceremonial letters on birthdays, weddings and other auspicious days. Digital photos, mobile downloading, computer education add to his income. Vaishya is somewhat relieved that following the protests registered with Amtron, now at least he doesn’t have to pay the illegal licence fee of Rs 500 that he was being charged by Srei-Sahaj earlier. But he, too, says he can’t afford to pay back the loan.

Jayanta Deka, the CSC operator in Amayepur, complains that the internet connectivity is so bad that he spends Rs 200 per month but recovers just Rs 150 by charging people for internet surfing.

Deka's total expenses run up to Rs 3,000 (minus the bank instalment). Deka shows a pink pamphlet, distributed by Srei-Sahaj before the launch, which listed services including e-governance.

Several essentials are clearly amiss in the model as it is being implemented. First, there is no reason to open CSCs before the government data gets digitised. Second, as per the guidelines, Amtron, the state designated agency, should have opened a separate bank account for the CSC project.  The accounts should be audited annually and audited statements of accounts should be submitted to the centre’s department of information technology within six months of the end of the financial year. As per the guidelines, Srei-Sahaj and Zoom Developers, the service centre agencies, would not be eligible for the revenue support accepted by the state government for a specified bid unit, unless the CSCs have been rolled out within the specified time frame and are certified as operational by Amtron or an agency authorised by it.

However, a majority of the CSCs are getting delayed and the project is 18 months behind schedule. Officials of Srie-Sahaj claim that they have already established 2,720 out of the 2,833 CSCs entrusted to them and about 1,800 of them are reflected on the online monitoring tool installed by IL&FS. This means, on a conservative estimate, Srie-Sahaj may be getting Rs 1.26 crore (1,800 x 7,000) per month as subsidy from the central government.

The situation is somewhat different in Kamrup district where Zoom Developers is the private partner.

Take, for example, the Ganeshgauri CSC operating in the urban area in the heart of the city of Guwahati. It appears that the CSC being operated at the Ganeshgauri Choriali, Guwahati (Pacific Communication), by Mustafa Ahmed is just to add to the numbers. The shop operates as a travel agency in the heart of Guwahati and sports a barely visible board of Arunoday Kendra. Even the neighbouring shopkeepers are not aware that such a centre exists as the board is hidden behind the board of Pacific Communication. It appears as if an existing shop has been graded as a CSC.

But why would anybody do that? For the government subsidy, of course. Zoom Developers is getting Rs 2,450 per CSC per month. The government services are not available in any case. So why bother with a separate centre?

The Zoom Developers-supported CSC in the Hajoo village panchayat exists inside a grocery shop. In fact, a customer will have to jump across the grocery shop counter in order to enter this CSC. Don’t count on internet connectivity either. The operator says that the CSC does not have an internet connection as the BSNL dues rose beyond Rs 4,000. In absence of any source of income, he got it disconnected.

Long live e-governance!?

samir@governancenow.com

 

Table I – Fixed Expenses for a CSC

S.No.

Equipment at common service centres

Cost price claimed by Srei-Sahaj

 

1.

Two laptops  (60 GB HDD + 512 MB RAM) + 2 speakers + 2 keyboards + 2 mice +
2 headphones

47,775

2.

Printer HP – MFD

4,700

3.

Laser printer

4,700

4.

UPS ( sinewave invertor – home UPS)

5,000

5.

Battery to support UPS

7,400

6.

Webcam

1,000

7.

Switch and cables

1,250

8.

Operating system (CD)

2,638

9.

Signboard

475

10.

Digital camera

7,200

11.

Furniture ( 3 chairs, 3 tables , one multiseater)

8,100

12.

Paint

2,050

13.

Generator set

1,41,500

14.

V-Sat

35,000

15.

V-SAT installation

5,000

16.

Subscription for operating system and maintenance

3,562

17.

Working capital

10,000

Total

1,60,000

 

Table II – Operational Expenses for a CSC

S.No.

Operational head

Expenses per month (Rs)

1.

Rent

500

2.

Electricity bill

700

3.

VSAT charges (data limit: 600 MB) 

200

4.

Licence fee (paid to SREI Sahaj – discontinued after protests)

500

5.

Computer faculty

1,000

6.

Loan instalment (where applicable)

4,500

Total

7,400

 

 

 

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