Citizen see gains as changes seep into the system

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The progress on the common infrastructure side in the e-governance arena in India has not been accompanied by a viable bouquet of services. Team Inclusion outlines the way forward and the partnerships needed to take the government to the people.

The journey of e-government in India started around the beginning of the new millennium though the efforts for modernisation and computerisation of offices started much earlier. Even as the prefix “e” is falling away in the language used to talk about government modernisation, the underlying technologies and practices introduced two-and-a-half decades ago are now deeply embedded in the way the public’s business gets done.

This has been a three-track effort: track one, National Informatics Centre embedded itself into Central as well as State Government departments, put in the slog hours of automating projects with constantly shifting goal posts, battling with mind-set changes, bravely attempting gradual government process re-engineering and keeping together the flock of technical experts from Temi and Namchi in Sikkim to the Andamans on the other extreme. NIC has been at it since the seventies.

Track two, certain forward looking State Governments and Central ministries, realising the criticality of a technology backbone to ongoing delivery of services to the masses on the one hand and a rapidly growing business community on the other, took the initiative to roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Examples include the Railways, Income Tax, Central Board of Excise and Customs, Election Commission, etc. Similarly, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, etc., also made their own efforts at improving services delivery through the use of technology. Earliest efforts in this regard date back to the Eighties.

Track three, the National e-Governance Plan conceptualised under the NDA government in 2003, which initially went by the acronym NeGAP. It was consolidated under the UPA government even as somewhere along the journey, it got itself the new acronym of NeGP- perhaps to avoid the negative sounding GAP. Five years later, ominously, quite a few gaps remain in the implementation (this is seen in varying degrees in the other two tracks as well).

NeGP, anchored by Department of IT, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, comprised of 29 mission mode projects, with common infrastructure, centralised planning and decentralised implementation, and public-private partnership as its guiding principals. It took till 2006 to be approved by the Cabinet. Since then, one mission mode project, MCA-21, has been completely rolled out while 2-3 more are seeing some movement and the rest remain non-starters. There has been progress on the common infrastructure side in the form of state wide area networks (SWANs), state data centres (SDCs) and most crucially the roll out of the common services centres (CSCs), though these crucially remain bereft of a viable bouquet of services as most of the mission mode projects have not been completed and also because the projections of the private sector being a major user of the common infrastructure seem to have gone awry – at least for now.

To take stock of the last five years, Team Inclusion interviewed stakeholders from across the country. The variations in perceptions were vast and as fragmented as our politics. The wide stakeholder groups consisted of citizens, the vendor industry (consultants, hardware, software vendors, systems integrators, etc.), the user industry and the government itself.  Within these groups itself, the variations were vast since the group composition itself is as diverse as it possibly can be. The vendor industry’s perception seemed to be indirectly impacted by the gains from the resultant business and thus making their own stake in the game, large, small or non-existent.

Within the government, the perceptions differed based on whether you were speaking with the Department of Information Technology, the National Informatics Centre or the domain ministries.
The only place where there was consistency was in the positive response from citizens as well as business users, who had used some of these modernised services in urban or even village India.  A majority of them felt an improvement in governance in general and their own interface with the government in particular. So what are the takeaways from all the three tracks over the last five years.

TRACK ONE: NATIONAL INFORMATICS CENTRE

India spends well over Rs 1,000 billion on all types of social sector projects every year in areas ranging from the provision of subsidised foodgrains to job guarantees. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) itself will cost Rs 400 billion when fully operational. But estimates of leakages in these programmes have been historically pegged at between 50 per cent and 75 per cent. So, is the solution to just spend more or to fix the leakages first. As  ex-Finance Minister P Chidambaram said in reply to Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s suggestion to increase spending, “you 
don’t fix a leaky pipe by increasing the pressure of water in it.”

It’s a tough call to be a plumber to the government.  NIC as an internal service provider has been trying to address both issues together, helping fix the leakages and bringing about improvements on the fly even as the work continues.  While the glitzy projects in the cities yield logical benefits for the industry, it is village India, the geographically challenged and the poor who perhaps need NIC services the most.
As with all such e-Governance projects, there are a host of very successful pilots with very poor replication, and there are some that have been replicated with a degree of success under the NeGP — land records, registration and transport are some such examples.

