Interview

Inclusive Access to Government Services : Nripjit Chawla, eGovServices

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“eGovServices has become the largest CSC operator in the country (and perhaps in the world). We did face, and continue to face law and order issues, infrastructure issues and human resources issues but continue to invest in the Jharkhand CSC project”, says Nripjit Chawla, Director Business Strategy, eGovServices to egov magazine

Please tell us about the vision and goal of eGovServices?What are the strategies adopted to achieve these goals?

eGovServices is the largest dedicated Public-Private-Partnership player for pure Government to Citizen (G2C) solutions and is modelled as a ‘Social Corporate’, that is a company with a social purpose. Our vision is to provide inclusive access to government services through technology enabled stakeholder participation. To achieve this vision, we have three major goals.

First, we want to have 360 degree stakeholder participation. What that means is that we see the environment changing such that consumers of government services do not want to be mere consumers but also want to be participants in the process. Thus you would see that in providing G2C services in Jharkhand, the citizens are teaming up to become Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE’s) and are becoming partners in the service delivery. We see this trend increasing in many parts of the world, especially the developing countries. We believe that this is another manifestation of the democratic and participative nature of our government.

The second goal of eGovServices is to provide the enabling financial environment to support the 360 degree stakeholder participation. Increasingly we see that projects are going to large corporations that can get finance at cheap rates from the financial institutions. This excludes the common citizens from participating in the G2C service delivery process. In order to make the process inclusive, we have devised innovative mechanisms to fund the common citizen’s desire to be part of the government service delivery process.

And our third goal is to leverage technology to provide a sustainable 360 degree stakeholder participation. You would notice that our solutions are Web 2.0 enabled and they have embedded e-Learning tools. This helps in rapid capacity building of the participants (citizens). For example if the government wants to have a system to make available opportunities for domestic employees, then the ordinary citizens and the domestic employees would need to have the capability to use such a system. Our solutions help in rapidly training them through online and offline mechanisms that leverage technology to the hilt. Unless we use technology, it will be an uphill task to bring the benefit of better governance to the citizens.

What role do you see of ICT kiosks for delivering e-enabled services to the citizens?

ICT Kiosks provide the crucial last mile connectivity for delivering services to the people. For thousands of years, governance has remained more or less the same – taxes are collected and some services are provided but large swathes of the population are left out without any services. ICT kiosks are set to change that and revolutionise the delivery of government services.

In fact, it is an open secret that large parts of this country are under the influence of Naxalism. One of the key factors for Naxalism is the lack of access to governance. Even if we e-enable the government services, it still cannot be accessed by the most needy of the population because of the issues of lack of literacy, digital divide, low PC penetration, poor connectivity and even poor availability of power to run any ICT device. This is where ICT kiosks play a critical role in having literate local youth as the mediator between the common populace and the ICT enabled services through the ICT kiosk.

The model not only helps in bringing in better governance, but also enables local job creation and provides a sense of participation in governance to the local communities.

What is your opinion regarding the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) and the Common Service Centres (CSCs) programme in making the government services accessible to the citizens?

Do you think public-private partnership model of implemenation strengthens government?

We feel that the CSC under NeGP is a visionary programme of the government. With one single project, the government is able to bring in:

  • Accessibility to governance
  • Increased IT penetration
  • Bridge the digital divide
  • Increase sustainable employment opportunities
  • Increase domestic market for IT
  • Provide a channel for inclusive growth by providing a route for delivering microfinance in a scalable manner
  • Provide a tool for market linkages to rural economies
  • Help in reducing the gender bias by economic empowerment of rural women who are able to become VLE’s and are becoming the main bread earners in the family.

It would have been impossible to have such a wide impact with a single programme if it was not a public-private partnership model. We strongly feel that if such programmes are not implemented through a PPP mechanism with local participation, it not only increases resistance to the service but also takes away critical stakeholder inputs that make or break a project of this scale and magnitude. Moreover, if it is an external agency that comes and implements and walks away with the government money allocated for the project, then the local micro-economy does not benefit from such a government investment. It is absolutely essential that projects of this nature are done through the PPP mechanism with inclusion of the local youth as key stakeholders.

The Government of Jharkhand has awarded the tender for 2,943 CSCs to eGovServices, the first CSC tender issued by the Government of India. What is the progress regarding the implementation of CSCs in three divisions which have been awarded to you, viz., Ranchi, Hazaribagh and Kolhan?

You will be happy to know that by virtue of identifying almost 2000 CSCs in the above three divisions, eGovServices has become the largest CSC operator in the country (and perhaps in the world). We did face, and continue to face law and order issues, infrastructure issues and human resources issues but continue to invest in the Jharkhand CSC project.

