Digital Service Stations Across India
Mofussil India could be on the verge of a digital makeover, reports Times of India. The railways have identified over 7,000 sleepy towns in the country for converting their railway stations into digital hotspots, which will not just offer Wi-Fi services to the local population but will also serve as hubs for ordering and receiving goods from ecommerce portals. These proposed centres will provide digital services including digital banking, Aadhaar generation, issuing government certificates and filing taxes. The plan, under the 'Railwire Saathi' project, will soon be rolled out across 7,000 stations, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu told ET. None of these stations will be in big cities and will be mostly in rural and remote areas, he said. "Railways already have an unparalleled optical fibre network across the country through which we can set up these centres in the premises of station," said Prabhu. It will be a one-stop solution for government's digital inclusion plan, he said. "The staff who'll be handling these kiosks will be trained for all digital transactions."
For this project, Indian Railways is planning to tap into its massive optic fibre network, which is owned and operated by RailTel, its IT arm. The department will also seek partnerships with other government departments for more services. The total project cost is expected to be in the range of Rs 1,500 crore to Rs 2,000 crore. A presentation in this regard was made to Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last year during the RailVikas Shivar. The idea is the brainchild of RailTel CMD RK Bahuguna. A top railway official said the pilot for the project can be at the poorest towns of the country and also Naxalism-affected areas. "I think we can have it started at rail stations in Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Stations such as Jagdalpur, Deoband, Barauni, Bettiah, Khushinagar and Koderma could be shortlisted for the pilot run. All model villages will also have this facility. We can roll this at minimum 200 stations simultaneously."
According to the plan, the railways expect 'Railwire Saathis' to be operational at 5,000 stations and 25,000 panchayats across the country within the next two years. This could mean job opportunities for over 30,000 people, especially rural women and youth. Railways estimate that they can earn anywhere between Rs 12,000 to 25,000 a month depending on the population served.
Currently, private technology players such as Google have a partnership with RailTel to roll out free, high-speed public Wi-Fi service at railway stations. The project has already covered 100 of the busiest railway stations and targets to roll out the service in 400 more across the country. However, under that project only free Wi-Fi is offered and there is no provision of assisted digital transactions. Around 115 stations have been commissioned and, according to estimates, the project has been well received with about 6 million unique logins a month. Neel Ratan, executive director with audit and consultancy firm PwC, said that given the government's focus on digital India, "Efforts should be made to tie in all existing services infrastructure such as Common Service Centre and Aadhaar centres to offer services so that the centres come up to speed."
Digital India is one of the marque projects of the Modi government. However, last-mile connectivity has been a major hurdle in the way of providing large-scale digital services. The government is experimenting with many technologies and delivery models to connect remote areas. This includes projects such as Common Service Centres where over 2 lakh digital kiosks offer similar services, such as those being envisioned under the 'Railwire Saathi' initiative. The ministry of IT is also planning to set up 25,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in remote areas to offer basic online services to hi-end ones, such as tele-medicine and tele-education.
The 'Railwire Saathi' plan also proposes to offer paid Internet access at the station using Wi-Fi hotspots for small denominations such as Rs 10 for 30 or 60 minute of access, along with monthly plans in the range of Rs 50 and Rs 100. Online shopping could be another pull factor. Railways hope that 'Railwire Saathi' can be the nodal point for ordering as well as delivery since online payments are a hurdle for most people. Once 'Railwire Saathis' are operational in majority of the stations, railway stations can become potential e-commerce hubs using the parcel service of railways to ferry goods.