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Hamlet, Haider and National Informatics Centre (NIC)

Sameer Kochhar, Editor-in-Chief, INCLUSION and author of best-seller, Modinomics, and Gursharan Dhanjal, Editor, INCLUSION

Actor Shahid Kapoor in the poster of Vishal Bhardwaj's latest blockbuster Haider.

To be or not to be is a question being posed in context of NIC for long. When Secretary, DeitY says that NIC does not have even a fraction of capacity to implement ‘Digital India’ as envisaged by the Prime Minister, the statement can either be read as a criticism of NIC or a prelude to unleash an NIC invigoration plan, which may help NIC to evolve as a formidable information systems organisation for having that any country would be proud of.

It was the period of B K Gairola as Director General that would be remembered for NIC becoming like the famous Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet. And, for the film buffs akin to Haider’s dilemma in Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest blockbuster.

B K Gairola, who succeeded N Vijayaditya in 2006 and ran NIC for next six years, came with impeccable credentials and respect in the industry. Having said that, he was also afflicted with an internal turmoil. He constantly battled to balance technology and ideology; bureaucracy and governance; and, scientists’ supremacy against official policies – most of those were ideological battles having no place in a scientific institution.

He had an intense dislike for the IAS. He was an ardent supporter of India adopting open source as a national standard, whether or not applicable in every scenario. While he supported Panchayati Raj as the best system of governance for everyone, for technology he ended up promoting complete centralisation of all technology decisions.

His profile mentions that he was responsible for propagating the IT culture amongst the top political and executive decision makers of the country. He wanted to lead the change by impacting politicians and wore his loyalty to Congress on his sleeve. It is quite natural for these political allegiances and affiliations to reflect in the day-to-day functioning. This ended up creating a heavily politicised NIC. This, in turn created the current ‘Haider’ like turmoil to be or not to be!

Post-Gairola, for another few years, NIC was run by his loyalist, Y K Sharma, who was the implantation instrument of Gairola legacy, who by then had entered the DeitY. Since then, the organisation has suffered from increasing politicisation, pitting DDGs against DDGs, almost sounding like a game of chess. People were promoted as DGs, even if it was for as short duration as merely 24-hours, making a mockery of an organisation.

Both Gairola and Sharma are good men, mean well for the country and have several significant achievements and accomplishments to their credit. They perhaps could have served the country better by being outside the government rather than being in it.

With Modi government at the helm and ‘Digital India’ being a key transformation strategy, hopefully the faux pas of the past would be undone. The role of NIC needs to transition from being an application developer, writing codes and doing system analytics to more of monitoring; designing and developing overall system architecture; and, maintaining a team of master coders. It has to re-emerge as an organisation with high-end skills. And that can happen only when a national informatics cadre is created.

The best role for NIC will be a strategic controller of applications while rollout should all be outsourced. It is an age-old institution that requires exploring industry alliances rather than competing with them.

But realities speak otherwise. The NIC has been headless for over a year now, promotion of NIC technical staff has not been done for last four years; block level expansion of technical officers to support rural e-governance, even though after having been cleared by DeitY in principle is still to be followed to ensure its implementation; and, retrospective promotion from date of eligibility as directed by the Supreme Court is pending.

The NIC enjoyed immense respect during the reign of N Vijayaditya during 2000-06. An era that was credited with innovations like digital signatures, geographical information system, domain name registration (gov.in and nic.in), internet data centre, videoconferencing, biomedical and patent informatics and office-procedure automation to name a few.

Historically, NIC has been one of the most formidable institutions entrusted with the responsibility of developing the IT systems and can be credited with the institutionalisation of processes right till the Panchayat level. Governance, for sure, has been somebody else’s job, while NIC ran networks, generic and specific domain service. In the process, it developed several applications, which were rolled out nationally, till such time it faced the heat of competition coming from the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) announced in 2004 that invited private participation in a much celebrated PPP mode. Setting up of institutions like CDAC and NISG were taken as competition. NIC kept a brave face as it came with a legacy and a confidence of having its presence at the grassroots level, which could not be challenged and was also considered a “not-so-lucrative” territory by the private players. Part of this assumed strength also came from the fact that NIC’s domain was limited to being an IT wing and a services organisation of and to the government.

All these coupled with the divide and rule post politicisation resulted in NIC to stopping to evolve itself given the dynamics of present day circumstances. Initially, this is a perception but is slowly becoming a reality. It also could not take competition sportingly. Along the way, to make matters worse, due to poor steering at the top diluted its leadership massively that NIC enjoyed historically.

The institutional erosion may prove to be detrimental to the entire e-governance and Digital India ecosystem, if this large talent pool of 4,000+ “techies” fanned across the country is compromised. Needless, to say the national security implications of this are huge.

(Sameer Kochhar can be reached at skoch@skoch.in)

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