Since we are primarily a ‘Social Corporate’ where our primary objective for this project is to ensure that local jobs are created in a sustainable manner, we have taken the losses and the excess investments in our stride for the bigger objective of providing good quality employment. The youth in Jharkhand have also risen to the occasion and are benefitting from the project as VLE’s.

We hope the income generation capability of the VLE’s will increase once the connectivity becomes better in the state.

What are some of the challenges in delivering e-Services via the CSCs? How can one attain sustainability of these ICT kiosks?

The primary challenge is connectivity. eGovServices is a CSC operator and not a telecom operator. We feel it is important for large telecom players to step in and provide good quality connectivity in the state, not only for higher income generation of the CSCs but for overall development of the state. I believe that Prof Leonard Waverman of London Business School says that economies experience a 0.5% of additional growth for every extra 10 phones per 100 persons.

The second issue is of law and order. Our employees and our VLE’s are increasingly facing threats from local hoodlums who pass themselves off as naxalites. Sometimes the threats are also from naxalites. Fortunately, through an intense and extensive on-ground information dissemination programme, we have been able to communicate to the naxalites that the CSC initiative will actually benefit the people. However, the hoodlums are the different issue and they are severly impeding the progress of the project. By our original plans, we would have finished deploying all the CSCs by now, had we not faced such problems.

The third strange problem that we see is that the lower level government officials feel that they are the ‘inspectors’ of the project rather than partners in the project. This difference in approach changes the very nature and spirit of the project. Unless all the stakeholders participate constructively and positively and work towards resolving the issues in a sincere manner, we will not be able to achieve the expected outcome of the project–we will only have the output of CSCs operating, but the larger public benefi ts will not be there.

What are the technological issues in implementing the CSC programme? How can the private sector provide support?

As mentioned in the previous question, power and connectivity are the two most serious  issues. Places where we invested in generators are now complaining about the rising fuel costs.  Places where we invested in invertors, are complaining that there is not enough  electricity available to charge the batteries of the invertor.

We feel that the large telecom and power companies must step forward to address this issue, not only for CSCs but also for the benefi t of the entire state economy.

Under the NeGP, a media campaign plan has been envisaged to raise awareness regarding the CSCs. What are the various means by which eGovServices is campaigning for general awarenss about CSCs in Jharkhand?

Coming from media, you would appreciate it better that the nature of media in the rural  areas is very different from the urban areas. We do have a working relationship with Prabhat Khabar, the largest circulation Hindi daily in Jharkhand. Beyond that, we have mulit- channel approach in Jharkhand, including word of mouth, spread by local infl uence  networks, posters, street plays and demonstration of the Pragya Kendras (CSCs of Jharkhand)  in various fairs, government seminars etc. The Government of Jharkhand has been  extremely supportive in this and we are especially thankful to Mr R S Sharma, the Secretary,  IT, Government of Jharkhand for his unstinting support.

What are some of your future plans to expand your
market in the coming years.

As I mentioned, we are a ‘social corporate’ and our concept of market is very different from  that of a traditional corporate. If we are able to better the lives of more people, we believe we  have expanded our market. Therefore, if we continue to positively impact more people in  Jharkhand, we believe we are expanding our market. In addition, we believe that there are  many other areas where our expertise and our understaning and intellectual property can go  a long way in bettering the lives of people. We are in discussions with several government  agencies for helping them implement such initiatives in a sustainable manner.

Ministry of Railways (India) takes the IT Route

Presenting his fi fth budget, the Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav defi ned IT Vision for the Indian Railways which will be implemented over the next fi ve years with clear focus on three core areas: freight service management, passenger service management and general management. Indian Railways is planning for the integration of present and future IT applications for improvement of operational effi ciency, transparency in working and to provide better services to the customers.

He further said that the nationwide communication infrastructure will provide the foundation for a common delivery network and platform. Modern technologies like Geographical Information System (GIS), Geographical Positioning System (GPS) and Radio Frequency Identi- fi cation (RFID) will be deployed. Indian Railways is exploring the possibility of issuing reserved and unreserved rail tickets through 300 million mobile phones in the country which is expected to increase to 500 million by 2010.

IT companies were not far behind in their praise for Lalu Yadav. Companies like Satyam Computers are already in talks with the Railways for outsourcing deals while others see a major role for their fi rms in several initiatives that the Railway Minister outlined in his budget.

Linking of call centers for freight and passenger services management, the national train    enquiry system, on-line display in coaches and stations, tele-booking, the proposed surge in e-ticket booking were other initiatives that found favour with the industry.

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