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A leap into the digital world

Jayant Sriram | DECEMBER 10, 2016 (Ref:thehindu.com)

Common Services Centres, which help people apply online for a range of services, could have a much larger role to play in the coming weeks and months. The author reports on the growth and challenges of these one-stop shops

The first floor office in Malegaon, in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, raises its shutters. The only remarkable things about it are its address — it sits at Tension Chowk, perhaps named as counterweight for a nearby road, optimistically called Aman (peace) Chowk — and the board outside advertising it as an Aadhaar enrolment centre.

By midday, on December 2, there is the usual bustle of small commerce and this office, which many people think is a government outlet of some kind, sees its usual group of 10 or 15 people gathered around. Inside, a rate board on the far wall informs people that this is not just a place where you can get an Aadhaar card. There are a range of services listed, from providing caste, nationality and domicile certificates, to facilities such as online railway ticket bookings and electricity bill payments. The other clue that it is more than a sleepy Aadhaar enrolment centre is a small board next to that one, with a Bank of Baroda logo.

Behind a single desk with two computers, a young woman accepts withdrawal slips, asks customers to place their thumbs on a small fingerprint-reader, and dispenses cash from a small drawer beneath the desk once they are verified. In effect, this office is an informal mini bank. And since November 15 — when the government increased the holding limit of cash that such centres can stock per day to Rs.50,000 so that money can be easily available — it has been a lifeline to a cash-starved populace. That is, to those of the citizenry who know its exists.

The Tension Chowk Aadhaar Enrolment Centre, run by an entrepreneur, Sajid Shaikh, is just one of a vast network of Common Services Centres (CSCs) that you are likely to see in virtually every small town and thousands of villages across the country. The CSCs help people apply online for a range of services — passport registration, PAN cards and Aadhaar cards, and a whole host of other certificates — without them having to visit a government office. CSC operators scan documents and upload them through a portal to the relevant government office that will then send back a completed certificate or card. They are like cybercafes, except they connect only to Digital India.

Over the past two or three years, a huge number of these centres have added services like banking and insurance to their offerings. In a sense, they are an organic response to the growth in demand for digitised government services that a static state machinery cannot keep up with and the free market has seemingly ignored.

When this correspondent visited the offices of other CSCs who were banking correspondents, it became clear that awareness of their existence — leave alone that they had cash to dispense — was low. This while at the Bank of Baroda’s main branch in Malegaon, a sign in Marathi has been out at midday, informing people that the bank has run out of cash. There are hundreds of restive people waiting in line outside each formal bank. “It was only yesterday that the bank manager put out a sign with the numbers of some Common Services Centres, who are also banking correspondents, asking people to come to us instead,” Shaikh says. Since then, a few more people have turned up to open Jan Dhan accounts. In Malegaon alone, there are four centres like his affliliated with the Bank of Baroda while a few others are tied to either the State Bank of India or the Bank of India, he says.

Bridging the gap
The concept of CSCs was approved in 2006 as part of the National e-Governance Plan. CSCs are set up in a public-private partnership mode, with a designated state agency being a franchisor of sorts for village level entrepreneurs (VLEs) to set up centres. While VLEs come from various backgrounds — Shaikh used to run a business selling stamp paper before he started his centre in 2014; another CSC operator in Malegaon, Deepali Lad, says she used to run a business providing BSNL connections — they must meet a set of minimum requirements. They must have passed a matriculation-level examination by a recognised board, be fluent in reading and writing the local language, and make arrangements for infrastructure (a room of minimum 100-150 sq ft with two personal computers and two printers).

According to Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, when he became Minister there were only about 80,000 CSCs and now there are close to 2,00,000 CSCs across India. The National Democratic Alliance government renamed the project CSC 2.0 and announced plans to scale up to the point that there is at least one centre in each of the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country. At current growth rates, the number of CSCs could be over 3,00,000 by the close of 2017.

A thriving ecosystem
From conversations with CSCs across the country, the average cost of setting up a small centre, land and building costs included, ranges from Rs.2.5-3 lakh. VLEs usually record 5,000 to 8,000 transactions per month. While the geo-locator tool on the project’s website has been under maintenance for the past week, other sites like apna.csc.gov.in list centres in virtually every district in every State, suggesting that this is a business growing very quickly.

The world of CSCs and VLEs is now a separate ecosystem in itself, perhaps best captured by a monthly magazine called CSC Tarang: A Silent Revolution in Rural Entrepreneurship that was started in October 2015 by CSC e-governance services, the nodal agency in Delhi that administrates the project. The magazine is an excellent window to the profession, featuring profiles of successful VLEs from across India and stories of those who have successfully set up centres in villages that fall under the Maoist belt in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, or in remote areas in the Northeast. It even has a monthly counter for the top five VLEs of the month, based on the number of transactions recorded on the CSC portal. VLEs usually record 5,000 to 8,000 transactions per month. On a consistent basis, VLEs from Gujarat and Chhattisgarh feature in these lists.

In the November 2015 edition of the magazine, Dr. Dinesh Tyagi, the CEO of CSC e-services (whose notes usually start each issue), writes that despite agreements being signed with all public sector banks and a few private sector banks for CSCs to become banking correspondents, only 30,000 across the country had done so. He encourages more to get on board so that they can create “the largest network of banking outlets in the world.”

For this year’s December edition, a month after demonetisation, Tyagi says that CSCs have been assigned to participate in the digital financial literacy programme of the government by going out and training at least 10 merchants and 40 citizens each in the use of digital financial tools for transactions. He says the State team and district manager would soon get in touch with each CSC to explain more about the programme. Work on the whole project should be completed by the end of December, he adds.

