People in the centre

Not long ago, our policy makers had a grand plan, putting the community at the heart of it. To provide our rural and remote communities with access to fast, affordable and reliable public services using information technology, several community centres were established.

The rest is mired in controversy and confusion. Starting from its name, there is a call for clarity on the centres. If it is Community Centres for some, it is Community Information Centre for others. The ownership of the centres is being tossed around. First, it was with the Bhutan Post, it got transferred to the Bhutan Development Bank. It became politicised and bone of contention between the government and the opposition in the Parliament where some fought for putting it under the local government, with the gewogs.

All this while, the communities, the intended beneficiaries are watching or waiting in silence.

There is a new development. The third government is mulling to put the centres under the newly established CSI bank. If legal provisions are not tampered with, the centres and the operators will be under a state-owned enterprise.

But this will only solve half the problem. The issue is not only about identity and the status of the operators. Operators made an issue starting from not having a parent organisation to remunerations. They appealed to governments and have their voices heard.

The people have not. If the centres should benefit, it is the people in the villages without the ability to read or write, forget using computers or printers. It should help them save time and money from having to travel to the dzongkhag headquarter to, sometimes find locked offices and return home to come the next day.

Having a parent organisation is not an end in itself. Perhaps this could be a start even if the proposed parent organisation has banking as its mandate. From what operators say, the centres are already helping people in the gewogs with other services starting from filling up forms to applying for services online. Like the Lyonchhen said, operators should take other responsibilities. How many villagers will apply for loans from the CSI bank branches to keep the operators engaged for five days a week?

There are more pertinent issues like providing the centres with infrastructure, equipment and above all, reliable internet connectivity. Internet has become cheaper since the centres were first established 11 years ago. Technology has advanced and options are unlimited. With the right choice and priority, the centres would help bridge the digital divide.

Having a status and decent remunerations will also not solve the issues of the centres. Skilled operators would benefit villagers more than a well-paid or contented operator. And for the operators to fulfil their role, they need equipment including consumables.

Sustainability is already a concern. The centres will not make money from helping villagers. It will have to be subsidised.

Subsidy could come from savings we make from wastage and misuse of government resource. For instance, by not misusing the office printer and paper to print ‘project work’ a child emailed using 4G to his or her father in a government office.

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