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The change or lack of change has not been because governments have spared efforts. Millions of rupees have been doled out or otherwise spent on developmental projects over the years. As once famously quoted by Rajiv Gandhi – “only 15 paise of every rupee spent ever reached the poor for whom it was meant”.

Apart from the sheer size and variable composition of the country that proved daunting, lack of transparency and administrative inefficiencies have taken their toll. It is in this context that one should assess the importance of the 73rd amendment of the Indian constitution.

The 73rd amendment of the constitution is a watershed development that could genuinely impact the role of Panchayati Raj institutions in self-governance. Panchayati Raj Institutions have been vested with powers and authority to enable them to function as institutions of self-governance that can take decisions regarding:

• Preparation of plans for economic development and social justice
• Decision making powers relating to the wide ranging subjects such as Agriculture, Land Improvement, Minor Irrigation, Fisheries, Social Forestry, Rural Industries, Drinking water, Health and Sanitation etc

The amendment not only clears the way for a third tier of the executive, it also provides for the financial resources that could breathe life into the idea of local level implementation of citizens’ needs. The amendment also provides for the representation of minority and marginalised groups.

The change in the constitution notwithstanding, other steps need to be taken for Panchayati Raj institutions to take root. A step in the right direction was the e-Panchayat initiative by the central and state governments. A recently concluded meeting of the state Panchayati Raj ministers and the Panchayati Raj secretaries in Jaipur, Rajasthan reached at conclusions that could turn this idea into a reality. The core of any electronic delivery of services is the infrastructure that needs to be put in place. Unlike more developed parts of the world, technology has not yet reached the grassroots level in countries like India. There needs to be a special effort in setting up the technology infrastructure that is required for the panchayats. The infrastructure determines the longevity and sustainability of such projects. Assuringly, a number of such citizen-centric projects have tasted success. The notable examples would be:

• ITC e-Choupal – in a few years ITC has managed to spread the initiative to more than 5000 villages with demonstrated grassroots level impact like lowered costs and better yield prices for the farmers and elimination of middlemen in a number of transactions

• n-Logue is another successful model that helps connect remote villages to the internet using various technologies. More than just connecting people to vital information in a cheap and efficient manner, n-Logue projects also generate revenues for village entrepreneurs

• ‘Bhoomi’ – where land records can be registered online in Karnataka. The system has become simpler, faster and more efficient. The time needed for finding land records and registration has come down and the scope for activities that are clandestine have also come down because of the transparency of the system

The World Bank in its summation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) states – ‘Infrastructure is an integral part of the development of any country. It is about providing basic services — water, sanitation, energy, roads and access to modern information communications technology’. Today, in a climate that enjoys both political will and financial support of the government, technology infrastructure forms the core of the success of any e-Panchayat effort.

The importance of computers and communication infrastructure lies in the fact that it enables delivery of services even to the remotest village. Other than the simple delivery of services from self-governing bodies, it changes the way these bodies function.
Connectivity issues
The e-Panchayat initiative is useful in that it can connect to users at different levels – cheaply and effectively. Tremendous amounts of data and information can be used in more effective and transparent ways. Connectivity aligns e-Panchayat efforts with other government efforts in e-Governance, education and health services.

Currently there are a number of options available for connecting villages across India. The simple dial-up is the most obvious option due to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) reach into more than three lakh villages. In villages that lack dial up facility, wireless (WLL) is the next most attractive option as more than 75 per cent of the villages lie within a 20 kilometer radius of the taluk headquarters, and therefore within the coverage area of the system.

Then there is the option of connectivity through satellite and other emerging technologies like the WiMax (able to cover up to a 40 kilometer radius). While e-Panchayat efforts are being considered, a phased implementation of connectivity can be looked into depending on the geography and maturity of the technology.

Once these issues are addressed the aspects that need consideration are the infrastructure support strategy and the rollout strategy. Training in relevant Panchayati Raj management software is the next level issue that needs to be tackled.

Lastly, integration of e-Governance efforts with e-Panchayat efforts, and the offering of additional citizen services through the Internet should receive individual attention.

The system becomes accessible to all because knowledge comes into the public domain and there are no gatekeepers of information. The fact is that physical information blockers – like a file being lost – become redundant. Also, the new communication technology drastically reduces the time needed for a number of physical steps. Therefore, the setting up of information technology is important in empowering people and changing traditional modes of functioning in running self-governance bodies such as those envisioned through the Panchayati Raj. The infrastructure core should then be supported in the two major hurdles that the country faces:

1. Lack of power
2. Lack of connectivity

(However robust the technology selected, lack of power makes it redundant and lack of connectivity renders the technology powerless for transformation).

Infrastructure core
Infrastructure needs to be tailored to the diverse conditions and functionality that would be required of it in a country like India. The equipment, at the minimum, needs to be sturdy to face the extremes in temperature, terrain, dust, and other diverse environmental factors. Over and above, the makers of the equipment need be versatile in adding functionality or adapting the technology for local operating conditions. For example, the power sources in different villages may be different and the infrastructure needs to be flexible to adapt to such situations. Other than first time innovation, technology partners need to be prepared to face the additional challenges that would come up as the system is used over time.

