“India has an opportunity to do e-governance right”

How do you see the progress made by the country in governance and development after 63 years of independence?

India is indeed the world’s largest working democracy. With that come lots of  challenges in terms of [difference in] perceptions, centre-state relationships, large programs, bureaucracy, politics, governance and planning. We believe  that technology, especially information technology, will play a very important  role in the next decade in improving governance, creating open government,  bringing transparency and accountability and ultimately improving the  delivery of public services. Mahatma Gandhi had stressed upon rural  empowerment, decentralisation, promotion of local industries and jobs for  people. Many of these things could not happen. But I don’t think 63 years are  enough for a country having a billion plus population.

The country has its own inner strengths and weaknesses. In order for us to  really expedite the whole process, our founding fathers had really that  foresight. Gandhiji had the dream of village empowerment and  democratisation, decentralisation, local industries, while Nehru had a vision to  build human capacity. We built atomic energy, space research, agriculture research, IITs and IIMs.

We didn’t have the institutions and the infrastructure that a nation of our size  would require. It took couple of decades to build that capacity. Now that we  have the human capacity, fortunately we have the information technology to  change the whole process of governance. Going forward, it has to be how we use  IT in enabling e-Governance, to really improve productivity, efficiency, reduce costs and make sure that the benefit that is to be delivered to the poor,  indeed can reach the poor.To achieve these goals, we are just beginning to set up proper systems in place.

What is the role you see of processes re-engineering towards  enabling open government?

The Knowledge Commission report on e-Governance will tell you how we thought about e-Governance in terms of scalability. First, you need to really redesign processes. You can’t really computerise the processes that [British] Raj left behind. We need to really redesign processes.

No one has ever attempted to do in terms of magnitude we have. United States has also an e-Government which is in a mess just because they have a vendor driven system. In some places it is Microsoft driven, somewhere it is Oracle, in other places it is IBM or HP. Consequentially, they have 1,200 data centres.  Everybody is doing their own things. India has an opportunity to do it right. The country is just beginning the process because all that we have done so far is not good enough. So what we need to do is to rethink.

We need to look at some of the big pieces. One big piece is process re-engineering. We need to really re-engineer the process, which is a very difficult task. So what we could do is identify 20-30 processes, which affect every citizen and then tackle those processes first. For example,these could be the processes concerning birth and death certificates, land records, police reports, employment and pension. These are some of the standard examples where people really interact with the government.

The second task is to standardise. Everybody should have standard birth and  death certificates in the country. The states can have little bit of nuances that  are typical of those states, but the overall format has to be the same. There will  always be a question of autonomy. You may have to let some of the autonomy go to create efficiency and productivity.

We will set up high-level standards, which no body is doing today. So you need  a political will. We know what needs to be done, but without political support  these things cannot be done. We are going to meet the chief ministers and explain to them what these issues are, and then say that these are issues which  are in national interest, join hands and let’s do this. This is not directed against  any state. It’s not to take away the state’s autonomy; we have all the respect for  it.

However, today, it’s all about spending e-Government money. Nobody knows  the facts. You go and ask the consumer and he will tell you: I haven’t benefited  from e-Governance yet. You pick up 100 citizens randomly. They will say: We  haven’t benefited from it; except for the railway ticketing. So first we have to  re-engineer processes. We need to create standards, collaborate with the states, and improve centre-state relationships. Then comes the technical part.

Fortunately, we are now a nation of a billion connected people. We never had  the type of connectivity as we have today. And because of the connectivity, we  have a massive optical fibre cable (OFC) network, which we need to capitalise  on, to build the next generation of applications for e-Governance.

So the first thing is to really improve broadband connectivity. Today, the  connectivity is predominantly for voice. We need to have that connectivity for  broadband. And it’s not two or five megabits; I’m talking about 100 Mbps because with this broadband, one could see lot of videos and training material  for immunisation and for teaching, all of which will happen through the electronic medium.

It is an imperative to connect the country with broadband. We need about 100  million broadband connections. That is a big challenge. There are lot of  discussions around it. I wish it could happen faster.

There are some security concerns around UID… Also, UID alone can’t bring  about the desired results. What are other essentials that need to be put in place?

Some people are concerned about security [aspect with the UID data], but that  is the part of the process. We will make sure that it is not misused. We have to  guard the right of the citizen. We have to be extra vigilant. But we cannot afford  not to do it. Like UID, we need to tag every geographical space through GIS. So  we know that every building, school, hospital and government office is  physically identifiable. It can’t be like people took money for building bridges  and there is no bridge.

“you can’t really computerise the processes that British raj left Behind. We need to really redesign processes”

Therefore out of the five platforms, first is UID and  second is GIS. Third is the security platform. You need to make sure that these  things have security. There will be multi-layered security requirements. There  will be need for security for payments, government transactions, databases, server, transmission and access.

The fourth platform is about applications. We  need to create lots of applications—for food distribution, driving licenses,  passports, ration cards and the National Rural Employment Guarantee  program. For each of these verticals we need applications. And eventually  these applications have to be tied to UID so that they are not in silos. Similarly,  we need a payment platform. We need electronic payments, so that we may  bring the un-banked into the banking system and we can focus on micro loans,  and we can really give payment options on your cell phones. The key here is to  reduce the cost of transaction. You can’t have only 50 million people having  access to banking. Given the size of the population, you really need 800 million people in the banking system.

If we build these five platforms and create open  platforms, people will develop applications on their own. But we need to create  some standards. If we do this, then there will be hope for open government. But  all of this has to be done by the government. You know there is a push in the  government also to privatise everything. But this is not something you  privatise because it is your government information.

How do you see state of  common services centres, which have now been renamed as Bharat Nirman Common Services Centres. ?

Lot of people are pushing for CSCs, which is a private  initiative. They want to subsidise it with thousands of crore of  government money. I have said this is not the way to do it. In fact, every  panchayat has to be connected to fibre. Every PRI has to have their own  computers, people and the ability to collect data. It’s simply because it is  government work and you cannot outsource it. Once all of this is done, the  private sector can create a business model to offer copies of birth certificates,  licenses and land records. It is government’s responsibility. So, we really need  to create public information infrastructure for the government and we need to  really innovate in the government. That’s the  challenge we have in front of us.

Of what use will be the broadband connectivity, given the situation that the  departments at large are non-digitised?

It’s again a chicken-and-egg kind of  thing. You need to start somewhere. The best way is to provide the right  infrastructure first. Then get some young people to the systems. My vision is to  have two young people in every PRIs who know how to operate computer and  type. They will then start collecting data on infant mortality, female ration,  literacy, et al. Those will be the change agents. Change is not going to come from PRI head who is 65 year old. He will not be able to understand what it is.  The best way is to start is to build infrastructure first. Then get young people to  operate it. It will bring about the generational change.

Your concluding  remarks.

I think that next decade will be the most important decade. Few things  that matters most as we target 2020 for a generational change are: good governance, judicial and administrative reforms, education, health and  infrastructure. All else will fall in place.