ICT is revolutionising the way local governments or the Panchayats work by bridging the gap between the government as a service provider and citizen at the bottom of the pyramid.
For the optimal utilisation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in capacity building of local government bodies—Panchayats—and for improving service delivery to citizens, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) formulated and launched a unique scheme for revolutionising the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The massive e- Governance project, the e-PRI, was identifi ed as one of the Mission Mode Projects (MMP) under the National e-Governance Plan in 2006.
The e-PRI scheme has a critical role in improving the overall functioning of the Panchayats. The aim is to inculcate a culture of ICT usage in the PRIs, revolutionise them by leveraging ICT for increasing effi ciency at the grassroots and portray them as symbols of modernity and effi ciency. The project aims at the empowerment and development of communities at the Panchayat level by creating a virtual community and an interactive portal. It also offers transparent communication between the top-level and local functionaries, as well as between citizens and Panchayats.
To strengthen the community and the process, every year the loopholes in the work done by the Panchayats are identifi ed and fresh targets to deliver effi cient services are set for them. e- Panchayat focuses on the identification of information needs and service needs of the stakeholders, process re-engineering and generation of detailed project report (DPR).
To take the initiative further, the Government of India has estimated around Rs. 4500 crore for providing connectivity to all 2.52 lakh Panchayats across the country. Presently, e-Panchayat has 30 major modules on different aspects of rural administration. The main focus is to provide services like birth certifi cate,caste/tribe certifi cate, death certificate, application for old age and widow pension, ration card, registration of land and property, registration with state employment exchange, registering grievances with Women Commission,
checking land records online.
Giving a major push to the project, the Central Government has mandated all its departments and state governments to extensively use e-Panchayat to keep a track of the progress made by the Panchayats, as also to connect with other the Panchayats. And the objective is clear: enable Panchayats to make speedy and transparent transfer of funds and automate their own functioning.
However, like in all major e-Governance projects in the country, the e-Panchayat too cannot be rolled out at a nation-wide level without the active participation of the private sector. Taking the Public-Private Partnership model to the bottom of the pyramid, the Government has decided to involve the private sector for the critical infrastructure and training components.
According to Sudhir Krishna, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, the project includes appointment of Service Centre Agencies (SCA) by the states through competitive bidding process on the ‘build, own, operate, transfer’ (BOOT) model for the same.
These agencies would equip all Gram Panchayats (GPs) with computers, make the Panchayat members e-Literate and provide connectivity via high-speed Internet. Based on the requirements of each project and its location, the cost of the project will be calculated and payments would be made to SCAs on a monthly or quarterly basis.
CONNECTIVITY AND TECHNOLOGY
With the objective of equipping all Panchayats across the country with computing hardware and connectivity over the next three years, the Central Government has planned to spend Rs. 18,000 crore to lay a five lakh km optical fi bre cable (OFC) network to reach every Gram Panchayat (GP). To accomplish this massive task, an infrastructure company will be carved out of BSNL, the State owned telecommunications company in India, and will be funded by the Universal Services Obligations Fund (USOF).
The Ministry of Panchayati Raj has also partnered with the telecommunications department for providing connectivity to all the Panchayats through WiMax. BSNL has taken up to install 7000 base tower stations to cover the entire country. The hilly regions would be provided VSAT connectivity. By December 2010, the entire nation would be connected by broadband.
Bharti Airtel Limited, India’s leading telecommunication services provider, has partnered with the Government of Gujarat in the e-GRAM Connectivity Infrastructure Project. In the fi rst-of-its-kind project in the country, Bharti Airtel has set up telecom infrastructure to connect 13,716 village Panchayats, including those in the remotest areas, and Common Services Centres (CSCs) in the State. This has ensured high quality and cost-effective video, voice and data services at the Panchayat level, which can be used in the areas of agriculture, e-Governance, health, education etc. Connectivity at the Panchayat level further facilitates pointto- point and point–to-multipoint video conferencing services, VOIP services and both Intranet and Internet services from the village Panchayats and CSCs.
This connectivity project in Gujarat was completed in March 2008. Gujarat is the only State in the country having the infrastructure to provide e- Services to the 13,693 village Panchayats. All the 25 District Panchayats and 224 Taluka Panchayats, nearly 100%, of Gujarat have been connected through
the Gujarat State Wide Area Network (GSWAN).
In Bihar, an ambitious project was initiated, which envisaged the horizontal expansion of State Wide Area Network (SWAN) up to the Panchayat level. The project aimed at connecting all 8,463 Panchayats through SWAN ensuring direct connectivity with the state headquarters.
In Orissa, The Department has its own connectivity through VSAT and has also partnered with BSNL for 2 Mbps Virtual Private Network (VPN). The department also has LAN connectivity at 314 Panchayat Samitis and each GP.
