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Casting the web over rural India

March 11, 2008 11:55 IST
E-kiosks for services like bill payment and job queries are mushrooming all over rural India. Pradipta Mukherjee visits one such centre in a Bengal village.

Gorachand Banerjee runs a common service centre in Kapasaria village in Chanditala 2 block, 20 km away from Kolkata.

Banerjee, who has studied till class X, is today a village level entrepreneur under the common service centre scheme of the Government of India.

He had to pay Rs 30,000 as down payment and another sum of Rs 90,000 to a private company - Srei Infrastructure to gain ownership. Now, it is up to him to make it worth the money by adding more and more services.

He has employed two persons whom he pays about Rs 2,000 each to carry out the work of the centre.

The work includes collection of electricity and other bills from villagers, and running a course in English and computer training.

Each bill fetches him Rs 3 from Srei, while the course gets him Rs 450 and Rs 750 respectively from every student.

There are 25 youths in the village who have enrolled so far. Banerji's expenses are the rent and salaries he pays.  "I have studied till class X and earn between Rs 3000-Rs 5,000 per month at this CSC," says Banerjee.

"I learnt about this centre from advertisements. It was a good offer that could make me the boss of a CSC," Banerjee added.

Kapasaria may well be the look that many villages in India would sport as the common service centre scheme under the National e-Governance Programme of the Union Ministry for Communications and IT reaches its target of 600,000 centres.

The ministry is in partnership with states as well as private companies who respond to invitations to bid.

About 13 companies, including biggies like Reliance Infocom and Wipro, have opened shop under the programme in 20 states after winning bids, says Aruna Sunderrajan, CEO, Community Service Centres under the Department of Information and Technology Ministry.

In Bengal Srei Infrastructure Finance Ltd is one of the two companies - the other being Reliance Infocom of the Anil Ambani group - that won the bid to set up centres in Bengal villages. While SREI will set up 5,000 Sahaj e-villages along with Wipro, Reliance Communications will set up 1,860 centres in North 24 Parganas, West Midnapur, Burdwan and Purulia districts, to benefit 2.6 million households in the state.  The number of customers and the number of services offered determines the profitability of each centre.

In Kapasaria village in Chanditala 2, the CSC offers services like online payment of phone and electricity bills, classes in English and computer use, besides works as a studio with a camera installed to click passport size pictures.

Each CSC is run by a village-level-entrepreneur (VLE), thereby creating employment for as many villagers as more CSCs are set up.

At a centre in Begampur village in the same block in the district, Moumita Das, is busy collecting as many telephone and electricity bills she can. Her pay depends on the number of bills she collects.

"I make payments for them online through the Sahaj website. For instance, for every telephone bill payment I make on behalf of a villager, I get Rs 3. The centre has an email login which we use to log onto the Sahaj website and make payments online," she says.

Das has completed her graduation. At Begampur CSC, villagers visit the centre to have photographs taken as the centre has a camera.

The centre also serves as the nearest station for Government services like registration of death and birth and delivery of certificates for the same, besides tax payments.

"We get Rs 5 for every electricity bill payment we make on behalf of a villager through the Sahaj website," says Mallick, an employee at another centre in the block.

The CSCs are usually 150 sq ft rooms and are open from 10 am till 6 pm.

According to Sabahat Azim, CEO Srei, "We are investing Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) to set up 4,937 CSCs by May 2008. Of these 650 CSCs are already operational in West Bengal."

According to Azim, over 47 million people in the villages of West Bengal would benefit through this programme.

The programme envisages setting up one CSC for each cluster of six villages falling within each Gram Panchayat and Panchayat Samiti offices.

SREI will set up CSCs in 14 districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Uttar Dinajpur and Dakhin Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia and South 24 Parganas, Purba Midnapore, Bankura, Birbhum, Howrah and Hooghly in Public Private Partnership with the State Government and Centre.

Initially, each centre would be able to earn close to Rs 3,000 per month after payment of salaries and rent for the building. This could go up to Rs 15,000, depending on the scale of operations and the variety of services, say Srei officials.

Srei plans to introduce three agricultural services in CSEs in West Bengal by May this year. It has already introduced a job portal where a villager can register and post bio data. This is being supported by the Ministry of Labour, in the sense that every time a villager lands a job, an amount will be paid to Srei by the Government, as a token of appreciation," Azim said.
Pradipta Mukherjee in Kolkata
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