'No change in governance structure'

Puja Mehra        Print Edition: Nov 14, 2010

In 2006, the National Knowledge Commission, or NKC, had said in its report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that e-governance is more about an opportunity for administrative reforms than about creating an information technology infrastructure. But, in the four years since then, the government has pursued e-governance exactly as it was told not to, the Commission's Chairman Sam Pitroda tells BT's Puja Mehra in an exclusive interview. Edited excerpts

How is the government implementing the recommendations of the Knowledge Commission?
Lots of things are happening and lots are not happening, though they are spending lots of money. I find the approach is largely to computerise the systems the Raj left behind. I had recommended they should re-engineer the government processes first. This is the first time a nation of a billion will be connected. It is worthwhile to think through a new way of doing things. In whatever they are doing, standardisation is nowhere in sight. Most states are focusing their efforts on buying hardware and software but without much understanding of scalability and need for mandatory standards. They are busy creating their own verticals. It is also leading to a lot of duplication and waste of resources.

So, what mid-course corrections are needed?
At multiple levels. First, rethink the organisation structure and bring in CIOs (chief information officers). Second, start setting standards. NIC is the nodal agency. You have to let them function. This work cannot be outsourced. It has to be done by the government.

Why is standardisation so important?
Standardisation is important for democratisation of information. A police report from Kerala, for instance, is not readable in Gujarat - and I am not talking about the language. Why should documents such as birth or death certificates be different across states?

Compared to 25 years ago, people want to use technology. There will be millions of phones. Broadband infrastructure will connect 2.5 lakh panchayats. Fibre optics will network 2,500 municipalities. All this will be the platform on which we can do anything. Five years ago, we didn't know the number of courts in this country and today every panchayat is mapped. But ...we are not putting in place a super architecture to take advantage of commonalities. The geographical information system, or GIS, will need a nationwide platform.

How can standardisation be achieved?
Each government department ought to have a Chief Information Officer. The government needs a Chief Information Technology Officer - someone as important as the Cabinet Secretary, not just an appointee reporting to a joint secretary.

Has the government not accepted your recommendations on having a parallel cadre of these officers?
They didn't say they haven't accepted the recommendation but I don't see them doing it either. If a small company with 20 people can have a CIO, how can the government do without one? They have to understand that CIOs can't be IAS officers but have to be domain experts. Something like the law officers they have in each department.

So the direction of the progress so far isn't along your recommendations. Is its pace satisfactory?
The National Knowledge Network (of all schools, universities and research and development, or R&D, centres) is expected to be up in 18 months but GIS will take twoand-a-half to three years. Then, 2.5 lakh panchayats will be connected in 24 months. Without broadband and power supply, nothing can be achieved. To speed up the progress, I have suggested they have special purpose vehicles, or SPVs.

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