March 2005

Where self-help helps

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The project e-Seva (e-services) began in the district West Godavari that falls in the province of Andhra Pradesh in India. The project is a tool to bridge the digital divide in the rural areas, and has used Information Technology for providing access to various C2C (citizen-to-citizen) and C2G (citizen-to-government) services to the people living in these areas. Under this project web-enabled rural kiosks have been established in the villages, and the unique thing about these centres is that they are run and managed by women self-help groups. This has allowed these centres to position rural women as information leaders to help bridge the gender divide and help them act as change agents – enabling growth in strength and stature with the project.

These centres run on a district portal http://www.westgodavari.org) that allows access to various citizen-centric services. Under this project information kiosks have been established in the villages. The computers in the kiosks are on a district wide network (a hybrid of dial up, 802.11 and WLL) helping kiosks interact with the district server hosting the local portal. To save on the networking cost, the project has developed a unique synchronisation tool that permits the kiosks to work offline and allows the databases to be periodically synchronised in minimal time. The project uses the opportunities that ICTs offer in empowering the citizens, and facilitates e-enabled education inputs to children to build their creative insights.

The services range from the issuance of various certificates, getting information about various programmes, to networking citizens with each other allowing them the flexibility and convenience of mutually beneficial transactions. The horizontal portal is eventually put on the global World Wide Web and thus allows vertical integration with the expanding frontiers of the universal knowledge bank. The project allows access to hitherto marginalised communities and therefore helps bridge the existing information gaps as a digital unite.

The project has been developed using local knowledge and local content by local professionals. The development of the portal, operationalisation of the applications, and tools have been designed for local situations and network speeds. All the kiosks have in turn been handed over to women and youth self-help groups to be run on business lines. These individuals have been trained, and have shown remarkable improvement in their possessed skills. The content on the citizen petitions is also available in local language. Although roman alphabets are currently in use, steps are on to switch over to the local language fonts.

Services offered

1. Online filing of complaints and grievances

Governments enter into the daily lives of the citizens in many ways. There is a fair degree of discontent amongst the citizens about the delivery of these services. The project allows citizens to file their grievances in the e-Seva centres. Every grievance is acknowledged and transferred online to bring in field level action. Concerned departments can easily monitor registered grievances by logging with the user id and password specifically assigned to them. The real time summary statistics and performance summary statements of the individual departments can be seen and verified. The citizens can verify and track the status of its disposal online. The project works on the principle that the citizen himself need not go to the authorities if someone could carry his grievance for him, and in this case if a telephone wire can do that, where is the need to act otherwise? The citizens need not wait if there is a drinking water problem or a non-functioning Fair Price Shop or a government functionary not doing his duty. All this is only one click away now.Over 12000 different grievances relating to various departments have been received from the citizens. Over 11000 of them pertaining to various problems have been redressed.

2. Online application registration
There are a host of areas where the citizens approach various tiers and areas of government for getting benefit out of various government programmes. These areas range from getting a loan under a self-employment scheme, applying for an old age pension, to asking for subsidised agricultural inputs, among others. Instead of moving from office to office and getting harsh responses, the citizens just need to come to the kiosk and apply online. They get their acknowledgement number and the rest is taken care of. The module provides for online forwarding, transmission, handling and disposal of such requests, and would therefore minimise the disposal time and the concomitant citizen effort to get their cases redressed. The interconnectivity and linkage with the citizen database also helps in weeding out bogus and repeat cases. The old age pensions being given in this project were computerised and put on the project website along with photographs and citizen identification numbers helping the administration weed out over 7000 bogus names, and saving over INR 7 million annually for the state.

3. Issuance of certificates
There are many kinds of certificates that the citizens need from governments; an important one among them is the integrated caste, nativity and income certificate. Now the citizen need not physically go to the Mandal Revenue Office. Instead she/he can apply directly at the Kendram, from where the request is transmitted online; the certificates are prepared and made available to the applicant at the kiosk itself without any inconvenience and without the drudgery of sifting through offices. The philosophy behind this intervention is that citizens always loathe approaching a government department for the fear of getting discourteous treatment and being subjugated to corrupt practices. The project therefore improves upon this interface and expects them to come to a centre run by their own peers – a place much more accountable, open, transparent and subject to public scrutiny. Over 350000 certificates have so far been issued to the citizens that tantamount to a saving of over INR 30 million to the citizens, an indirect cost that the hapless citizen incurs due to rampant corruption in issuance of such certificates.

