Nuh in Haryana is not a particularly remarkable place. Located just 47 kilometres from Gurugram, it looks like the poor cousin of Gurugram. But as one drives past the market centre, and into the village of Tain (pronounced Ty-eeen), a signpost stands out. Not for its ostentatiousness, but for the text that adorns it—Smartpur.
The name is no accident. Smartpur is part of Finnish telecom gear manufacturer Nokia’s efforts to digitise 500 villages across the country. Nokia has partnered with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF)—a non-profit that works on bridging the digital divide in underserved areas—to turn Tain and other villages like it into smart villages.
Housed in the local village council building, the DEF’s office stands as working proof of the Smartpur mission. In one of the rooms occupied by DEF, it runs digital literacy courses and plans to start telemedicine services. All of it powered by WiFi from Airtel.
In the same building, the CSC (Common Service Centre), a citizen-centric government initiative that helps people apply for PAN cards and seek government services, also uses DEF’s WiFi. But the CSC shouldn’t need to do this. Stashed in the CSC room is a trove of equipment. A modem, router, GPON equipment to ensure the single optic fibre feed can serve multiple users. The works. Red and green lights on the equipment blink repeatedly. But the internet the equipment is supposed to enable is but a dream. The WiFi doesn’t work anywhere in the building, let alone the CSC. It doesn’t even show up on the list of available WiFi networks. Locals say this has been the case for days.
If this were just any other internet connection, no one would bat an eyelid. But it isn’t. The connection is part of BharatNet, the government’s flagship digital connectivity programme. Envisioned as the world’s largest digital infrastructure project, BharatNet aimed to provide broadband connectivity to a whopping 250,000 gram panchayats (village councils) across the country.
According to a Department of Telecom (DoT) reply to the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, Rs 10,286 crore ($1.4 billion) has already been spent on the project. 92% of the funds allocated for phase 1 of the project. A BSNL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, puts the net spend at closer to Rs 12,000 crore ($1.6 billion).
However, seven years after the program was conceived, things haven’t quite panned out as intended. Instead, BharatNet has become an example of how government processes and bureaucratic structures can destroy a well-intentioned project. Despite the small fortune spent on the programme, the scheme has been criticised by both government and private organisations alike. Reports from DEF and ICT policy and regulation think-tank LIRNEasia concur that the internet has mostly been non-functional in BharatNet-connected areas.