Over the years, Team Inclusion has travelled across India looking at and documenting many government modernisation and development projects that have worked well.  Online examination results, land records and property registration in many states, NREGA, transport, e-panchayat, India Post, VAT, Citizen Information Centres, Foodgrains Management System, e-municipality etc., are  some of the projects that have made a difference. We describe just a few of these.
FCI: According to the Planning Commission, India has 65.2 million families that are below the poverty line (BPL). But the actual number of BPL cards issued is much higher (estimates put this at 80 million). There are similar differences in the cards issued to those above the poverty line. Also, siphoning off used to take place by not giving people their entitled PDS grain/kerosene/sugar—there is enough anecdotal evidence that this is pretty rampant in the Rs 260 billion that the government spends each year on the programme.

The National Informatics Centre’s (NIC) Integrated Information System for Foodgrains Management has attempted the use of technology to fix problems in the project. What’s being done is to capture data of all foodgrains released from Food Corporation of India godowns to various state corporations, and (at the second stage) then matching this with the grain picked up by each ration shop (this information is to be uplinked once a month). Apart from helping FCI’s management know the exact amount of foodgrains available at each godown at any point in time, it also helps capture data on inflows and outflows of FCI grain under various government schemes (around 15-20 at the moment!).

NREGA: Though billions have probably been spent on various public works programmes over the past 60 years, there is no single source of information on exactly which projects have been completed, who the workers were on these projects, what they were paid and so on. There are enough small surveys and anecdotal evidence to suggest, however, that muster rolls on such projects are very often faked (so wages are paid to workers who don’t exist) and that even the projects may not be getting implemented.
The Ministry of Rural Development through the NIC created a software solution to address such issues. It throws up alerts to show if works are being duplicated. It also seeks to make public all critical documents like muster rolls, job cards and list of completed works. It is being implemented in languages like Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi, Tamil and English. This then has become the first Right to Information friendly system on a large scale and has helped social auditing, thrown up instances of irregularities and helped monitor implementation.

ONLINE TREASURY : Before the e-Treasury project was initiated, State Governments had little idea of the money that was sloshing around the system; money that had been sanctioned to various districts for innumerable projects/programmes. What the Online Treasury Information System has done is to track the flow of money so that at any point of time governments are in a position to know just where their funds are, to ensure that no projects suffer from lack of funds, and so on. OTIS  has been running in Haryana and many other states for several years now.

e-Courts: Some years ago, if you filed a case in the high court, it took a lot of trouble to find out when the case was going to be listed for hearing (this could take up to 15 days), and before which judge. And when you finally won the case, it could take months before you got a copy of the judgment. Today you can log on to the court’s website for all details of listing and copies of judgments.

Suwidha and Lokvani: In Punjab, citizens rate the Suwidha centre in Kapurthala that provides 24 services from certificates to licenses and affidavits as excellent. Currently, Suwidha facilitates acceptance of applications of more than 300 jobs under these 24 services. In Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, a similar thumbs up has been given to Lokvani, a grievance redressal system put in place by an enthusiastic district commissioner. The project was replicated in 28 districts by 2006 through support and keen interest shown by the State Government. Under it, an apex Lokvani society has been formed under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary. Today, while the original champion has moved, the project and its public appeal carry on.

CIC: Citizen Information Centres in Assam have brought the government to the doorsteps of the people. Where people had to trudge miles and spend over two days to have access to the DCs office in Guwahati for a simple certificate, AamarSewa has set up citizen information centres in the remote parts of the state where a citizen just needs to walk in, place a request which is forwarded electronically to the DCs office. The citizen gets the certificate on a stipulated date through the same route, from the CIC next door.

What differentiates, NIC projects is that the implementation is systemic and not champion driven or tied in to externalities. On the flip side, however, the project time overruns are legendary and scaling slow. Having introduced the computer culture and automation at a basic level, NIC has brought quite a few projects to a stage that they are now ready for bigger, faster, better. Therein lies the catch, is NIC best positioned to handle this?

NICs relevance and role is increasingly under question. By some, they are considered responsible for the slow pace and lack of process re-engineering (an act for which a non-functional administrative reforms process is perhaps more responsible), others want them to vacate space for the private sector–with a compulsive public private partnership solution for every problem.  NIC, on its part, jealously guards its turf and at times gets into a cocoon trying to keep out the industry rather than engaging in a dialogue.

