NOFN is okay but where is the content?

The govt should keep lessons from its CSC experience in mind before implementing NOFN


Pratap Vikram Singh | October 19, 2011

Thomas Friedman in 'The World is Flat' talks about how laying down of optical fiber across the globe has provided people in developing world with level playing field, to stand at par, to share, to collaborate,  to compete with their counterparts in the West. He lists ten factors which have led to the flattening of the world which, summarily, could be described as the innovation and advancement in information and communication technologies and its facilitation of greater interdependence among various nation states, with Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory as its basic premise. 

Countries like India and China have immensely benefited from this ‘globalisation 3.0’, as India now handles the backend operations of the global MNCs and provides IT services to the players in the world market and China has assumed the role of ‘the global manufacturing centre’. An important factor which facilitated Indian and China to capitalize on the undersea optical fibre cables connectivity was the education and employability skills that these countries developed to their youth. Naturally, global connectivity and innovation in information technology alone could not have achieved this in these countries.

On a national level, India too is planning to provide to its citizens high speed optical fiber network connectivity - even to those in the remotest corners. This ambitious project will connect 2.5 lakh panchayat centres across the country, even as many villages continue to live without the basic amenities like clean drinking water, electricity, road connectivity and livelihood. The rural broadband penetration which is estimated to cost the government an amount between Rs 25,000-30,000 crore, roughly five to six billion dollars, is to be funded through the universal service obligation fund (USOF) created by the department of telecom for providing connectivity in rural areas.  

While infrastructure forms one part of inclusive growth and bridging rural-urban divide story, content (in Indian languages) on health, education, agriculture, skill development, and electronic delivery of services are the other. While government seeks to pass legislation on ensuring electronic delivery of services in the Parliament in the coming winter session, it seems to be extremely contented with the thought of content and application requirements being taken care of by the industry.

Though entrepreneurs and the industry are bound to play a key role in providing services to the untapped rural market, leaving it completely onto  the market doesn’t seem to be wise, if any lessons are to be drawn from India's experience with the common services centres in rural India. These starved for  both, content and as well as services. Though the government’s initiative – the national optical fibre network (NOFN) - can by no means be categorised as small or not up to the standards, it also needs to have a holistic approach in bridging the digital infrastructure gap that exists in rural India and the education-skill development and employability-entrepreneurship gap.

A coordinated approach involving the line departments like health, education, rural development, labour and employment, food and agriculture, finance, science and technology, information technology, academia, research institutions and civil society, inert alia, is required to provide level playing feild to the rural inhabitants, so as to bring them, or say 70 percent of the total Indian population, into the mainstream.



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