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E-Governance: Innovation rules

E-Governance: Innovation rules

Village entrepreneurs thrive as governments falter on the digital promise.

Curtains partition the small room to give some privacy to the prayer corner from villagers who drop in for business. Two personal computers and a printer-cum-photocopier are the only assets in the otherwise bare room in Patna Buzurg, and the only ones within a five-kilometre radius. The buffalo bellowing outside is among the scores owned by villagers.

Santosh Prajapati, who runs the "computer shop" in Patna Buzurg, PIN 470228, a sleepy village of soya growers located a six-hour drive from Madhya Pradesh's capital Bhopal, is disbursing scholarship money to Class X student Devki. Prajapati is a business correspondent of State Bank of India, or SBI, and Devki has come to draw the money that the government credits to her account with the bank.

MCA21  BEFORE: It used to take 60 days to register a balance sheet or annual return, and at least 15 days to incorporate a company  The problem: Some 3.5 lakh representatives of six lakh registered companies queued up at the Registrar of Companies (RoCs) at 52 locations. Going through the 50 crore sheets of paper filed annually for fraud detection was impossible. Inspection rate was a low 0.1 per cent  After: Documents can be filed, routine fees paid online anytime from anywhere on MCA21. RoC workflow remodelled. Elimination of human interface has reduced scope for corruption. For a small fee, anyone can view these records online  1.6 million records accessed so far. Early warning systems for fraud detection are a distinct possibility now  Land records online  Before: All land records were kept in paper form for hundreds of years. It was difficult to track ownership changes  The problem: The system was a legacy of the Raj  After: Titling or government guarantee for ownership of land becomes possible. Right now, the deed for a piece of land in India merely certifies its possession
MCA21 BEFORE: It used to take 60 days to register a balance sheet or annual return, and at least 15 days to incorporate a company The problem: Some 3.5 lakh representatives of six lakh registered companies queued up at the Registrar of Companies (RoCs) at 52 locations. Going through the 50 crore sheets of paper filed annually for fraud detection was impossible. Inspection rate was a low 0.1 per cent After: Documents can be filed, routine fees paid online anytime from anywhere on MCA21. RoC workflow remodelled. Elimination of human interface has reduced scope for corruption. For a small fee, anyone can view these records online 1.6 million records accessed so far. Early warning systems for fraud detection are a distinct possibility now Land records online Before: All land records were kept in paper form for hundreds of years. It was difficult to track ownership changes The problem: The system was a legacy of the Raj After: Titling or government guarantee for ownership of land becomes possible. Right now, the deed for a piece of land in India merely certifies its possession
A black-and-white printout on the wall says in Hindi: "Price of photocopies using the inverter: Rs 3". Posters singing the virtues of mobile phones, bank accounts, insurance policies and college campuses jostle for space on the bright green walls with portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Shiva.

The only graduate in a family of farmers, Prajapati is a multitasking machine. He sells digital pictures, prints wedding cards, makes photocopies, plays postman using his own Gmail account to send and receive e-mails for villagers, sells Internet time to schoolchildren looking for games and Bollywood songs, books railway tickets, recharges prepaid mobile phones, and even pays insurance premiums. He makes about Rs 100-150 a day from the printer-cum-photocopier (his only rival is a fivekilometre bus ride away), and Rs 15,000 a month from the Internet facility.

"Most youngsters in the village want to learn the basics of using a computer, which they believe can be their window to the world and ticket to employability," says Prajapati, looking ahead. So, next on the cards: a computer training centre just like the one where he picked up his tech skills in Bhopal. B. Chand Rai, 24, an economics teacher in the local school, says: "Everyone in Patna Buzurg wants to be with it - this is the computer yug." Rai earns Rs 4,500 a month and spends a couple of hours every other day at Prajapati's shop searching for better-paying jobs.

Prajapati's shop is flourishing because of Patna Buzurg's fascination with the Internet, but it is supposed to be a Common Service Centre. CSCs are kiosks planned by the UPA government to take governance to rural India. Villagers in many states have to walk miles to get simple documents such as birth certificates and cards identifying their BPL, or below the poverty line, status. To deliver governance at their doorstep, the government plans to roll out a quarter of a million CSCs over the next two years under the National e-Governance Plan, or NeGP.

The government expects that, by 2012, it will be able to deliver all documents - from digital land records and birth certificates to ration and BPL cards - from these kiosks, saving villagers a day wasted in travelling to the district headquarters.