Currently, most villages in the country face extreme variability in the availability of electricity/power. A large number of villages have no power for long periods, or the supply is extremely erratic with fluctuations. In some areas the power supply is available during the nights when it cannot be put to use. This is a hurdle guaranteed to end the e-Panchayat effort even before it starts. Without power, computers cannot be used. The technology that is selected in such a scenario must overcome this issue. A number of alternatives are currently available right from solar panels and windmills to biomass.

Human-powered gensets are the other genuine option that can generate power and employment in the rural areas. Moreover, there are new power solutions that have evolved to provide output that suits the requirement of a PC and can be charged for use over longer periods of time. These power solutions enable batteries to be charged any time of the day and the system is connected to the battery power source. In short, the implementation of the project would require a detailed understanding of the power situation in individual villages. This information could then be used to categorise areas for timing implementation.

Infrastructure roll out
The Geographical span of India is vast. There are over 600 districts and 2,50,000 panchayats that need to be connected. Infrastructure rollout requires understanding of the terrain, organisational wherewithal to handle it, and most importantly experience and expertise to tackle it smoothly. There are numerous parameters that need to be constantly monitored and the problems that arise are multi-dimensional. Therefore, implementation must be handled by organisations with a proven track-record in managing large projects and handling the rural scenario.

Infrastructure service support
The e-Panchayat effort does not stop at putting computers in all villages and connecting them up with power and Internet. The e-Panchayat effort would essentially be a dynamic evolving project. There will be additions, deletions and evolution of functionality.

Software needs to be upgraded, hardware needs to be maintained. Lack of familiarity with geographies, local languages, even cultures and other local factors can result in equipment downtimes that need to be minimised. The responsibility of the technology partner, therefore, does not end with simply delivering the computer at a village. The organisations involved need to be able to keep up with the services demanded from any nook and cranny, and at least initially for a defined time-period. Here again, the experience of the Indian rural terrain, rural problems, and reach of the organisation become vital.

PRI management software
While infrastructure forms the centrepiece of the computerisation project, success to a large extent depends on the usage of standard software for various operations. This ensures interoperability, familiarity to the users, and monitoring and metrics that are comparable. Though the platform remains common, the language should be that of the individual state it is being implemented in. It is like using a local language operating system – Indians using Hindi Windows and Chinese use Chinese Windows operating software.

More than just the commonality of the software, it needs to be ensured that a measurement criteria is built into the system. The system should self-generate reports that indicate usage, implementation and other defined targets. The areas that can immediately benefit from such software are:

• Book keeping
• Record maintenance and authentication
• Tracking of village development funds
• Reporting formats
• Registrations, certifications, etc.

Capacity building
Training of all stakeholders in the system is another critical factor for the success of the initiative. The stakeholders include the panchayat, the villagers, and the youth or entrepreneurs who would be involved in running the system. The diversity of languages and differences in the skill-set implies that innovative solutions are required for addressing this need. Printed manuals will not be the solution. The involvement of local NGOs would be critical. They can reach into the villages and use their language for training the people. However, the government could also support the effort through local language television programmes, and through inclusion of such programmes in the school curriculum.

Aligning e-Panchayats with e-Governance efforts
Numerous efforts are being initiated in integrating technology to various aspects of citizen-centric service delivery in the country. In such a scenario it becomes essential for e-Governance and allied projects to be integrated with e-Panchayat efforts. Allied programmes would include:

• Education
• Information services such as e-mail
• Health and primary care
• Certificate and Forms issuances
• Welfare schemes
• Communication, market prices, auctions, etc.

The other parallel activity could be technology-enabled entrepreneurial efforts that provide employment and better standards of living such as:

• Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), e-mail, printing, photos
• Telemedicine
• Videoconferencing
• Entertainment and information

The implementation of the e-Panchayat project should be deemed on par with creating national infrastructure like power, ports and roads, and implementation must be done in a mission mode. There is a need for a central project office – preferably within the ministry of the Panchayati Raj – with clearly assigned responsibilities and set target dates for rollout. The Panchayati Raj ministry should play the role of the central authority. Like any other central authority it must be involved in creating standards and frameworks that could be used in a plug-and-play manner across states.

However, it is clear that the central authority alone is not sufficient. The importance of the state governments cannot be ignored. While the central authority may be fully responsible for setting frameworks to ensure uniformity and interoperability, the state authorities are ultimately responsible for implementation, rollout and maintenance.

It must be understood that all of the aforementioned efforts are aimed at using Information and Communication Technologies to embed good governance principles. This not only involves empowering masses with information but also making governance an interactive process, facilitating transparency and accountability in the public sphere, thereby providing operational convenience in accessing government services, among many others. A website is only the first step. There are many more. The will to operationalise the promise is more important.

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