Interview

Microsoft Platform Aids Food Corporation of India to Manage its Food Grain Supplies Efficiently : Food Corporation India and National Informatics Centre, (FCI, NIC), India

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Please provide an overview of the company.

The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was set up under the Food Corporations Act of 1964. Its main objectives are to provide effective price support operations to safeguard the interests of the farmers, distribution of food grain across the country, and maintaining a satisfactory level of operational and buffer stocks of food grains to ensure national food security.


FCI operates through a country-wide network with its corporate office in New Delhi, five zonal offices, 23 regional offices in almost all the state capitals, 166 district offices, and over 1,400 depots.


Share a brief history in terms of what was the technology used.

Prior to FCI’s infrastructure upgrade to a country-wide stock management solution built on the Microsoft Windows 2000 Server and Microsoft SQL Server 2000 platforms, FCI was originally using a semi-manual, semi-computerised solution running on UNIX in the regional offices.


What are some of the issues FCI faced with the previous technology?

The manual process had many issues such as incomplete or obsolete information on stock availability. Hence, FCI did not have access to latest data, which is essentially required for food grains distribution and planning. These issues have triggered FCI to upgrade its infrastructure to better manage the information.


What solution was adopted?

The first step in finding the best solution was to identify the right platform. With the aid of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), FCI identified 5 key criteria that must be fulfilled on the new platform. The factors that we considered include: user-friendliness, a clear technology road map, value for money and availability of skilled manpower/support.


With these key factors in mind the NIC team evaluated various operating system and database platforms on which to build the application.

We evaluated various operating systems and databases available. The Microsoft platform was chosen because of its clear technology road map, and availability of trained manpower at remote locations. Above all, Microsoft offered ease of use, which was our main criterion for selection,” comments Ranjna Nagpal, Senior Technical Director for National Informatics Centre.


The NIC team traveled across the country visiting various FCI offices and depots to understand the functioning of the organisation. Based on the system study, NIC created a country-wide stock management solution based on Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server 2000, called Integrated Information System for Food Grains Management (IISFM) for FCI.


This was a web-based application with distributed servers with Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 from which the user can enter the data. The application operates in a connected environment through a wide area network (WAN) or in a stand-alone mode depending on the connectivity of the particular location. In stand-alone mode, the entries are made and batch processed using a dial-up or broadband connection. This data flows from the depots to the headquarters while being collated at various levels of hierarchy within the organisation. Thes offices of FCI are connected through an MLS VPN network.


The solution has three key roles. It functions as a Transaction Data System (TDS) sharing information from the depot, such as unloading, receipt, and dispatch of food grains, within depot.


The MIS allows compiling of relevant data into informative reports that are used by regional and zonal offices such as depot-wise stock consolidation and storage capacity. The solution also offers decision support systems (DSS) at the national level such as stocks, storage, movement, and quality check analysis. This helps headquarters to make correct decisions in a timely manner.


Who are the key players involved (for instance government, private sector, citizens)?


The government of India has taken a very proactive role in realisation of this project. This project has seen interest from the Prime Minister’s office as well, since it is of national importance. The citizens will be the ones who stand to gain the most from the implementation of the project as they will get to enjoy better and more efficient allocation of food grain supplies.


Please provide a project update


The project has been carried out in phased manner and as on date there are more than 1000 locations using the application. At each location FCI has created a physical infrastructure, where the hardware is placed and operated from. The hardware procurement was outsourced by NIC to National Informatics Centre Services Inc. (NICSI), a sister concern primarily working in the system integration space. NIC preloaded the low end servers with Windows 2000 Server, SQL Server 2000, and the application. These servers were then shipped to each location. The data gets replicated at high end servers installed at NIC data centre in Delhi and windows enterprise OS with SQL 2005 and reporting services tools are being used for running the web based MIS. MSMQ features have been exploited to achieve data transmission in store and forward mode.

Scope of the project has been extended to cover agencies other than FCI, who are involved in food grains management in states.


What are some of the services offered?


IISFM provides the latest commodity wise information on availability of grains in farthest locations in the country which was impossible to achieve in manual system. The data once captured is consolidated at various management levels of FCI as well as the central government who is the user of this information for policy decisions. Thus, the system has served the FCI employees by providing an efficient tool for data capturing and compilation and has facilitated management in having an easy access to various MIS reports.


What are some of the benefits reaped from deploying the solution?


Using Microsoft software, FCI is able to collect, store, analyse, communicate, and share information more effectively.


Ease of Use– Many of the employees, especially at the district and depot level, were not familiar with computers and were hesitant to use them. This was completely overcome by the ease-of-use and user-friendly features offered in Microsoft products.


Robust Infrastructure– While many locations currently do not have a well-developed communications infrastructure, in the next few years, all FCI locations are expected to be connected on a WAN. This would require a stable and robust technology infrastructure, the foundation for which has been laid with the Windows platform.


Available Trained Manpower– One key concern addressed by the Microsoft software is abundant availability of trained manpower across the country.


Accurate Food Grain Stock Status– Accurate information of stocks across the country was a key area of concern for us. This is being completely taken care of by deploying the IISFM solution on Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server 2000,” explains Pushp Raj Singh, Manager of MIS at Food Corporation of India.


Regular MIS reports on Food Grain Stock- Reports required by FCI and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution are prepared at regular intervals without any delays. The most important benefit will be the availability of accurate data available with FCI, which has lead to better management of the food grains supply across the country. Availability of accurate and timely information means that we can take more informed decisions regarding the procurement and supply of food grains across the country.


What were some of the issues and challenges faced?


Some of the challenges include:

  • Geoghraphical spread and non availability of reliable high speed network connectivity.

  • Heterogeneous working environment

  • Lack of unified codification and standards

  • When the project was initiated End user had no computer knowledge


Please share and additional key learnings you feel may be relevant for other agencies.


Success factors:

  • Commitment coupled with regular review and monitoring by internal stake holders

  • Building Ownership

  • User participation and enthusiasm when the remote location employees could feel the benefits

  • Proposing a feasible solution (choosing a right design)

  • Timely availability of funds

  • Providing on site technical support till last level

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