BharatNet likely to miss deadline as shifting goalposts slow roll out
The implementation of the Central government’s flagship rural internet connectivity scheme, BharatNet, has slowed and is likely to miss the 2025 completion deadline owing to a number of factors, sources in the know of the development said.
Consider this: as of February 2022, only about 1.72 lakh of the initially targeted 2.5 lakh gram panchayats had been connected to the central grid under BharatNet. Of these, 1.5 lakh gram panchayats had been connected by 2017, within first the three years of the project being re-christened ‘BharatNet’.
In the next five years, only about 22,360 gram panchayats have been connected. In August 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expanded the scope of the project when he announced that BharatNet would aim to connect all 6 lakh villages over the next 1,000 days instead of just the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats.
DoT officials said though the target under BharatNet has now been revised to connect all villages instead of just the gram panchayats, work at even the gram panchayat level has slowed down considerably.
On an average, only about 3,500 km of optical fibre is being laid every month while roughly 1,600 gram panchayats are being connected, a senior DoT official said. Though there are no “official targets” as such, the aim is to lay up to 5,000 km of optical fibre and connect up to 2,500 gram panchayats to BharatNet per month.
“Of the 1.72 lakh gram panchayats that have been connected so far, the aim always is to ensure upkeep and maintenance so that at least 1 lakh gram panchayats are in up mode. That number over the past three-four months has fallen down to 60,000,” the official said.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) considers a gram panchayat connected to BharatNet in the “up mode” if there is continuous usage of internet in these places. To ensure the same, most of these connections are given to gram panchayat buildings or schools in the area where the internet can be used. To ensure the same, regular checks of the optical fibre laid in the area are conducted.
This task is going to be harder when the project starts connecting all the villages as well, the official said. Apart from this, DoT officials also pointed out that the “multiple shifts in targets provided to the agencies which were executing the project”.
“Take for example BBNL (Bharat Broadband Network Limited). In the initial year of BharatNet, the focus was on operation of the project. Later, the agency was asked to also take over the maintenance of BharatNet. During the two years of pandemic, when the optical fibre cable laying work was slow, the focus shifted to ensuring utilisation,” one official said, asking not to be named.
Another issue, officials said, is that the public-private-partnership (PPP) mode for implementation of BharatNet, which was approved by the Union Cabinet in June 2021, is yet to take off.
The first request for proposal (RFP) for implementation of the project, which was floated in July 2021, failed to get any response from private players. Even as late as February 2022, there was no interest shown by private players to partner with the government for implementation of the scheme, the officials said.
A new RFP is now being prepared by the DoT with several terms and conditions likely to be relaxed. The government is also likely to assume some of the risks associated with the project to envisage more interest from private players, one of the officials said.
“Consultations with private players are going on right now, after which the new RFP will be floated. This entire process will take about 2-3 months, following which bids will be opened. We hope to start PPP implementation by the end of this year,” one of the officials quoted above said.
Under the PPP mode implementation of BharatNet approved by the Union Cabinet in June last year, a concessionaire selected through a competitive international bidding process will be responsible for creation, upgradation, operation, maintenance and utilisation of BharatNet.
As per the proposal approved then, the total cost of the project was estimated at Rs Rs 29,432 crore, of which the government had to spend Rs 19,041 crore as viability gap funding.
The Indian Express had in January 2020 reported that with the panchayat internet connectivity scheme floundering at the last mile due to the failure of the implementation agencies, the DoT had been looking to bring in the private sector to complete the pending projects under Phases 1 and 2 of BharatNet.
The PPP model had then been suggested by government think-tank Niti Aayog as well as the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.