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PM hails BharatNet programme: MediaNama assesses its progress

Modi at red fort

In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the government’s BharatNet programme under which 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country will be connected using optical fibre. “If you see, prior to 2014, only 5 dozen panchayats had the optical fiber network. However, in the last 5 years, 1.5 lakh panchayats are connected with the optical fiber network which is helping us today, immensely. We are working on the goal of taking it to every panchayat and this work is in progress in the remaining one lakh panchayats,” Modi said. However, by March 2015, 5,000 gram panchayats had been connected under the BharatNet programme, a 2015 report from a committee constituted by the Modi government 1.0 said. But this isn’t new; the project has been beleaguered by shifting goalposts from its very inception under UPA II, about a decade ago.

Modi further set a target of 1,000 days (May 12, 2023) for connecting over six lakh villages with optical fibre. He also referenced the 400 Gbps undersea cable link, the Chennai-Andaman Nicobar Island (CANI) system, he inaugurated on August 10, through which Andaman and Nicobar Islands have optical fibre connectivity, and set a 1,000-day target for Lakshwadeep Islands: “We are aiming at providing high speed internet connectivity to Lakshadweep islands in the next 1000 days.”

What is the BharatNet scheme?

The BharatNet scheme, which was established as the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) by the UPA II government in October 2011, has been beset by shifting goalposts from its very inception. A project that was to connect the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country with optical fibre within two years of its inception, it has seen its deadlines revised at least six times; once the deadline was revised twice in one month. The phases that the Modi government 1.0 delineated for the first time in July 2014 itself have been redefined at least twice. While Phase I was initially supposed to connect 50,000 gram panchayats by March 2015, Phases II and III were supposed to connect one lakh panchayats each by March 2016 and December 2016, respectively.

As of now, Phase I, that is, connecting one lakh panchayats via optical fibre, was completed December 28, 2017, while Phase II, that is connecting the remaining 1.5 lakh gram panchayats, will be completed by August 2021. At the time of publication, a total of 1,42,740 gram panchayats had been connected via optical fibre network, as per the Bharat Broadband Network Limited website.

Modi’s speech came on the heels of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Shashi Tharoor, questioning the Department of Telecommunications over the status of BharatNet on August 11. The committee asked the officials from Ministry of Communications why 1,10,000 panchayats were still not connected by broadband but did not get a satisfactory response, one source had told us after the meeting.

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As per public records (detailed below), between December 2018 and August 2020, that is a period of 20 months, about 21,000 gram panchayats were connected via BharatNet. Of this, about 9,500 panchayats were connected between January and August 2020. 1,07,260 gram panchayats are still not connected and if work continues at the pace it did in January-August 2020, the project would take 6 years and 8 months to complete, well beyond its August 2021 deadline.

Funding BharatNet: The funding was to initially come from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) of the Department of Telecommunications. The initial cost was estimated to be ₹20,000 crore and a “similar amount” was expected in private investment to complement the NOFN infrastructure. Total cost of the project was ₹45,000 crore, as per a Financial Express report from November 2017, of which ₹11,200 crore was used in Phase I. However, as per the USOF website, the project was given a financial outlay of ₹20,100 crore, closer to the 2011 announcement. As per the latest question answered in Lok Sabha in February 2020, the Centre has thus far disbursed ₹19,595.03 crore during the first two phases of the project and 40% of the project, at least in terms of connecting the panchayats, is still pending.

Timeline of the BharatNet project

UPA II starts the National Optical Fibre Network project

  • June 16, 2011: Concept Note for National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) first considered by the Telecom Commission.
  • October 25, 2011: NOFN is established. It was to be completed within 2 years.
  • February 25, 2012: Bharat Broadband Network Limited was incorporated as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) under Indian Companies Act 1956.
  • October 15, 2012: 3 pilot projects completed — one each in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Tripura.
  • October 10, 2013: The Telecom Commission decided to adopt a phased approach to the project, with the aim of 1 lakh gram panchayats in Phase I.
  • 2011-2014: As per a report submitted by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology in August 2018, then headed by Anurag Thakur, the project was delayed due to lack of planning, design, and preparedness.

Modi government 1.0 takes over

  • July 2014: The Telecom Commission reduced target of Phase I to 50,000 which was to be completed by March 2015, as per Committee on NOFN’s report. Phase II (aim: 1 lakh gram panchayats) was to be completed by March 2016 and Phase III (aim: 1 lakh gram panchayats) was to be completed by December 2016. Project begins in earnest. Phase I deadline changed to March 2017 as per the Parliamentary Committee’s report.
  • January 14, 2015: Department of Telecommunications constituted a committee to review the strategy and approach towards “speedy implementation of NOFN” which was convened by V. Umashankar, the then joint secretary of DoT.
  • March 31, 2015: Only 5,000 gram panchayats are connected as per a report by the Committee on NOFN despite target of 50,000.
  • April 30, 2016: Telecom Commission approved the plan to implement the project in three phases: Phase I (aim: 1 lakh gram panchayats) was to be completed by March 2017. Phase II (aim: 1.5 lakh gram panchayats) was to be completed by December 2018. Phase III (aim: further network improvements) was to be completed by 2023.
  • September 2016: As per an IIT Bombay report for BBNL from September 2016, Phase I was to link 1 lakh gram panchayats by March 2016; it probably meant to say March 2017. Phase I was to be completed by December 2017.
  • July 19, 2017: Cabinet approved a total of ₹42,068 crore for Bharat Net. The cabinet revised the deadline for Phase II to March 2019.
  • November 13, 2017: BharatNet Phase II kicked off with an outlay of ₹31,000 crore.

1 lakh panchayats connected, Phase II faces multiple delays

  • December 28, 2017: 1 lakh gram panchayats are connected under NOFN. Phase I completed.
  • August 7, 2018: Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, then headed by Anurag Thakur, submitted its report on “Progress of Implementation of BharatNet”.
  • December 2, 2018: A total of 1,21,652 are connected via BharatNet.
  • January 10, 2020: A total of 1,33,300 gram panchayats are connected via optical fibre.
  • February 5, 2020: Deadline for Phase II is revised to August 2021, as per an answer submitted in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of Communications Ravi Shankar Prasad. 1,34,248 gram panchayats connected in total.
  • August 8, 2020: 1,42,740 gram panchayats are connected.
  • August 11, 2020: IT Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by Shashi Tharoor, questions the Department of Telecommunications over delay in the implementation of BharatNet and lack of optical fibre connectivity to roughly 1.1 lakh gram panchayats.
  • August 15, 2020: PM Modi doesn’t announce a deadline for Phase II of connecting panchayats, but says that 6 lakh villages will be connected with optical fibre in 1,000 days, that is, by May 12, 2023.
  • August 17, 2020: 1,42,740 gram panchayats are connected via optical fibre network, as per the Bharat Broadband Network Limited website.

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