Universal and affordable access is fundamental to bridging the digital divide : Suresh Kumar K, IAS, Secretary Department of Information Technology, Government of Kerala, India

Suresh Kumar K, IAS, Secretary Department of Information Technology, Government of Kerala, is a 1989 batch Kerala cadre IAS officer. In an interview with Prachi Sirur of eGov magazine, he provides a comprehensive view of the various goals achieved by the state of Kerala on the e-Governance front and also expresses a vision of where the state could be in a few years from now in terms of delivery of government services to citizens.

What were some of Kerala’s key achievements in implementing e-Governance projects in 2010?

The State of Kerala flourished well in its ICT initiatives via e-Governance projects in 2010. The state’s IT/ITeS sector is growing three times the national average and its GDP contribution to the national economy is `20,000 crore. The third IT Park at Koratty, near Kochi Airport, was made operational in October 2009 and 10 new IT parks based on hub-and-spoke model are coming up soon. Investments of around `8,000 crore for eGov initiatives in the state are in the pipeline.

What are the plans to bridge the digital divide in the state?

Several initiatives have been made in Kerala towards digital access to information and several programs have been initiated to bridge the digital divide. Highlights include the far reaching policy reforms of the government in overall development of the citizen, giving impetus to reforms in the telecommunication and IT sectors. There are several ongoing projects and programs initiated by the government and non-government organisations that address basic challenges faced by the state in overcoming the barriers of digital divide.

What are the challenges and barriers to bridging the digital divide?

A fundamental requirement for reducing the digital divide in the state is to give priority to the development of communication infrastructure and provide universal and affordable access to information to individuals in all geographical areas of the state. There are a number of barriers in bridging the digital divide. Although underserved communities in the state are gaining access to computers and the Internet, the benefits are limited because of infrastructural barriers, literacy and skill barriers, economic barriers, and language and content barriers.

The state government has declared IT as one of the thrust areas for development and has recognised it as an essential service. It has proposed many mega projects which include distance education to boost adult education in rural areas and setting up of information kiosks. There is also strengthening of Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala as a national institute.

What are the initiatives, opportunities, roles and responsibilities of stakeholders and what are the prospects?

The government has made encouraging steps to improve the lives of common people through several IT-oriented projects. Some of the efforts made towards bridging the gap include creation of infrastructure development in bridging the digital divide; government programs for e-Governance, and creation and support for the growth of Citizen Service Centres.

All ICT applications run on common ICT infrastructure. The ICT infrastructure does not create value by itself but is essential for other ICT applications to generate value. The e-governance in Kerala rests on the strong pillars of its ICT infrastructure. The Kerala State Wide Area Network (KSWAN) reaches all district headquarters and block headquarters and nearly 100 remote offices in each district. It has connectivity of 14 Mbps at each of its districts NOCs, which is one of the highest among the various state wide area networks. The state has two state-of-the art tier 3 State Data Centers (SDCs) covering 5,000 sq. ft. The first one has been fully-operational with over 100 servers and 150 applications running on them and the second one is likely to be operation by mid-2011.

A network of over 2,000 common service centres (Akshaya kiosks) dot the state at a rate of approximately two in every panchayat. In addition, the ICT applications in the state are also powered by other ICT infrastructure including the District Wide Area Network which covers over 200 points in the Mallapuram district; Secretariat Wide Area Network which caters to over 3,000 nodes within the government secretariat, and state wide video-conferencing facilities that cater to all districts, High Court, Secretariat, and other important offices and Kerala House in Delhi. Another salient ICT infrastructure has been created as part of the IT@school project through which computers and broadband have been provided to all high schools of the state and training is provided to nearly 1.6 million students every year.

“We are in the process of developing a proposal that would help connect all village offices of the state, numbering around 1,600 to KSWAN”

What is the progress on the ICT infrastructure front?

Notwithstanding fairly developed ICT infrastructure, the state recognises the need that the ICT infrastructure should be expanded and strengthened to meet the growing needs of government departments and organisations. We are in the process of developing a supplementary proposal which would help connect all village offices of the state, numbering around 1,600 to KSWAN. Civil stations house most of the government offices at the district level. To connect these district offices with KSWAN, a proposal to create a wide area network for all civil stations is also under active consideration of the government.

A central infrastructure for e-Procurement is in an advanced stage of formulation. NISG and PWC are assisting the state in setting up the centralised infrastructure. The RFP for this is expected to be floated later this year. The state is also in the process of setting up an open source-based public key infrastructure which would enable a number of e-Governance applications with digital signature. The application for PKI is being made shortly.

The state is also in the process of expanding its e-mail server capacity to provide e-mail facilities to government employees for official correspondence and to stipulate suitable e-mail management practices for storing, retrieving and archiving e-mails. The IT Policy recognises the need to focus on the synergies to bring about a user friendly e-Government system. Accordingly, on the lines of the National Service Delivery Gateway, steps have been taken to formulate a strategy for State Service Delivery Gateway. The necessary strategy for developing ICT infrastructure that would allow providing of services through various mobile devices is also being put in place. Yet another important initiative that is in the pipeline relates to setting up of a Kerala State Spatial Data Infrastructure (KSSDI), on the model of National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). KSSDI shall be a collaborative effort of all concerned government departments and organisations which are in the process of developing and using spatial data at the state level.

