India’s national broadband network programme, BharatNet, spent a little less than 29% of the allocated funds in five years till August this year despite the government’s avowed push for bridging the digital divide.

“A sum of Rs 5,741.80 crore has been disbursed till August 31, 2016 against the approved Rs 20,100 crore towards the BharatNet programme,” the telecom department’s Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) said in response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act.

The National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project initiated by the UPA-II government in October 2011 was renamed BharatNet in 2015 by the Narendra Modi-led NDA government with an aim to connect India’s 2.5 lakh gram panchayats or village blocks.

The project’s deadline was first stretched from December 2013 to December 2017, then advanced to December 2016, but eventually fixed at December 2018.

The project, which is envisaged to serve as the backbone for Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India plan, has suffered from slow fund distribution to stakeholders including public sector firms, private vendors and contractors.

Telecom minister Manoj Sinha recently expressed deep concern over meeting the project deadline, suggesting there was “no further room” for any relaxation.

Officials and industry analysts attributed the project’s slow pace to poor conceptualisation and coordination, delay in equipment procurement and re-tendering procedure in addition to localised right-of-way challenges.

The first phase of the mega project to offer internet connection with 100 megabits per second speed by connecting one lakh gram panchayats is scheduled to be completed by March 2017.