 MCA21

BEFORE: It used to take 60 days to register a balance sheet or annual return, and at least 15 days to incorporate a company

The problem: Some 3.5 lakh representatives of six lakh registered companies queued up at the Registrar of Companies (RoCs) at 52 locations. Going through the 50 crore sheets of paper filed annually for fraud detection was impossible. Inspection rate was a low 0.1 per cent

After: Documents can be filed, routine fees paid online anytime from anywhere on MCA21. RoC workflow remodelled. Elimination of human interface has reduced scope for corruption. For a small fee, anyone can view these records online - 1.6 million records accessed so far. Early warning systems for fraud detection are a distinct possibility now

Land records online

Before: All land records were kept in paper form for hundreds of years. It was difficult to track ownership changes

The problem: The system was a legacy of the Raj

After: Titling or government guarantee for ownership of land becomes possible. Right now, the deed for a piece of land in India merely certifies its possession
About 83,569 CSCs are already operational - mostly as kiosks of the sort run by Prajapati. The CSCs have failed to deliver their mandate because very few state governments have computerised their records and back end or rolled out the services.

"The government services that the CSCs promise to offer are unlikely to become accessible before another three to four years," says Santosh Choubey of AISECT, an agency contracted by the Madhya Pradesh government to roll out the CSCs and select entrepreneurs to own and run them. "The sustainability of the CSCs depends largely on the potential of village entrepreneurs to tap the market for non-government services."

Mission mode
When completed, the CSC network, one of the 27 missionmode projects of the NeGP of the UPA government announced in 2006, will create an infrastructure reaching into the remotest village to make records available over the Internet. "Out of the 27 mission mode projects, six have been completed to a significant extent, 14 are already delivering services and all the 27 are expected to deliver services before 2014," R. Chandrashekhar, the Information Technology Secretary, had told a conference in Hyderabad recently.

In theory, the NeGP is all about reinventing governance. In practice, it is merely computerising babudom. Sam Pitroda, Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, or NKC, and the architect of the project, says: "The approach is largely to computerise the systems the Raj left behind."

Take e-filing of taxes. Even though most of the services for the four crore assessees have now been made online - from filing of income tax returns to intimations with regard to assessments - the system and work flow remain unchanged. The same has happened in processes such as getting a passport or a driving licence.

Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda told BT recently: "We have been not able to achieve what we would have liked to in e-governance." Haryana - home to Gurgaon, which has a reputation second only to Bangalore for the density of businesses based on IT - is yet to create a specialised cadre to manage e-governance requirements.

"We still haven't taken up e-governance and broadband penetration on a war footing," says Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, who has been reviewing the progress of the mission mode projects with Pitroda and Nandan Nilekani.

There are infrastructure problems - not all villages are linked to the Internet and many have power cuts - but these are being overcome. The real problem is lack o f coordination and standardisation. Agencies such as AISECT feel that New Delhi does not go beyond the monitoring of targets to tweak the project to suit local realities. For instance, the government must ensure that government-to-consumer, or G2C, services are available or give the CSC entrepreneurs other sources of income.

Enterprise unlimited
The only government to citizen, or G2C, services available at Patna Buzurg through Prajapati's shop are those present on the state government's website, MPOnline, such as forms for admission to various colleges and courses and the results of exams and payment of electricity, telephone and water bills.

Soon, MPOnline is to be connected with its e-district initiative that will bring to Prajapati's CSC 44 more G2C services. One of these includes making available authenticated copies of land records such as khasras. Villagers will be able to send online requests, and track and even get documents.

The real benefit to Patna Buzurg - and Prajapati's main income - comes from the SBI tie-up. Prajapati is already servicing 200 no-frills accounts for SBI, giving printouts for each transaction. The bank has put Prajapati in charge of wage payouts to nearly 1,000 beneficiaries under the government's rural employment guarantee programme, and wants him to handle all the 20,000 accounts in the area. In September, Prajapati did transactions worth Rs 3 lakh for SBI.

Some of the projects expected to pick up speed will ensure that subsidised goods such as food grains reach their intended beneficiaries. Chhattisgarh is running a pilot project that monitors food grain right from the 1,532 procurement centres to its sale to 3.7 million ration card holders covered by 10,416 points of distribution. This year, nearly 780,000 farmers who sold foodgrain to the government got their computer-generated cheques without any delay. At the other end, as soon as trucks carrying foodgrain set out for PDS shops, citizens are alerted through SMSes.

For now, the success of the e-governance programme depends on rural India's entrepreneurship and enthusiasm for technology rather than policy. Patna Buzurg is not an outlier. AISECT had set up a thousand computer training centres in Tier-II and Tier III towns across India between 1985 and 2000. Over the next eight years, it opened 8,000 centres to meet burgeoning demand. For those flocking to these centres, computer skills add to employability. The enormous requirement of data entry at government offices as part of the various e-governance projects is generating jobs, as are private companies that are venturing into rural markets.

Cadastral maps are being digitised, land surveys have to be conducted, records and documents of companies across 52 offices of the Registrar of Companies, or ROCs, have been placed online. There is a possibility that a by-product of the e-governance projects could be skilling of India's much hyped-demographic dividend. With a little policy push, they could deliver for rural India what Y2K had done, in a smaller measure, in the year 2000 for Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Additional reporting by E. Kumar Sharma