The Centre’s ambitious BharatNet project got a cash boost this week when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced an additional outlay of Rs 19,000 crore. It has been billed as being the largest rural connectivity programme in the world and is a key component of the Narendra Modi government’s Digital India initiative, which aims to “transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy”. Here’s what you need to know about BharatNet.
What Is The BharatNet Project?
Simply put, the BharatNet project is intended to bring broadband internet connectivity to each of the more than 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country. It is being implemented by the Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle of the government, and will enable access at the primary level of village administration to digitally enabled services like tele-medicine, tele-education, e-health, and e-entertainment, etc.”.
According to the Digital India portal, it will bring more 600 million people living in rural India on to the information superhighway as it connects “gram panchayat level offices like schools, panchayat offices, post offices, etc.” and ensures internet for all.
Thus, the project essentially entails the government creating broadband infrastructure to address issues of internet penetration in rural India at a time when the digital revolution represents the next big leap in the economic and social spheres.
As part of BharatNet project, the Centre will also provide last mile connectivity through Wi-Fi and other means and is setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in all gram panchayats.
Who Is Funding It? What Is The Budget?
The cash infusion from the finance minister has taken the cumulative spend behind the BharatNet project to over Rs 61,000 crore. According to the government, “funds for the BharatNet project are allocated as a whole and not state/Union Territory-wise. A lump sum amount is allocated and disbursed from Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to BBNL for execution of BharatNet project”.
USOF is name for the levies collected by the Centre from telecom companies with a view to ensuring funding and development of communication services in rural and underserved areas.
What Is The Progress Of The Project?
As of May this year, more than 1.56 lakh of the total gram panchayats had been made service ready for the rollout of the BharatNet service. The Centre told Lok Sabha in March this year that while the project was to have been completed in August this year, “time will now be extended as the pace of completion is affected by lockdown and restrictions on movement imposed by the various governments due to Covid-19”.
Earlier, the government has stated that “delay in the initial commencement” and implementation in certain states under the “state-led model” has led to the lengthening of project timelines. The Centre has also noted that the project is of a “mega nature and the gram panchayats are widely dispersed across the country in
rural and remote areas” even as it makes “all out efforts… to expeditiously implement the project”.
In March this year, the Centre had told Parliament that more than 5 lakh km of optical fibre cable has been laid as part of the project. It had also said that broadband via satellites will be provided in about 5,200 gram panchayats located in remote and hilly locations and more than 3,600 of them are service ready.
In Which State Has The Most Number Of Gram Panchayats Been Covered So Far?
According to the break-up shared in Lok Sabha in March, Uttar Pradesh, with close to 31,300 gram panchayats service ready, leads the list of states with maximum progress made in absolute terms. Maharashtra with 19,000 gram panchayats and Madhya Pradesh with 15,00 round off the top-three states for the number of gram panchayats covered already under the BharatNet project.