Implementing BharatNet – A Boon for Rural India

Implementing BharatNet

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

The good news is that the government has approved Rs 1.39 lakh crore for the ambitious BharatNet project to expand and enhance the country’s rural internet connectivity. BharatNet is expected to provide the backbone as well as the last-mile optical fiber-based connectivity to homes across all villages in the country.

Though first launched in 2011, the earlier two phases of the project, with a total funding of little more than Rs 42,000 crores, faced myriad hurdles and had mixed results. But the latest phase, with a humungous financial outlay, is expected to be a game-changer, underlining the government’s determination to provide high-quality connectivity to 6,40,000 villages over the next 2.5 years.

BharatNet is touted as one of the world’s biggest telecom projects, the potential of BharatNet cannot be overstated. On it largely rests the country’s vision to bridge the digital divide and transform itself into Digital India. Besides ushering in accelerated digital transformation, BharatNet would foster rural entrepreneurship, enhance agricultural practices, and attract investments and job creation in rural areas.

All this is good news and the Government of India rightly deserves credit for last week’s big announcement. But the news can get infinitely better if the implementation of BharatNet becomes robust and adequate care is taken to ensure that the mistakes made during the earlier phases are not repeated. The biggest problem that adversely impacted the earlier two phases of the project was that the quality and reliability of the deployments were not aligned to market requirements. Lessons from past shortcomings, therefore, need to be drawn and corrective measures initiated to ensure that no untested inferior products are deployed in the project that can potentially compromise India’s transformative digital journey.

To achieve the salutary objectives of BharatNet, it is of utmost importance to draw up a time-bound action plan and address policy issues – direct or indirect – that have a bearing on the project’s speedy and efficient rollout. Removing the existing bottlenecks and ironing out a few outstanding irritants can help immensely in this respect.

To begin with, ease of doing business must be ensured. Right of Way (RoW) issues continue to be a major impediment in the timely rollout of the network despite progressive policy interventions in the past. Realities on the ground are yet to change. Despite agreements between the Government of India and various state governments, stakeholders involved in the implementation of the project have faced roadblocks, especially from central agencies such as Forests, Roads, Railways, and Defence. It is therefore imperative that a nodal officer be identified from all relevant ministries to facilitate coordination and speedy RoW approvals for the project.

Also, payment terms form an important component of any EPC contract. A project’s faster execution is dependent on efficient fund management, timely payments to contractors, and improved cash flows, and the same will hold true for the BharatNet project. It has been observed in the past that discretion in payment terms delays execution and increases litigation, eventually increasing the project cost and making investments less attractive. To avoid such pitfalls in the BharatNet project, it would be better if a payment framework that provides a clear milestone-based payment system is adopted.

Additionally, one must not lose sight of quality. The usage of legacy and outdated standards in deployed equipment had hobbled the BharatNet project earlier. But going forward, one must focus on a long-term perspective so that the network we build is future-ready and serves us for a very long time. Over the past few years, countries such as the US and UK have initiated deployment of improved optical fiber that has a substantially longer lifetime over legacy fiber and is bend-insensitive, eliminating any optical power loss due to accidental bends. Since BharatNet is a crucial project that seeks to harness the full potential of our rural economy by putting in place a robust digital network, it is important that its deployment standards are optimal, secure, and future-ready. They must measure up to the best global benchmarks.

It would also serve the project, and consequently the country’s interests, well if the government puts into practice a process that ensures only competent and credible players get assigned with the responsibility of executing a crucial project such as BharatNet. Internationally – be it Australia, Singapore, or New Zealand – the successful execution of large-scale digital infrastructure projects has largely been determined by the selection of credible players. There is, therefore, a strong case for the government to consider building the BharatNet project infrastructure only by engaging specialized players with adequate expertise in large-scale end-to-end network deployment, maintenance, and management.

An enormous project such as BharatNet also offers a great opportunity to accelerate the growth of India’s domestic industry which we should not let go begging. To its credit, the Government of India has already initiated corrective measures. Only very recently, it imposed anti-dumping duty on optical fiber that had been flooding the Indian market, particularly from South Korea, China, and Indonesia. The measure is welcome since it will compensate the local industry for the ‘injuries’ it suffered because of dumping that deprived it of a level playing field. But there is scope for more to bolster the domestic industry, including an amendment to the Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) PPP-MII policy. This policy provides for government preference for Make-In-India products. However, under the existing framework, the percentages for the requirement of local content are calculated based on the total project cost and not on the basis of the cost spent on the product. This loophole is being exploited by many to import products, overlooking quality products that are locally available. An amendment mandating calculation based on product cost and not project cost would eliminate such misuse of the policy, promote domestic products, and prove to be extremely beneficial for Indian industry.

BharatNet is an India-scale initiative that will transform the lives of millions of people in rural India by providing them with affordable, reliable, and high-speed internet connectivity. Unlike a road project, this is a project that will not be visible to ordinary people, but its impact would definitely be visible and will be transformational for the nation. India would go Digital, unlocking the full potential of technology that can bring about substantive social and economic benefits. Let us make sure we do not miss this opportunity.

This article first appeared in ET Government,