August 2007

Multilingual Online Tax Collection: A Challenge

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eForm and document management is the backbone of eGovernance. In India, the challenge before the eGovernance architecture and advocates of IT for masses has been to integrate at least 22 languages in various government documents, notices and eForms. Income tax, property tax, customs and other tax collection agencies pose the real challenge. The department of Income tax has made good progress in the direction of online governance, but a lot more has to be done. A large team of IT and localization professional including the content creation professional are required to install these mammoth agencies for delivering services to people.

e-Form the basis of localizsd governance

The eForms and Document Management is one of the most crucial element of G2C interaction. The main problem of interface with the citizens is that of the language of eForms (here the reference is not to the languages like HTML, XHTML, XML, etc.) as well as the language of data entry i.e. filling the form or document. The eForms in the Indian context should be available in all Indian languages and there should be a provision to fill these forms in any of those languages in which the citizens are comfortable.

The need for localisation standards is felt the most in the area of e-Forms and document management because in the absence of standardised local language fonts and an e-Governance architecture, which is capable of translating various scripts into a single universal script and vice versa,  the task of interoperability would be greatly affected. The standardisation of e-Forms and other document management processes is the second important factor in G2C and C2G interactions.

Everyone involved in the process of making these e-Governance interactions also knows that the process is cumbersome and involves many stages. In India there are many platforms, many browsers, many fonts that are being used by common people. It further complicates the already complicated procedures of identifying and interpreting the data coming to government agency from people. Then there are problems of keeping these data in a universal standard format from where it could be easily manipulated and sent back to people or retrieved by the agency for its
own need.

The Government and the Industry: Need for a Bridge

The government of India has realised that the problem of setting up the standards can not be effectively managed by the governmental agencies alone. Hence, there has been attempts to include the major players in the industries whose technologies have been tried and tested in many other governments and institutions. Hence, the representatives from transnational companies like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe, EMC, New Gen, Novell, Honeywell, HP, Red Hat, ILANTUS Technologies, and PwC were incorporated in the task force for eForms, identity management and web accessibility. The public-private partnership could prove to be a fantastic change agent, but the only danger is that the transnational and many private sector companies are basically looking for a market and they are not there for the public service. They might sell their tested products that work fantastically so well in English and Roman scripts and may not be really interested in spending millions of dollars to develop technologies for Indian languages, which could help the citizens to fill the form in their own languages and receive a response from government in their own languages.  The easiest way out to launch such a mammoth task would be to make e-Forms and other document management technologies for Hindi as an alternative language as it is also the official language of Government of India.

In private sector there have been numerous attempts to localise the products. Microsoft has come up with a Hindi version of Windows apart from integrating Hindi in its Office. Fedora Linux and many other versions of Linux are also integrating Hindi in their operating systems and related applications. Adobe has integrated Hindi in its acrobat reader that has been till now considered as the best product for sharing information on networks and specially the e-Forms of various kinds. Adobe, IBM and others have been advocating a three layer document management where the citizen oriented page could be in PDF, HTML or any other document format and the government agency or institution oriented data so obtained from citizen could be in the third layer. IBM has been advocating the use of its workplace form using xForm (XForms is an XML application that represents the next generation of forms for the Web) with service oriented architecture (SOA).

e-Form and the Department of Income tax

Though it is commendable that the Government of India has in such a short period  changed the face of so many government offices of extreme importance to the citizens of India, it must be said that much more has to be done, taking into account the linguistic and cultural profile of our country. e-Form and document management process is a far cry, the presence of various ministries and offices in the web itself has to be in Hindi and other Indian languages (at least those recognised by the VIII schedule of the Indian Constitution) along with the English language.

As a case in point, when the author surveyed the web site of the Department of Income tax, it was found that this office has made at least an attempt to make a bilingual site. However, much more has to be done as the information about the Income Tax Ombudsman Guidelines 2006, deputation of officers outside the department of revenue, circulars, all acts like wealth tax, income tax, gift tax, expenditure tax, etc. and many other documents are in English, though there names are found translated in Hindi in the Hindi version of the site.

This would explain the general situation of e-Form in the organisation. However, it is of no less significant that things have started to happen in English. There are facilities of filing e-Returns and there are offline packages like Income Tax Returns forms 1 and 2 (ITR1 and 2) to facilitate the tax payer. This offline package has taken adobe acrobat reader 8 as the technology for dissemination and collection of data. The process described by the department for filing the Tax returns by this method has 8 simple steps. One has to register oneself on Income tax portal, login to the portal, download and fill the Form 2F, create XML e-Return file and upload it to Income tax server. One has to finally print the acknowledgement. If one has not signed digitally then he could go to the nearest post office for physical submission of the form.

There is no doubt that e-Governance is here to stay, but what one keeps wondering how much time will it take for this e-Governance in its near perfect form to make various services available to the people of India in their own languages. It has been promised time and again in various national and international meetings like the WSIS Summits. In past few years the basic flaw in the e-Governance standards has been that the government is working at different levels of standards. It has also made a separate group for localisation and language standards. In fact in a country like India, the localisation should be the buzz word and all standards must work toward that end. It is only then that we would find IT technologies emerging out of their dependence on English.

Localised e-Forms: A Distant Dream

In the absence of this integration of localisation at various levels of e-Governance standards, the content is the casuality. The whole process of e-Governance standards has become so technologically oriented that there is no serious thought given to the creation of content in Indian languages. The question in the context of e-Forms is, “Do we have the major e-Forms available in various Indian Languages”? Even if we limit the scope of e-Governance for the time being to the dissemination of information and the circulation of various e-Forms to the masses in their own languages, we need to work on the creation of e-Forms and documents, at least in recognised Indian languages. To make people fill these forms online could be the next stage of our cherished dream.

The author’s recent experience of filling the property tax online at the portal of Delhi is that the xForm is working perfectly well there, but the disheartening fact is that the whole portal of Delhi government has no interface for the official language Hindi. Even the information regarding the right to information is available only in English, when Delhi government has three official languages namely Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.  The IT policy of Delhi mentions that the government of Delhi would aim at using “”… IT for generating additional employment for the new digital economy. To facilitate localisation of software, so that benefits of IT could percolate not only in English language, but also in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.” However, the race seems to be towards bringing the whole government machinery onto net as early as possible. And in this mega project English obviously is the most convenient language.

Conclusion

The greatest challenge before IT specialist and the localisation industry in India today is to make available millions of pages of government policy, acts, ordinances and e-Forms in not only in Hindi, the official language of Government of India, but in all the languages listed in the VIII Schedule. It is the only way to empower the people of India and to pave the way for good governance through e-Governance. In such a scenario the devices like e-Form and other document management processes to include Indian language as the necessary ingredient appears to be a very distant dream.

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