Secretary, Department of Information Technology, Government of Maharashtra
“In our country, the lack of adherence to a clear set of e-Governance standards is a big issue,” says Rajesh Aggarwal
Under e-Governance, lot of common infrastructure has been created that can be used by various departments. How far has the State of Maharashtra succeeded in creating such infrastructure?
We are doing lot of work in e-Governance space. In the area of common infra, we are often told that lot of infrastructure has been set up, but I would like to differ on this account. When it comes to State Data Centre, we are the only state in the country to have a Cloud setup, which essentially leads to huge amount of savings. After spending about 2 (TWO) crore rupees, we have actually saved about 50 crore rupees. Other States continue to buy servers even after setting up a State Data Centre, we are not doing that. You will find that in many states different departments are signing Memorandum of Understanding with many different companies for setting up SMS gateway, payment gateway, etc. We have set up a common gateway for SMS, payment and even for GIS tools, Business Intelligence and things like that. We offer this service at dirt cheap rates from our State Data Centre. What we are basically doing is setting up a common infra that can be used by various departments, thus saving costs that would have been incurred if each of these departments were to set up their own infra.
But this common infra could have much more beneficial impact if we had e-Governance standards of some kind. You have yourself been talking about the importance of e-Governance standards in different forums. What should be done in this area?
In our country, the lack of adherence to a clear set of e-Governance standards is a big issue. Here a lot of work needs to be done. Unfortunately even the Government of India projects are not following proper e-Governance standards. You see, even in the Mission Mode Projects we have names of the persons written different styles. Personally, I am amazed to observe that despite there being so many highly paid consultants in the e-Governance area, we are still unable to follow the basic e-Governance standards. Due to lack of e-Governance standards, different databases cannot talk to one another. This is a big wastage of resources. In Maharashtra we are focusing on implementation of proper e-Governance standards in a big way. We have trained our staff in a very thorough manner; we are also training the private companies about the standards that need to be followed.
It is also the case that the government websites are not following WCAG guidelines. Why is this so?
We are definitely lacking when it comes to compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). I am sorry to say that there exist only one or two websites of government departments in the country that are truly accessible to the visually impaired people. Now these WCAG standards were declared four years ago by Government of India, but we have not done much work in actually implementing them. However, in Maharashtra we are taking this up seriously, and are going to the extent of even re-writing some of the applications to make it WCAG compliant and you will see lot of action on this front in the next few months. A common infra does not mean that you set up data centres, common services and things like that. It is much more than that. A common infra also means adherence to a clear set of e-Governance standards. The government departments should talk to each other, their databases should talk to each other, so that there is actual rise in productivity levels.
UIDAI is a success story in Maharashtra. What kind of e-Governance possibilities do you see emerging from UIDAI?
When it comes to UIDAI, we are one of the leaders in the coun try. In the matter of enrolment, we are number two after Andhra Pradesh, but when it comes to making actual usage of UIDAI, we are at the forefront. I can very proudly state that we have developed many innovative ideas on the ways by which UIDAI can be used for public benefit. Currently we integrating lot of other databases with the UIDAI and across different government schemes we are detecting bogus beneficiaries – somewhere 20 percent, somewhere 30 percent and somewhere as high as 40 percent. This could, in fact, be the situation across the country. It is possible to detect and remove the bogus beneficiaries by making use of UIDAI. This will result in great saving for the government. Now we are using UIDAI to de-duplicate the data, but if the proper e-Governance standards were being followed and all the databases had been talking to one another, we could have completely resolved the problem of bogus beneficiaries. This is an opportunity missed, because we did not follow proper standards.
What about launching actual applications based on UIDAI in Maharashtra? There is lot of talk about having UIDAI based applications, are we going to see some of them soon?
UIDAI is such a useful project that we come up with new uses of UIDAI on a regular basis. Recently I told my team working on the e-District project that instead of making simple forms, they should be making smart forms. Now the column for entering UIDAI is available across all the software, so the moment someone enters his or her UIDAI number, the other data gets picked up directly. The user does not have to waste time and effort in entering all his data. The data gets automatically picked up from the State Resident Data Hub and is incorporated into the online form. In fact, I would like to point out that Maharashtra is the only state to have a State Resident Data Hub. Currently the State Resident Data Hub has the details of about 4.2 crore citizens, along with their photograph. This is labour saving also, you just have to put in your UIDAI number and your entire form gets filled. We have now gone beyond State Resident Data Hub, and created a new application named USRDH, which contains clean and standardized data. USRDH is now the backbone of seeding activity in Maharashtra. We have launched the SADM application, which is the first UID linked application in the country benefiting the differently abled people.
In your opinion what are the ways by which sharing of databases can lead us to smarter systems of governance?