Despite significant teledensity, there still exists a divide between rural and urban areas that needs to be bridged. While the urban teledensity exceeds 15 to 18 percent, the rural penetration is about two percent. One of the prime concerns of the governments in developed and developing worlds has always been to ensure the accessibility and availability of information and public services without much hassle. In this regard, the state government have been actively involved with several IT-oriented projects in an effort to bridge the digital divide.

Could you highlight some of the programs that are aimed at bridging the digital divide?

The e-Governance applications in Kerala have a strong service orientation towards society. Programs like Fast, Reliable, Instant Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services (Friends) and Akshaya have been recognised nationally and internationally for their service focus to citizens.

The objective of this e-Literacy project Akshaya is to create an IT empowered society and transform the lives of the common man by familiarising at least one member of each of the 65 lakh families in the state with the basic use of computers, including familiarity with the key board, ability to use the mouse, browse the Internet and send e-mails and subsequently provide, to the common man, easy access to e-Governance services. The project involves setting up of around 3,500 multi-purpose broadband enabled community technology centres called Akshaya e-centres across Kerala. Run by private entrepreneurs, each e-kendra is being set up within 2-3 kilometres of every household and caters to the requirements of 1,500 to 2,000 families.

The Akshaya centres have since graduated to the next level. They now act as the decentralised information access hubs and service delivery points offering G2C, G2G, C2C and G2B services. The services include higher-level computer courses and multimedia aided training programs, Internet and e-mail facilities, e-payment of select utility bills. Also available is e-content in education, career building, health, agriculture and law in Malayalam language, a platform for transaction between buyers and sellers through e-krishi, forum for public grievance redressal, rural e-banking and financial services. A salient service that has been started through Akshaya centres is the e-pay service that allows bill payment facilities of several departments like KSEB, KWA, BSNL, and colleges and universities. Payment facilities for other departments like the regional transport authority, local self government, civil supplies and revenue are also available through Akshaya centres. Akshaya would be the nodal agency for the rural sector for the UIDAI project and also for all the future government services to be rendered to citizens.

The Akshaya project is a social and economic catalyst to make Kerala the foremost inclusive knowledge society in India and a model in development for the whole world. Bridging the digital divide would be the most noteworthy outcome of the project.

The Friends project has been launched with a view towards mitigating the hardship of citizens when paying taxes by eliminating middlemen, delays and long queues. Essentially, Friends is a centralised collection counter that accepts almost all types of tax and utility payments. This project has been expanded to serve 15 million people in 14 districts of Kerela. The basic philosophy of FRIENDS is to treat citizens as valued customers.

These two programs of the state government ensure any counter, any service or payment any where across the state.

What is the Ente Gramam project and how does it help bridge the digital divide?

Digital divide is manifested not only in access and tools of access but also in the inability to provide locally relevant information in their local language. Ente Gramam, translated as My Village, provides a community portal for localised content, which is developed by local people in local language. Typically, local content pertains to the history of the village, local resources, government and public services. The portal serves information needs relevant to the local community, for example, availability of agricultural, health or labour resources in the village, or details on educational institutions, industries, tourism and culture. In addition, locally relevant news and announcements are also displayed on the portal. The portal also has interactive features which enable providing feedback and blogging.
Ente Gramam is therefore an effort in preparing the community for being a more participative, empowered, democratic knowledge society of the future.

“The Akshaya project is a social and economic catalyst to make Kerala the foremost inclusive knowledge society in India and a model in development”

What are your expectations from the central government and what support do you look forward to?

e-Governance has attracted tremendous interest world over. Significant amount of money is being put into making e-Governance a reality. A number of projects are being taken up at various levels; it therefore becomes important to use reasonable means of assessment to see if the projects are moving towards their planned goals. Proper assessment of these projects gives us crucial learning on the kind of changes needed to make them successful.

It is required to provide policy, financial and infrastructural support to the schemes and projects. One has to decide on the mode and degree of integration of the projects with the existing physical, digital and institutional infrastructure of government agencies and departments. This is especially important in case of schools, gram panchayats, public health centres, community information centres, post offices as also in case of development programs in areas of education, health, agriculture and employment.

It is required to provide additional technical and financial assistance to the state for effective and efficient implementation of MMP and also state sponsored MMPs. A centralised national repository of standardised e-Governance applications and best practices may be developed on the lines of Apple’s app store. The states can download applications from this repository and adapt them to suit the locale-specific needs. This will help in reducing the cost of the implementation as well as the time frame required for pan-India deployment, while also easing out the interoperability issues.

It is also required to support the state government with additional fund allocation for capacity building in order to bridge the digital divide and more so in creating provisions for PR finding especially for ICT training for the masses as well as for the poor and the needy across the state.

What is the vision for the next three years or so?

Our vision for the coming years is to become a state government that is most connected with its citizens and also connected within, breaking the silos. Interdepartmental and interagency data sharing should become a reality, so that most of the citizenry is able to access all government information and services online at the time and palce of their preference. Also, the aim is to accerlate and streamiline service delivery to citizens, reduce paper work, improve management and responsiveness of central and state-run programs and apply commerical best pratices to improve the government’s operating effeciency by way of measures such as policy reforms and business process reengineering.