In the offi ces in Thiruvananthapuram, horizontal connectivity can be seen where 3,500 offi cers are connected tothe Kerala State Wide Area Network KSWAN). The same way all the major state offices in the area are connected to KSWAN. “In addition, 1,660 remote offi ces, not located in the civil stations are being connected to KSWAN using wireless remote connectivity,” says Dr Ajay Kumar, Principal Secretary, IT and Director, Institute of Management in Government, Thiruvananthapuram. As of now, almost 600 locations have been connected. The phase of connectivity is complete in 609 local bodies, while in the rest of the areas, it is in the advanced stages.
e-PANCHAYATS AND CSC
The Common Service Centres or CSCs cater to the needs of the citizens of the villages. The aim is to provide efficient delivery of the services to the citizens at their doorstep along with bridging the digital divide. “The e-Panchayat programme is open to converge with the CSCs in their programme. The CSCs can be housed in the Panchayat building which has already been done in many states. It is an option given to the states to converge with the CSCs, but it is not
forced on them”, says Sudhir Krishna. In West Bengal, the state government has developed around 3,870 CSCs out of which 1,190 are located in the GP offi ces and another 179 are located in Panchayat samiti offi ces. These CSCs help the citizens with various services at their door step. In Orissa, there are about 8000 CSCs implying one for each Panchayat, which are helping the rural and the remote areas of the villages create and develop an IT infrastructure of its own.
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
There are approx. 2.5 lakh Panchayat members in the country spread across the 28 states and 7 Union Territories. The physical connectivity of the Panchayats is an issue, as majority of them are located in remote areas. Availability of electricity in the villages is another major challenge to be addressed. The connection and then the regular supply of the electricity has to be ensured for the efficient delivery of the services to the citizens.
Another major limitation which is faced by the State governments is the economic condition of the Panchayats which varies from state to state. “The prosperous states have a better infrastructure. In the poorer states, the infrastructure is not very good and it is a major task for the Panchayats to organise themselves and deliver the services. The poor economic conditions in remote areas not only refl ects on the infrastructure but also on the manpower as in such areas the people are not so competent at operations management”, adds Krishna.
As Panchayats are an important part of the grassroots governance structure
lack of transparency and accountability is one area which has to be focused upon. To get the e-Panchayat up and running, the government is geared up to maintain a strict agreement with the service centre agencies. Constant training of the Panchayat members is also important for their smooth and effi cient working. To overcome the lacunae in the system, the local governments have to be provided with sufficient resources and manpower.
Panchayats play an important role in the lives of the people living in the rural and remote areas, an important yet neglected part of our society. Panchayats being the grassroots democratic institutions need to be further empowered through effective devolution of functions, finances and functionaries (3Fs).
Besides, empowerment and accountability of Panchayats needs to be given higher allocation, in terms of fi nancial allocation and due importance in the state policies, for the institutions to render transparent, effective and effi cient services to the villagers living in the remote and rural areas.
THE STATES’ ROADMAP
The e-Panchayat programme differ from state to state in terms of parameters such as applications used, available infrastructure, and connectivity. Some states need an upgradation in terms of hardware and software. Other states need to scale up their effi ciency with regard to computer usage.
The roadmap for e-Panchayat has been laid by Electronic Knowledge-based Panchayat, EKPanch, a pilot project implemented by Andhra Pradesh State Unit of the National Informatics Center (NIC). The Department of Panchayati Raj and Rural Employment, AP, rolled out EKPanch initially in 475 Major Panchayats to be expanded to all 1300 major Panchayats in the subsequent phases. The aim was to equip the rural citizens with comprehensive and updated information in Panchayats and ensure transparency in governance. This has further offered a unique opportunity for establishing inter-/intra- stakeholder partnerships at the grassroots level.
All the Panchayat functions are web-enabled and computerised. Birth and death registration, house tax assessment and collection, trade licenses, old age pensions, works monitoring, fi nancial accounting, general administration, etc. are being executed electronically. The GP data could be easily obtained through Internet using software developed by NIC.
After the triumphant success of e-Panchayat in the phase I of imlementation, AP Government decided to implement the same in all the major Panchayats in the state. For the sustainability of the project, an Operator was also recruited for each e- Panchayat.
The EKPanch project in AP has demonstrated the feasibility and the successful implementation of ICT in e-Governance at the grassroots level in the villages. Due to the favourable outcome and the accomplishment of the EKpanch project in AP, several awards such as Oracle e-Governance Excellence Award and Skoch Challenger Award were given in. Therefore, the model of e-Panchayat in AP can be used as a reference at the national level in other states and also in other countries with due adaptation and localisation, to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the same.