Let’s say someone comes to a government office asking for a senior citizen certificate. Let’s say he is claiming that he is 65 years old, but when you key in his UIDAI number, you realise that he is only 52 years old. At that stage the process should freeze. If a person is trying to get a senior citizen certificate, but the UIDAI database shows that he is only 52, then the process should not be allowed to proceed. For instance, now we have linked the MSEB database with the UIDAI number and that is leading to lot of interesting information. If someone is paying electricity bill in the tune of Rs. 5000 to Rs. 10,000, then obviously he is not BPL. If someone is applying for an income certificate of Rs. 15,000 in e-District, but his MSEB bills, while talking to UIDAI, show that he is paying high electricity bills, then we know that we need to investigate this further. When databases begin talking to each other, then all kinds of useful information becomes easily available. Every database becomes smarter, when they are talking to one another. In case of databases, the sum is greater than the parts.
The CSCs have been conceived to provide e-Governance services to the vast number of digitally illiterate citizens of the country. But questions are being raised about their financial viability. What steps are being taken to ensure that they remain financially viable?
The CSCs are doing reasonably well in Maharashtra. Now they are also being encouraged to undertake B2C kind of transactions. Much before CSCs we had in Maharashtra a scheme called SETU. It was launched from Thane district in 1998. We are one of the pioneers in thisarea. We are now having very well managed SETU kendras in district level and taluka level. It is because the SETU kendras were doing very well in Maharashtra, when the CSCs came up that the CSCs could not rise very quickly. People continued to take their business to the SETU centres that were already very popular. Some the services that are being provided by CSCs take two or three days to be delivered to the user and that is also one of the reasons why their business could not grow at a faster pace. But now we have standardised many of the services and we are encouraging them to provide the services like utility bills payments, delivery of land titles, etc., so now they are seeing a reasonable growth in their business. We are trying our best to help the CSCs deliver proper e-Governance services to the common citizens of the State. However, we are also focussing on promoting online services. A citizen sitting at his home should be able to access government services through his computer or even the mobile phone.
Capacity building is also an area of concern when it comes to e-Governance projects. How do you ensure that your e-Governance projects are not struck due to lack of trained manpower?
See when it comes to implementing cutting edge e-Governance projects, we need highly trained manpower for preparation of RFPs, evaluating them and even for the implementation. The consultants, whether they are from NISG or from private companies, need to be
highly competent in their area. So we have started an e-Governance certification course for them. We are having an objective test, a subjective test, a face to face interview to test not only their skills, but also to teach them the skills that are most important for success of the projects. This kind of strategy has led to a dramatic improvement in the skill levels of my consulting teams. We encourage everybody reading this article to visit our website http://egovtraining.maharashtra.gov.in and take the Test.
Many e-Governance projects are unable to give good results due to lack of proper connectivity in the country. Do you think that the NOFN project will mitigate the problem of connectivity to a large extent?
NOFN can obviously be helpful, but the project is going to be challenging to execute on the ground. You see, the laying of fibre optic cables through the length and breadth of the country is not going to be easy. The cost is proving to be very high in the urban areas. In some cities the charge for laying the cables per kilometre is very high. In the rural areas there are other issues. I do hope that the project becomes successful but it is not going to be easy. The ground realty today is that even at taluka level you hardly have reliable connectivity. How they are going to scale up to the villages, it is a big challenge. In some districts the speed you get is 2 kpbs, you can’t even operate a simple email account on this kind of speed.
“The government departments should talk to each other, their databases should talk to each other”
Is m-Governance the answer then? Should we concentrate of providing e-Governance services through the mobile devices?
That is already being done. The advances in technology have obliterated the difference between e-Governance and m-Governance. Both mean the same thing. About six months ago, the number of people in country accessing Internet through their mobiles has exceeded the number of people who are accessing Internet through their desktops. So now there is really no difference between e-Governance and m-Governance, I can access Internet and the online services from the government as easily from my mobile device, as I can from my computer. In Maharashtra, we have started using various Android based applications for surveys, audits and inspection, which has yielded good results for us.
Finally what is your vision for e-Governance in times to come? What new ideas in e-Governance are you pursuing?
We are using UIDAI for de-duplication of data in order to root out the menace of bogus beneficiaries and include those who are left out. We are currently focussing on bank transfers very thoroughly. We aim to make the money transfers to and from the government totally electronic, totally paperless. All money going out of the government kitty to the beneficiaries, vendors and employees, or being paid to the government by different individuals or entities, should be done in electronic fashion. This is the most dramatic idea that we are pursuing currently. Once we are able to make the process of money transfers totally electronic and transparent, the e-Governance systems in the country will get strengthened to a large extent.