4. Issuance of land records
The plan document of the Seventh Five Year Plan rightly opined, “Land records form the base for all land reforms and therefore regular periodic updating of land records is essential in all states”. The information relating to land plays a very important role and the project has cast this data onto the public domain to support development of a citizen centric land records system. The result is evolution of a transparent and effective land record delivery system that fully addresses the insecurities and concerns of the farmers.

5. Online auctions and biddings
One fundamental reason for the rural-urban divide is the lack of well-developed markets in the rural areas hindering efficient sale and purchase of goods. As a result most of the decisions made by farmers and the rural poor are based on insufficient information and are therefore sub-optimal, and in majority of the cases go against them. The project has been trying to fill in these information gaps by allowing the citizens the facility to post their products for online auctions at any of the kendrams. This has also opened the possibility for the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWACRA) and other types of self-help groups to market their products directly to citizens (horizontally within the district and vertically outside) without any middlemen. There is also a facility for citizens outside to send in a gift to their near and dear ones. The project has tied up with a payment gateway and some vendors; the rest is taken care of by the network of kiosks.

6. Online Mandi (market) rates

Ideally an average household makes a decision before buying or selling the goods and products based on the information they collect locally. Every kendram uploads the market rates prevailing in their area, which are then available to everybody else.The rates in markets elsewhere in the state are also available for the citizens to watch the trends and make the right decision after weighing all options.

7. Payment of dues
The citizens require a friendlier environment to pay their dues – be it the payment of electricity bills or telephone bills or land revenue. The Kendras offer the facility to the citizens that while transacting other services, they can clear off their pending accounts as well. The individual departments have the benefit of expeditious collections; savings on collection costs, and at the same time the ability to monitor their collection performance. In future, payments for services such as cellular connections and other private services can also be dovetailed. The women self-help groups under the project, through these e-Seva centres, have thus far collected over 1.4 million bills amounting to INR 400 million without any hitch.

8. Easy access to information
The right to information has now been recognised by the Parliament; the Kendras (through the District Portal) allow access to all kinds of valuable information to the citizens not just with respect to government programmes, but also to databases such as Old Age Pensions, Ration Cards, Multi-purpose Household Survey Records, Beneficiaries under various self-employment schemes, Child Database, Civil works etc. This induces transparency in the implementation of these programmes and facilitates weeding out ineligible cases so that corresponding benefits can be passed down to the needy.

9. Matrimonial services
An online marriage bureau has been operationalised so that prospective brides/ grooms can place their bio-data eliciting suitable offers. Over 13000 prospective wed seekers have so far utilised the facility.

10. Tele medicine
The provision of basic and primary health care is the principal duty of the welfare state. There are however many situations when expert advice is needed, and instead of the patient travelling all over, the request can travel on wire and the right prescription can travel back. Daily videoconference with specialists is proving to be of great help.

11. Tele agriculture
The district being predominantly agriculture-based generates lot of questions related to farm practices which many times go unanswered resulting in incorrect input applications. The portal acts as a round-the-clock helpline for handling such queries.

12. Forms download
There are various forms that every department has for use by the citizens. The Kendram acts as a one-stop-shop for downloading all such forms. Any changes in them would also get reflected in real time.

13. Citizen forum
The Kendram through the portal expects to provide a virtual meeting place for the citizens to discuss issues relating to the district/village, its problems, and prospective solutions. Now the citizens can freely interact with each other to post their ideas, and this acts as an online forum for them to ventilate grievances, air opinions, and bring about necessary social change. It also provides the opportunity to conduct opinion polls on important topical issues leading to improved decision-making.

14. e-Educatione
Digitised inputs on computer-enabled education are being made available in these centres so as to enrich the analytical and thinking abilities of the rural students – opening the advanced frontiers of knowledge to them. The project has tied up with an NGO for the supply of computer-enabled CDs and the centre in-charges have been imparted training about their use. Over 70 000 elementary school students are currently taking classes thrice a month at the e-Seva centres nearest to them. This also underscores the point that the advantages of Information Technology cannot be limited to a few sections of society and everybody has an equal right to access the same.

15.Common Accounts Keeper for self-help groups
The kendram being run by women self-help groups provides a virtual meeting place and a focal point for synergising and pooling individual efforts. Instead of individual groups maintaining their own accounts, the project computer maintains internal lending records, and also enters into online transactions with their banks. Some of the banks also propose to put the ATM counters in some kendrams which would further service the groups.

