Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Towards a more Inclusive #DigitalIndia

While the mid 18th century to the early 19th century period saw the rise of the Industrial revolution which transformed the way things were manufactured and produced, the mid 20th century to the present 21st century is undoubtedly the age of the Information & Communication Technology revolution where ICT has transformed the way humans think, act and live in the world today.

However, despite the immense potential of this revolution its impact on the near 70% of Indians living in the villages has been little. Rural India has been spatially excluded from all the changes one witnesses in the bustling cities of the country which have come to become the nerve-centers of all information and services.

Electronic governance or E-governance is a pioneering idea in ensuring the inclusion of this section of society and is being taken up actively by the government to ensure a digitally enabled citizenry who are able to avail of their rights and entitlements in a speedy, economical and transparent manner. This could help a greatly in ensuring that corruption and bureaucratic lethargy are contained at various levels by making the service provider accountable to the service user directly. It would ensure that people are able to avail of the rights and privileges that are owed to them.
But how would this happen? Let us see a few narratives from Odisha, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which highlight instances where E-governance initiatives could be effective, and areas where they have been implemented effectively. All the reports are based on field works conducted first hand by the blogger.

An account from Odisha

The above picture is of a school which was left half constructed in 2003. The children of the Paharia community living in Baijalpur village of Sinapalli block in Odisha’s Nuapada district continue to lack the basic faciliti of having a school to complete their education in. The teacher reportedly comes once every month from the town of s\Sinapalli to register his presence and ensure he gets his salary.

The hamlet of Pahariapada within the village of Baijalpur is located atop a hillock and has been socially, economically and geographically disconnected from the main village. Despite houses being constructed under government schemes, the hamlet lacks electricity and proper sanitation facilities.

With the Bamboo Weavers of Pahariapada

 “This situation can be changed if communication services and infrastructure facilities were decentralized to the village level” says Mr. Bhimsen in a declined tone. Bhimsen is a member of Loka Drusti, a local NGO, and is someone who has great faith in the power of ICT. When asked “how?” this transformation could take place, he replies with a smile, “It would be easier to make the officials accountable and create a transparent system of entitlement delivery. This would ensure that contractors don’t leave the work half done because poor people are unable to offer them their ‘extra fees’ (a euphemism used for bribes taken from the villagers).”

A Narrative from Maharashtra
In the newly formed district of Palghar in Maharashtra, the people of Utchaavli village had no knowledge of the Employment Guarantee Scheme till we met them in August last year. The bad condition of the connecting road from the village to Saphale station along with excessive flooding during the monsoon made it impossible for them to send their children to schools during the monsoon.

The poor road condition
The Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission, a part of the larger government flagship program the National Rural Livelihood Mission has been trying to mobilize the villagers in Palghar district to actively voice their demands for their rights. The Mission and its employees have been trying to teach the people on how to network and organize themselves using a simple mobile device. Awareness programs have been undertaken and villagers now know about how to receive their wage allowance after having completed work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

"The benefits of E-governance have fast been realized by the Maharashtra government which has taken up efforts to pace up the Sangram Kendras, an initiative that aims to transfer all major government documentation and data processes to an online system which would operate at the village level." says Mr. Udhav who works with the mission office. It will document 11 different subjects ranging from birth/death certificates, land records/revenues, targeted entitlements, etc.

The Sangram Kendras shall also have a software for accounting village revenues. There will be a National Panchayat Portal and an Assessment Portal to check the expenditure budgets of various Gram Panchayats, all of which will be classified under the Area Profile, Plan Plus and Action software. Mr. Amit Pimple who is the Taluka Coordinator provided the above information.

The advantages of having an effective E-governance system in place are many, but it is to be remembered that the challenges are not few.

The First problem to be addressed is, the absence of an adequate digital infrastructure to ensure an effective outreach of ICT facilities is a major hindrance to making services available electronically.

The Block Development Officer of Sinapalli block in Nuapada district, Odisha complained how the direct cash transfer policy for NREGA payments had been dysfunctional due to the lack of internet facilities, because of which transfer of wages could not be made online by his staff at the block office leading to a three month delay in payment of wages.

But it is to be noted that the present government has actively taken upon itself the task of laying optic fiber cables to cover all the villages of India in the next three years and to make broadband services available in the entire country.

A Second problem, and the more serious problem is that of the lack of Digital literacy among the people to make use of available provisions as was seen in Gadchiroli district. The Gond tribals in the hamlet of Bharritola in Korchi block did not have any knowledge on financial services and the presence of Regional Rural Banks and the facilities of Scheduled Tribe Reservations in educational institutions which they were entitled to.

In this case it is interesting to take note of Intel India's Digital Inclusion initiative which aims to take forward the government's vision and has launched the 'Digital Skills for India programme' which aims to train 5 million people in 5 different local languages on issues of digital literacy, sanitation/hygiene, and financial inclusion.

For more information log on to http://www.intel.in/

As has been observed in the urban setting, E-governance has helped to enhance the provision of services like applying for a passport, buying railway tickets, filing applications under the Right To Information Act, registering complaints to the Consumer court, etc.

In the Marakkanam/Mailam block of Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, it was observed that the villagers were able to avail of the benefits of direct cash transfers due to the presence of a good infrastructure system that ensured people got their NREGA wages on time.

Thus E-Governance, as has been seen in some instances, can help to ensure the speedy delivery of service entitlements in a transparent manner where accountability is ensured at every step of the delivery process. This will help tackle corruption and ensure efficiency thus facilitating the realization of an empowered #DigitalIndia with a well informed citizenry.

This post has been written as a part of a contest hosted by Indiblogger and Intel. All the photographs used in this post belong to the blogger and are copyrighted.

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