Intent versus reality
On the afternoon of December 6, in the small town of Uruli Kanchan near Pune, Baba Rao Sawant is having a conversation with the district manager about CSCs. It’s not about the digital literacy programme but about a fresh rigmarole involving banking services for his CSC. “The district manager is telling me that the banks are finding it really difficult after demonetisation and it would really help if some of the crowds can be diverted to centres like mine,” he says. There is some confusion about who has to send the appropriate letter to whom and the process for now has been stalled.

Eight years ago, Sawant helped his wife Ujjwala register for one of the first CSCs in Maharashtra. They started with the basic range of certificates and services before moving on to offering banking and insurance services. Ujjwala managed to recruit several other women to help out and they formed a self-help group, all of them operating as VLEs. From a collection of small centres, Sawant then opened a larger space in 2013. “It was like a mini Mantralaya [the Maharashtra state secretariat] in a large space, with 13 different counters for various services,” he says.

Three years later, Sawant says that the government system is not evolving quite as fast as he would have liked his business to, and that he had perhaps tried too soon to be all things to all people: “We tried to scale up but the problem now is that despite the government saying that all these services are online, much of the work had to be done offline. Even though we got documents uploaded and scanned copies back, they still had to be taken to a corporation in Pune to get an official stamp.” The other problems, he says, are that there is little done to educate the public about what CSCs can do and that he feels that he is often in competition with the local government. “Rather than organising, say, an Aadhaar camp on their own, if the local officials just informed people about centres like ours we could get every single person in our area registered for Aadhaar and Jan Dhan accounts in no time.”

As numerous as the VLE success stories are, there are many who believe they are on the threshold of something big but haven’t quite made it yet. The network’s obvious potential to bridge policy and people is hampered by inconsistency in government mechanisms and the legal framework that it needs to rest on. The system works well at the moment because of a combination of good entrepreneurial skill and luck.

In Chhattisgarh for instance, Krishna Kumar Sharma, who runs a centre in Dhamtari, says he is able to offer 34 types of certificates to his customers seamlessly. “All the documents come with the digital signature of the officer and there is only a delay if he has been transferred or something,” he says. Besides certificates and passport and PAN card registrations, his centre offers banking and insurance as well as a small cybercafe space where people are trained in digital literacy. Sharma, a former software engineer, says that since he started the centre in 2013, more than 15 members from his family have joined him in the venture.

On the other hand, in an urban centre like Surat, Jagdish Baldania, a VLE who consistently tops the Tarang charts, says that he has consciously chosen to limit his offerings. “People come to my centre mainly for PAN card registrations, mobile and D2H recharge, and election-related work like checking if their name is in the rolls, etc. If I started offering more services, there would be delays and people might stop coming.” He says already four other CSCs in his area have closed down and his is the only one operating, a stroke of luck.

One of the main reasons that Baldania doesn’t print certificates is because of the possibility of having to do offline work. Here he alludes to an issue of privacy and regulation: “People think of me as a government employee so I don’t want to do services that require a process that is outside the online system. What if they have some difficulty a few years later and they come back to me?”

In Uruli, Sawant also expressed a similar concern, mentioning that though he was registered as a VLE through an Aadhaar registration, he hadn’t actually signed a formal agreement with anybody, which left a niggling doubt about his legitimacy.

A collection of CSC operators that this correspondent spoke to from other States expressed other concerns. Many say that they have applied to become banking correspondents but there has been a delay in getting permissions while others in States like Odisha and Uttar Pradesh mirror Sawant’s concern that there is not enough awareness and consequently not enough potential for growth.

Reaching the ignored
The CSC network remains an idea — and a network — with huge potential, but it needs work. To get a clear idea of how much difference a CSC run by a VLE with ties to the community can make, one has to look at the remoter villages.

Take Hingangaon, a village about 15 km from Uruli. While it doesn’t have a CSC, there is one a few kilometres away, at a junction called Pimpri, where two petrol pumps and a few shops line the road. One of these shops, the only one doing business by late afternoon, is an e-service kendra. There is an orderly queue of about six or seven persons inside, three of whom have come for Aadhaar registration.

Two staff members sit behind a counter. In an inside office, Sameer Sawant, a wiry 25-year-old who runs this establishment, is tallying up some numbers. Three years ago, Sawant thought of starting this centre because it was a great business opportunity. While working as a computer teacher in Uruli Kanchan, he had seen hundreds of people come to register for Aadhaar cards at CSCs and thought of starting his own. He chose Pimpri since it was close to his village and could also service four other villages in the area.

Sawant shows us a small flyer that he has made for his centre that he distributes in the villages. It is a rate card that lists about seven or eight digital services, banking facilities for the Bank of India, and a few other small services like printing visiting cards that he does outside of the CSC roster. Through all this, Sawant says his centre manages to make a monthly income of about Rs.25,000-30,000 a month. It’s not much, but he is optimistic. “Many of the services have to be done offline so we have stopped that. But if I was able to offer more services, my business would grow. If someone comes for Aadhaar, I would like to also get him registered for a PAN card. There is a school close by here and during admission time students may need domicile or caste certificates,” he says.

On a phone, we show him a letter from the Ministry of Information and Technology explaining how VLEs like him should educate people on digital financial transactions. As he goes through the letter, his eyes light up. “This is what I have been talking about,” he says. “I met an old man this morning for whom I had enabled e-banking. He was going to go all the way to Uruli to see whether a cheque he had deposited had been credited to his account but I explained to him that he could check this on his phone.”

He continues: “There are also some workers from U.P. and Bihar who work in the sugar factory close by and I have been talking to them about how they can transfer money back to their families without incurring bank transfer cost. That amount makes a difference to them so things like e-wallet should be an option.”

CSCs, it is clear, could have a much larger role to play in moving forward in the coming weeks and months. For now, they’re scratching the surface.

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