The project has had a tremendous impact in furthering the gender and digital unite. It has been able to buttress women self-help groups and provide services to the citizens in a hassle free manner. With over 200 kiosks in the district the project has completed more than 2 million transactions thus far. An amount of over INR 4900 million has been collected in electricity bills without any hitch. All these centres are doing good business and are becoming self-sustainable earning between INR 10 000 and INR 25 000 every month. Many of the centres are also adopting innovative methods of revenue generation. 14000 different grievances from citizens have been received out of which over 13 000 have been redressed. The project has led to a citizen centric land records system resulting in evolution of a transparent and effective land record delivery system fully addressing the insecurities of the farmers. The project has also opened the possibility for self-help groups to market their products directly to citizens (horizontally within the district and vertically outside) without middlemen. The project portal has data pertaining to over 4 million citizens in varied form, and the website has also become a major dissemination and broadcasting tool for various welfare programmes. The project has helped in the creation of a ‘knowledge and information’ economy thereby bringing in more opportunities and prosperity to the impoverished areas of the district. It has also induced transparency in the implementation of government programmes, and has facilitated weeding out of ineligible cases so that corresponding benefits could be passed down to the needy.

The e-Seva project milestones

June ‘2002: A pilot ICT initiative to strengthen self-help groups started in one block of this district.
Nov ‘2002: A comprehensive programme to deliver civic services at rural points in convergence with self-employment schemes envisaged and conceptualised.
Jan ‘2003: The project e-Seva in West Godavari district to provide access to various C2C (citizen-to-citizen) and C2G (citizen-to-government) services to the people living in rural areas through web-enabled rural kiosks started in 46 places.
June ‘2003: The project evolved and institutionalised – recording over 300 000 transactions by this time.
Sept ‘2003: Partnership with Azim Premji Foundation forged to initiate a model whereby children from elementary government schools could come daily and learn at the centres through multimedia CDs.
Nov ‘2003: 120 more centres added to the project fold; e-enabled education reaches over 28000 students, transactions cross 600 000.
July ‘2004: Centres connected through WLL; number of students taking e-enabled education increases to 70000; Centres get a bigger look, and their own buildings
Oct ‘2004: Number of transactions crosses 1.5 million; over 350 million rupees collected against electricity bills.
Nov ‘2004: e-Commerce activities for tribal tourism and lace park activities launched
Dec’2004: Telemedicine from specialists to the primary health centres started
Jan ‘2005: Transactions cross 2 million; Project conferred the National Award for exemplary implementation of e-Governance Initiative for the year 2004 (‘Gold Icon’) under the Innovative Operations and Best Practices – Professional Category, by the Government of India.
Feb ‘2005: A strategy titled ‘Closing School’ for intensively training graduate unemployed youth in computers, English, communication and other managerial skills for corporate placement launched.

 

As the project rural e-Seva of West Godavari District crosses one milestone after another, this is the time to do some stocktaking. Now 26 months old the project is roughly into the time when the initial euphoria gives way to part complacency and part cynicism, and then starts a period of decline in its life cycle unless it is reversed by a proactive approach. Before delving further, it would be apt if we have a look at the following findings that can be easily discerned form this project.

Achievements
  • Won the Gender ICT Award at the GKP Awards night at the World Summit on Information Society at Geneva in December 2003.
  • Captured the Tony Zeitoun Award in the ICT stories competition in the year 2003.
  • Nominated for the 2004 Stockholm Challenge Award in the e-Democracy category.
  • Won the first prize in the National Awards of the Computer Society of India in the year 2003.
  • Nominated in the World Summit Awards in year 2003, the only project in its category from India.
  • Bagged the Golden Icon Award of the Government of India for its innovative operations recently.


• By combining the resources and energies locked in the urge of groups and individuals to pursue self-employment, a viable low cost alternative to bring in the benefits of information and communications technology can be created and sustained.
• Such projects can bring in transparency in the functioning of the administration to a plausible extent and provides an independent domain and space to the citizens to interact with government.
• Such a solution cannot be restricted to only e-Government but to a wide range of services that can bring additional returns to the operator and oppor tunities to the citizens to become part of the tech savvy globe.

Such a transformation requires strong will at the highest level to make such projects sail through the rough weather of vested interests, pressure groups, and entrenched lobbies. The Project recognises that no matter what the rhetoric is, real right to information is possible only if the information is put onto the public domain, and new technologies provide the most cost effective solutions for doing that.


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