Building a state wide information infrastructure by setting up 6,000 CSCs covering all villages is a commendable plan, but the digital inclusion strategy in the CSC scheme can be effective only when the center owners, service center agency and local government representatives work together for common public goods
By Shib Shankar Dasgupta
The common service center (CSC) scheme under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) envisages setting up of 100,000 CSCs to offer online services to all the 600,000 villages in India. This article investigates the implementation strategy of the CSCs scheme in West Bengal to highlight three different levels of analysis- macro, meso and micro. The arguments in the three-level analysis helps in understanding the overarching theme of the NeGP in India: “Make all government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realize the basic needs of the common man” (Department of Information Technology, Annual Report, 2009-10).
The argument at the macro-level is that business efficiency and social equity trade off in the CSC scheme, though essential, has to nurture certain egalitarian approaches to bring the benefits of the new initiative to the ordinary citizens in West Bengal.
The reengineering initiatives conceptualised and designed within the discourses of the NeGP in West Bengal form the meso-level of analysis. It is argued here that the backend reengineering necessary for connected governance is not about investments in ICT hardware and software only. It needs a drastic change of mindset of bureaucratic decision makers to look for genuine potentials for integrating local resources to make the CSCs in West Bengal more sustainable and meaningful for the ordinary citizens.
The efforts in operationalising the CSCs and interactions of the citizen-users at the centers constitute the micro-level analysis of this study. At the micro-level, success of the CSCs in West Bengal depends on the combined efforts of the kiosk owners, local government representatives, and the local citizens to work together and identify local needs to foster some common public good.
This meso-level analysis offers the advantages of connecting the project directly with the technocrats and bureaucrats who control the process of engineering and finance for the CSCs in West Bengal. The various state mission mode projects (MMP) under the NeGP in West Bengal are primarily interested in the procurement of new technologies for digitising the backend operations of various government functions. The idea of reengineering to adopt automation and transform bureaucratic hierarchical structures, functions and service delivery mechanism in a holistic manner is hardly evident in the activities of the state ministries and departments in West Bengal. But simple digitising of existing processes without changing the hierarchical decision making processes does not improve accountability, efficiency and transparency in government functions.
Public services delivered through CSCs are not static offerings for one-time consumption only. Services through the CSCs have certain intrinsic values that generate more opportunities for the citizens in a cascading fashion. For example, delivering examination results through the CSCs is for one-time consumption but delivering courses over the Internet is a continuous process that demands a reiterative loop involving citizens’ feedback. Organising such alternative opportunities based on the needs and concerns of local citizens is totally missing in the reengineering part of the NeGP in West Bengal.
Further, improving the state of e-literacy among ordinary citizens is a crucial issue in the common service centers scheme. In West Bengal, where e-Literacy is abysmal and poverty is widespread, organizing subsidized e-Literacy programs to avail e-Governance services for the ordinary citizens is a massive challenge. West Bengal government already has its own established IT training centers in the district level.
It is not clear whether the local Panchayats will support the privately owned CSCs or their own government IT training centers. Similarly, the local Panchayat offices in West Bengal also have acquired huge number of hardware and software to offer public services across the state.
Building a state-wide information infrastructure of 6,000 CSCs distributed in all the villages in West Bengal is a commendable plan to serve the ordinary citizens in the state. But the digital inclusion strategy in the CSC scheme can be effective only when the center owners, service center agency and the local government representatives work together for some common public good. It is extremely difficult to enforce any community control over the activities of the CSC owners as they are private entrepreneurs in West Bengal. As a result, there is a constant conflict of interest between the business commitments of the private centers and the broader social and developmental objectives promised in the CSCs in the state.
Revenue generation model of the centers is another important concern. It is extremely difficult for the centers to remain financially viable, given the dearth of online services. Some of the centers are offering private goods and services to remain economically viable. Consequently, question arises on the basic objectives of embarking on creating a state-wide information infrastructure, when the government doesn’t have public services to offer to the citizens through these centres.
Moreover, all the center owners in West Bengal report to the service center agency, Shrei Sahaj Private Limited, a division of Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited. By bringing in a private company as a service center agency, the state government has blocked all electronic service delivery competitions in West Bengal.
Finally, almost all the center owners in West Bengal have plans to start IT training courses to support their businesses. But all these IT training courses are for-profit projects and not e-literacy programs to develop a critical mass of ordinary citizens and create a demand for electronic services in West Bengal.
The authorities in the state have failed to integrate the ordinary citizens with the common service center scheme. On paper, the Left Front government has accepted the NeGP but in reality they have surreptitiously made the CSCs defunct by blocking the backend operations with the frontend Internet centers. In the process, the three primary attributes of the NeGP, namely, efficiency, transparency and accountability in public services can never be accomplished in West Bengal.
Shib Shankar Dasgupta is a PhD Candidate at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, USA.