Back to back-end basics!

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Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Prof, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai

Govt should pull its focus off the ‘access’ piece and get the primary act of computerisation in all departments

Over the last decade or so, there has been a surge in talks about e-Governance in India. This became the new panacea which would enable people of India to deal with the government more easily, and make government more reachable and transparent.

There have been policy papers, conferences, and programmes, some small and some large. But where have we reached today? Do large sections of our people find it easier to deal with government using electronic means? Do they travel less to government offices like various registrar offices, public utility companies and courts? Do they wait less in queues and are they treated better?

If you take a poll, most of the people will still choose to disagree. Yes, there have been some definite gains. The biggest one came from railway ticket computerisation, which happened many years ago. It certainly helped middle and lower-middle class people to book the train tickets without bribes; more importantly, it showed what can be done with IT. It has now been extended to most travel bookings. Although the gains are more for air and railway travel bookings and only in patches for the bus transport, there is little reason that this cannot happen in other sectors.

Probably the next biggest gain has come from computerisation in the banking sector (core-banking), which has enabled dealing with almost any bank easily through widespread ATMs, Internet banking and now increasingly through mobile-banking. There have been similar gains in stock trading and depositories, though it impacts a smaller section of the society. Similarly, dealing with mutual funds has become easier. One can also pay for the credit cards using electronic fund-transfer. Tax filing is another area where there have been significant gains. For companies, dealing with SEBI and ministry of company affairs has become easier and for most publicly listed companies, information is more easily available.

Beyond this, the services become patchy. Sure, one can pay one’s electricity bill and property tax in some regions in some states, there is no specific reason why it cannot be done all over India. There is this wonderful land-record certificate that one can get in most Taluks (if not all) in Karnataka, but there is no reason why it can’t happen elsewhere. There are some other services, which are there in some part of the country or the other, but not many have been implemented everywhere. One can occasionally see the status of passport application, but not more. Yes, one can print out a number of application forms for different government services from different Websites, but rarely can one submit the forms online. Going to a registrar’s office to get any land transfer deed notarised continues to be a nightmare.

Despite much hype, e-Governance services at CSCs are still tottering; there are not sufficient services to make these kiosks viable

The same is the case with respect to transparency in government processes. At places, one can see some public accounts of expenditure online; but they are rare. While Right to Information (RTI) has enabled citizens to get information from most government files, rarely can one do that online. In fact, most government departments dread these RTI queries, as even to provide answers, they have to scan bundles of papers and registers because very few files and file-movements have been converted to electronic workflows.

More than a decade after we started paying attention to e-Governance, the question is why has the progress been so slow?

Focus on access

When the focus on e-Governance started in the late nineties, the Internet connectivity was abysmally poor. In rural India, there was practically no such connectivity. Therefore a significant amount of e-Governance focus was on connectivity and especially on setting up rural Internet kiosks, a shared access center, where the rural citizens could come and access services through the Internet.

The 700 million plus people, then living in rural India, had difficulties in accessing services. With these access centres, also referred to as Community Service Centres (CSCs), they would be able to deal with the government through electronic means. They would also be able to get other services commercially in addition to using these centres to access education-based services. The centres could also be used to provide telemedicine services and financial services (like banking) which were not accessible to rural Indians.

The setting up of these kiosks started as an initiative of some district collectors in remote regions of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Soon, companies like n-Logue and Drishtee emerged, which attempted to set these Internet kiosks on commercial basis. There were many great stories of how it impacted people and how a host of services were introduced that would transform the lives of rural people, and soon the movement spread. The Department of Information Technology stepped in and created a huge programme to involve large commercial companies to set up a CSC in each village.

More than a decade after we started paying attention to e-Governance, the question is why has the progress been so slow?

Unfortunately, even with such great hype, the CSCs have not been commercially successful. The e-Governance services promised at these rural kiosks are still in their infancy, generating very little revenue except in some pockets. The larger companies, now setting up these Internet kiosks have not even attempted to learn enough from the prior efforts that were carried out in setting up such kiosks in between 1999 and 2007. They have themselves failed so far to build sufficient services which could make the CSCs viable. The whole effort is therefore tottering.

Most of the rural areas have mobile connectivity today, and with 3G, we will soon see higher data rate connectivity all over

Mobiles have made great strides

In the meantime, mobile telephony has made great strides in India. Over 700 million mobile connections exist today and the base grows at over 15 million per month. Most of the rural areas have mobile connectivity. In addition to voice connectivity, low bit rate data connectivity (GPRS, 3G-1X) on mobiles already exists. With 3G licensing now behind us, we will soon see higher data rate connectivity all over. Further, mobile phones are increasingly becoming more powerful and could enable one to access most services that would have been earlier available only on computers. In fact, mobile banking is already being provided by most of the banks today. There is no reason why most e-Governance services cannot be provided using mobile services.

But many people in rural India are still illiterate or semi-literate and are therefore not too comfortable in accessing any kind of data services on mobiles. With such barriers, innovations in enabling voice-based services can open avenues for rural India. They can interact through phones with back-end computers using regional language in local dialects, and access information and carry out transactions. In fact, voice services also benefit from using voice-based authentication as an additional factor for authenticating a user before providing the services. Such services are now being provided in banking and agricultural sector and are being continuously expanded.

Time to move on

It is time to move on from the focus on access. Let commercial players take care of it. Services could be provided on mobiles and some advanced services can be provided by the shared CSCs wherever they exist.

The e-Governance focus has to shift back to back-end computerisation of government offices, so that services could be accessed by people by electronic means. This is a difficult process but as several agencies like banks, department of company affairs, income-tax and other taxation departments and stock-exchanges have shown, this is indeed doable with the right focus. We need to take up each service (or department) and focus on why they cannot be converted to electronic means in a short time frame and all over the nation.

The conferences and workshops have to be focused on one service at a time, and get into depth of existing bottlenecks, and figure out ways to overcome them.  Specific timeframes must emerge from such workshops, and teams that will carry out the tasks should be identified. The benefit will just not be in terms of accessing services; it will also be a strong step in terms of bringing about transparency.

With the right approach, one should start seeing the impact in the next couple of years. The telecom service provider will indeed need to rise to the occasion and provide access all over India. The citizens will see the difference. 

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