Online e-Governance at this time precisely only for privileged people with digital access

Various initiatives taken up in the last 15 years or so by the State/Central government departments, agencies and other entities, have endeavored to reach the benefits of the government-administered welfare schemes and also to deliver the basic citizen services to the under-privileged citizens located at the remotest part of our country. The vision of National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) has also focused to reach the government services emerging out of identified Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) to the citizen’s doorstep at an affordable price.

However after six years of NeGP implementation, many pertinent questions come to our mind: Are the e-Governance Initiatives, including NeGP MMPs, adequately geared up to meet the aspirations of the underprivileged citizens for whom these were originally planned? Obviously the implementation has not been in fast track and not in the top priority radar of the authority, but is it going in the right direction? Are the implementation phases for the projects well-coupled and in the correct relay of sequences? Have we put a robust monitoring and evaluation framework for these green field activities of governments so as to enable probable on-course corrections? After all, UNOadministered researches reveal that only 25% of the e-governance initiatives have met with total success while 50% with part success and balance 25% failed totally or abandoned in the middle of implementation. Incidentally, to get answers to all such questions some agencies in the country have taken pains to carry out occasional survey to develop some sort of score cards for the government which also do not reflect, in some cases, the true picture of the existing situation.

A dip stick analysis of the current status would indicate a mixed scenario of success and failure and a long list of pending activities, to be done on priority by the government, both on short term and long term basis. As it appears on the ground reality, whatever success has been achieved so far in various e-governance programmes and projects have effectively benefitted limited number of privileged residents of major cities and towns having necessary technical and financial resources required to adopt ICT in to their daily chores of activities. But what stops these benefits to proliferate in the remote habitats of the country? Nonavailability of telecom connectivity with appropriate bandwidth capacity is a major one while reliable and un-interrupted power is another profound reason. Slow improvement in these two basic infrastructure elements across the country has surely put the usability of the core and supporting e-government infrastructure like, State Data Centre (SDC), State Service Delivery Gateway (SSDG), State Wide Area Network (SWAN), Common Services Centre (CSC) at a sub-optimal level.

There is a requirement of proper strategy to commit to IT-isation of governance which can compensate for undesirable sluggish implementation in many states. For example, e-District Scheme would be successful in any State only when SSDG, SDC and SWAN are in place. However, if all these three are functional but numerous digital applications and content pertaining to the five G2C service sectors identified under e-District Scheme, are not ready then nothing would happen. And to appreciate all these phasing, sequences etc essentially well, the project nodal officers (read IT secretary, commissioner, district collector etc) should remain in the position continuously for at least three years which is usually least probable! And even if all these happen incidentally, hundreds of involved officials do not receive ICT and application-specific training on time to take up the ICT-donned roles in the electronic service delivery chain!

After the declaration in the Joint Session of the Parliament dated June 4th, 2009, on expanding broadband coverage to connect every panchayat to a broadband network in three years, three Block-level pilots for the National Optical Fibre Cable Network (NOFN) project could be completed in recent past. Roll out of this Scheme have not yet picked up the momentum and the project is likely to miss its early 2014 deadline, as reportedly apprehended by Mr Pitroda, Adviser to PM. Many of the e-District applications ( pan- India roll out for most of them yet to be firmed up ) would need higher level of bandwidth which can only be provided by NOFN, when gets rolled out across the country.

Since the submission of the ‘game changer’ Bill on Electronic Delivery of Services (EDS) in the Parliament in December 2011, it is now with the Parliament Standing Committee and we have little knowledge when this Bill will get in to an Act and pave the way for mandatory electronic delivery for suitable services. The EDS mandate ( when it comes ), the MMPs, especially the e-District project, the fast proliferating Mobile Service Delivery eco-system, all will call for development of numerous digital applications and content in next 2-3 years. But so far no concrete step is in view to create an appropriate incentivized digital content and application policy which may excite non-state actors to invest on development of applications and content on priority.

Till the time EDS Act, e-District projects, Mobile Service Delivery Gateway, all other core and support e-governance infrastructure including CSC at every Panchayat village, NOFN project, all are fully implemented with the support of a comprehensive digital content policy, it appears that online e-governance will be confined to the privileged financially included citizens having access to limited available broadband connectivity, through desktops, smart phones, tablets, cyber café etc and not to the huge mass of rural population of 83.3 crores. We have to go a long way to translate the NeGP vision in to reality for these people for which it appears that the urgency and involved workload are not fully appreciated by the people who matter.

Ashis Sanyal
Consulting Editor, egov