To make the masses aware of the various benefi ts and schemes provided by the government, the Panchayati Raj Department of Orissa has made the details of all the schemes and the programmes online to make things more transparent for the people. The information is updated on a daily basis. With the information provided online, the progress of each and every scheme can be monitored at each and every step. To make the website more user-friendly, all the information is presented in English and Oriya. Local computer engineers have been appointed to maintain the database. They maintain the service as well as provide training to their junior engineers and other offi cers of Panchayat Samitis.
In order to enhance transparency, the department provides all the information at Panchayat Samiti level. By 2010, the department will provide information at the GP level. An Integrated Grievance Redressal System (IGRS) is there for people to lodge complaints through its toll-free number. In addition to this, software has also been developed by the department to direct the complaints to the concerned Panchayat Samiti.
The Gujarat Panchayat Act, 1993 came into force after the 73rd Amendment. The Panchayat Raj in Gujarat has a 3-tier arrangement; Gram Panchayat, Taluka Panchayat and District Panchayat. With the help of its portal, the Gujarat Panchayat Raj Department is reaching out to the rural masses of the state.
‘e-Gram Vishwa Gram’, the e-Village project in the state of Gujarat was launched in 2009. This project implemented by Department of Panchayat and Rural Development had a vision to open up new horizons for the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions. The aim of the project was to computerise all 13,693 Panchayats in Gujarat and to connect them at each level via broadband to make their functioning organised, time-bound, simple, error-free and transparent through the implementation of IT.
Under this connectivity programme, various Internet-based services like VSAT, video conference, Internet, video broadcasting will be made available in the far-fl ung rural areas of the state. Facilitating IT enabled citizen–centric services such as the issue of birth and death certifi cate, land ownership certifi cate at the village level, and payments for telephone and electricity bills will be the prime objectives of the project. The entire project would be implemented by private companies, including Reliance Infocomm while satellite connectivity would be provided by Airtel.
In the state of Kerala the e-Governance initiative of 1,215 local self-government which includes 999 Gram Panchayats, 154 Block Panchayats and 14 District Panchayats is driven through a project, Information Kerala Mission (IKM). As part of this project, 7 major systems including Plan formulation, monitoring and implementation (Sulekha), citizen services like civil registration and certifi cate issue (Sevana), revenue, fi nance and accounts (Saankhya), public works and purchase, administration and establishment and local body institutions covering Panchayat Committees, Standing Committees, Grama Sabhas, etc, were extensively studied, and applications developed. In most of the cases, the local language interface has been used along with the web technology.
The year 2010-11 will focus on the completion of the projects which are in the phase of completion/advanced stages, package for Accounts (Sankhya), Package for Establishment (Stapana), etc., that are in advanced stages, along with focusing on strengthening and follow-up of the already completed projects, like Sevana and Sulekha, to ensure its sustainability. The focus is to consolidate existing applications, ensure high level of service delivery in all Panchayats, provide services to the common man, migrate the applications and database to unicode compatible Malayalam font. Kerala has tried to leverage the advantages of both Government-Citizen Conjoint and Service Delivery Models.
The e-Panchayat initiatives in West Bengal focus on 4 major areas: improving fi nancial management, physical monitoring of key programs using mobile technology, use of geo-referenced maps for people-centric decentralised planning, and CSCs for decentralised services. For improving fi nancial management, the rules for introducing the double entry system of accounting in the Panchayats hass been revamped by the state governments. The software Integrated Fund Management System (IFMS) has been developed for book-keeping of the Zila Parishads and Panchayat Samitis. The Gram Panchayat Management System (GPMS) has been developed for book-keeping and generation of birth and death certifi cates, trade licenses, management of tax, etc. Almost all 333 Panchayat Samitis (PS) have been using IFMS as on January 2010. The use of IFMS has brought a change in the maintenance of records, it has become more systematic and data retrieval has become easy and can be done as and when required.
To monitor the socio-economic infrastructure, the locations of the habitation and the natural features of every GP in West Bengal, geo-referenced maps are being used to monitor the same. It is also being used to show core network of roads for implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY) at the block levels.
GETTING IT RIGHT
The finances allocated to each state Panchayats should be done in such a way that it improves their economic conditions, which in turn will automatically improve the quality of the infrastructure. With the right amount of funds, the connectivity of the villagers living even in the remotest parts can be ensured making them the beneficiaries of the requisite services at their door step.
Panchayats should be ICT enabled in such a way that amongst others, it is able to provide citisen services—from issuing certifi cates and fi ling of applications to availing benefi ts of various government schemes, registration with state employment exchange, and logging public grievances with statutory bodies like the Women Commission or National Human Rights Commission.
A strict agreement with the various service centre agencies for the constant training of the Panchayat members have to be ensured by the government. This will help in making the Panchayats computer literate and ensure their smooth functioning. The Central Government also needs to equip the local governments with suffi cient resources and manpower to gear up the functioning of the e-Panchayats.