The possibility of building upon what NIC has already created with an increased private sector role in direct citizen servicing functions needs a serious examination as does the issue of working out a new engagement model wherein NIC benefits from the modern management practices that the private sector can offer.

TRACK TWO:DO IT YOURSELF

A few ministries have found ICT important enough to their functioning to form their own specialised departments to cater to their needs. These are very large and old departments, which have historically had a lot of baggage of the wrong type and therefore managing change in them was one of the biggest challenges. The Railways through its Centre for Railways Information Systems (CRIS) is one of the oldest and most effective do-it-yourself jobs seen in the country. No one understands the Railways better than the Railways itself and that has possibly been the reason for this remarkable success. Technology infusion has also played an important role in the recent turnaround story of the railways, so much so the Minister himself swears by information technology. The will and the drive to implement process changes was driven from within the ministry and spanned several years.

Even a more challenging case is that of the Department of Income Tax. Despite this they have been able to bring about remarkable improvements with issuance of PAN cards, Online Tax Accounting System (OLTAS), Tax Information Network, etc., taking a lot of pain away from user interactions. The biggest change has been in automation of selection of cases for scrutiny instead of personal discretion, taking away a major area of grief for tax-payers. A similar change has been in the case of electronic transfers of tax-refunds to the payees’ bank accounts. All this was achieved through high-powered committees and careful moves to carry the officers along. Can more be done? Certainly. Further governance reforms have to come from within the government while services delivery can be done with the gentler private sector touch.

Another good story is that of the Central Board of Customs and Excise. The use of IT, particularly the 'electronic data interchange' or EDI brought about a revolution in its functioning. The use of EDI has helped to speed up the flow of goods, thereby reducing the turnaround and inventory carrying costs, imparting vital competitive edge to Indian trade and industry. As observed and studied by Team Inclusion at the Chennai port, the dwell time has reduced from days to a few hours; for Custom House Agents, the duties can be calculated and paid online; and for importers the goods can reach their warehouse within 48 hours of landing and sometimes even on the same day.

Under e-Gram, all the 13,753 Gram Panchayats in Gujarat have been e-enabled. This e-governance application entails computerisation at the village level itself for instant processing of death and birth registration and issuance of certificates such as agriculture, caste, income and electricity as much as for tax collection and issuance of certain forms. Each gram panchayat has become an information kiosk that is connected to GSWAN.
These and a few more such projects have been making a difference in Track Two.

TRACK THREE: MISSION MODE PROJECTS UNDER NeGP

While the common infrastructure part has been dealt with in detail elsewhere in this feature (See: Pages 8-13), we also found that the only operational mission mode project under NeGP is the MCA-21, which has been brilliantly conceptualised, executed and meets user approval.

Project MCA-21 was implemented by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in the public-private partnership mode with TCS. This has ensured that the corporate sector in India gets speedy, hassle-free services from the Registrar of Companies. From requests for incorporation of companies to e-filing of returns to acquiring digital signatures, everything is handled remotely through an internet portal. The process is transparent and the waiting time for incorporation of companies has been slashed from months to hours. As Team Inclusion found in its interaction with the beneficiaries the compliance rate has increased by 60 per cent and revenues by 40 per cent. Data on about 750,000 registered companies has already been digitised, an exercise that has had the salutary side-effect of throwing up cases of duplication of records and defaults. The popularity of the portal can be estimated from the number of hits it receives every day – 1.5 million!

This then sets a good role model for other such missions as well. The issues are lack of capacity within domain ministries to understand and execute such projects, and clearly defined budget availability at the Centre. The issues with state-driven MMPs are exactly as the ones with any other state-driven projects. The forward looking and reform-oriented states move along while the others await a massive dose of state sector reforms.

Clearly, for e-governance to have the desired impact at the citizen level, at the grassroots level, the lay of the land, as indicated by the three tracks enunciated above, lies in partnerships -- partnerships between the government and the private sector, between the Centre and States, with Panchayati Raj Institutions, and with community organisations. The success stories that lift our spirits all exemplify the partnerships. 

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