A bigger question remains. Can e-governance improve the lives of common people? And the answer is not as easy as it may seem. While making government services available online certainly saves time, drudgery and costs incurred by people in accessing them, it may not necessarily improve lives of the majority. E-governance makes it easier to pay electricity and water bills online but can it provide assured electricity and water supplies to everyone? Providing assured water and electric supply, basic health, education and other infrastructure facilities assume precedence. They have to be provided as pre – requisite of e-governance and not as outcomes.
What comes first: E-Governance or Good Governance?
Over 200 policymakers, planners, technocrats, and representatives from UN organizations, academia and private sector came together on 24th October in Delhi. The occasion was the first e-Governance forum organized by India’s leading business newspaper, the Economic Times which brought together national and international participants to reflect upon the achievements, challenges and opportunities ahead for e-governance in India.
India is set to become the youngest country in the world by 2020 when the median individual will be just 29 years, and most likely a city-dweller. This young Indian is increasingly taking to technology in all aspects of her life and expects the government to keep pace with her. But the government has been a late adopter in integrating technology in its functions, modernizing services, and making them available online. While the information technology and business process outsourcing industry in India emerged and became the fastest growing sector in late nineties, the government came up with its national e-governance plans only in 2006. The plan comprising of 27 mission mode projects aims to make government services available online to all citizens. To achieve this vision, it is allocating increasing amount of financial resources to e-governance. In the 11th five-year plan the allocation on information technology was 11,000 crore rupees and rose to 30,000 crore rupees (around $5 billion) in the 12th five year plan.
While these allocations seem significant, the challenge of providing e-governance to over a billion citizens spread over 600,000 villages and 5,500 towns is no less so. More planning and resources need to be invested if the e-governance vision has to be realised nationally and connect those people to whom government services have not reached so far.
This is where the Economic Times e-governance forum put the spotlight on – the general public, and critiqued the areas where e-governance has made a significant difference, and where it had no impact. The tone of the discussions was remarkably candid. The speakers and discussants often found themselves taking up contrasting stances when sharing their unique insights and assessments on e-governance, and made the discussions richer.
Performing well but below its capabilities
A consensus emerged that India is punching far below its weight and capabilities when it comes to e-governance and this needs to change. India may be globally known for its talent and competence in handling information technology projects but ranks a lowly 125 in the 2012 UN global e-government ranking. It is surpassed by countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Mongolia. Even among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, India is at the bottom rung when it comes to e-government. A distinct irony presents where India can have a talented global information technology workforce and yet be a poor performer when it comes to using information technology for its national development.
This does not mean that there are no laudable efforts made on e-governance. On the contrary India has successfully rolled out several national e-governance initiatives, including the establishment of State Wide Area Networks (SWANs), State Data Centers (SDCs), Common Services Centers (CSCs) and the Unique Identification Authentication (UID) or the Aadhaar card project. Significantly these projects are home-grown, make use of indigenous technologies, research and development, and talent and are consequently better suited to the meet the needs of its citizens. And the projects have not faced the cost and time overruns which generally marks other national infrastructure building projects.
India performs well when it comes to mega e-government projects and is able to implement at a scale which surpasses many developed countries. It is one of the pioneers in adopting electronic voting and the voting for national and state elections has been totally electronic since 2004. Over 400,000,000 votes were cast through it in the last elections. The national optical fibre network provides broadband connectivity up to the block level in all the states, and will extend to the village level to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram panchayats (village level governance institutions) in the country. The common service centres are now established in all parts of the country, and there are almost 130,000 of them providing range of services including payment of bills and taxes, getting government certificates, filing applications, and agricultural and health services.
Interestingly the national e-governance vision has seeded a healthy competition between different states to come up with e-governance models that provide more integrated services to the citizens and serve them better. For instance, the MeeSeva centres in Andhra Pradesh handle over 1 lakh applications a day from people seeking different services. The centres provide 153 different services pertaining to 15 government departments, and this is just the beginning as the vision is to go far beyond and bring together even more government departments and citizens together. The e-government services are already available in local languages, and can be accessed online, via a call centre or by visiting any of the over 3,000 centres in all districts of Andhra Pradesh.
The citizen-centric e-governance systems in India has arrived and the process is irreversible. The systems are far from perfect, and require more efforts and planning, almost perpetually. But it has induced fresh thinking, debate, innovations and momentum in how government services are organised and accessed by the citizens, and this is single largest transformation brought by e-governance. No other government process has brought together private sector, civil society, youths, entrepreneurs, citizens, and researchers to such an extent, nor was government inclined to work with such diverse groups and stakeholders before.
Does e-governance matter to the citizens?
A bigger question however remains. Can e-governance improve the lives of common people? And the answer is not as easy as it may seem. While making government services available online certainly saves time, drudgery and costs incurred by people in accessing them, it may not necessarily improve lives of the majority. E-governance makes it easier to pay electricity and water bills online but can it provide assured electricity and water supplies to everyone? Up to a third of India’s population, close to 400 million people, and especially those in rural areas are not connected to the national grid. They are cut off from the development, progress and opportunity that electricity represents and e-governance is not going to make a difference to them. Similarly ability to pay water bills online loses its shine when 40% of the Indian population lacks access to clean drinking water, let alone having piped water supplies in their homes. Providing assured water and electric supply, basic health, education and other infrastructure facilities assume precedence. These have to be provided as pre-requisites of e-governance and not the outcomes.
E-government may put information on fingertips as is the case with Indian judiciary which puts all case-information and judicial decisions online and provides regular updates through mobile apps. But the common person remains as helpless as before when a case languishes in the court for several years, because of shortage of judges, lack of courts and staff, and meagre resources allocated to judiciary. Similarly e-governance has given us the ability to pay taxes online but has made no impact on what happens to the tax money afterwards. Corruption continues to be endemic at all levels. From a rank of 70 when national e-governance plan came into action in 2006, India has slipped to 94 in the 2012 Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, and trust in the government systems continues to deteriorate.
Deficit of good governance not e-governance
The message is clear. What ails India is not e-governance deficit but governance-deficit. It is good governance that will propel and sustain economic growth in India, and reduce poverty and income inequality levels. It is good governance that will open up new employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, and channelize productive capacities of the population to build competitive edge in global markets. And it is good governance which can singularly restore trust of citizens in governments and make governments accountable to them.
If we are serious about e-governance, the questions we need to pose when discussing e-governance should be different. Not how long it would take for a particular service to become online but how long would it take for a slum dweller or a farmer to break the cycle of poverty? Instead of when will all the villages be connected to when will voices of the poor be heard and start to matter. And instead of ability to vote online and elect representatives to ability to recall or reject representatives who do not perform.
The biggest contribution of e-governance would be if it makes “e” disappear and channelizes all energies, debates, partnerships and resources into a singular mission of improving governance in India not just for service delivery but also in policy settings, resources allocation, implementation and monitoring.
Interestingly this was also the conclusion emerging at the end of the e-governance forum to make good governance technology-independent so that the focus is on providing good governance to everyone and at all times. Having these thoughts emerge in a forum where almost all speakers were engaged with big technology projects in some capacities carries a lot of weight and elevates the need of having this forum on a regular basis to reshape our thinking for tomorrow.
Vikas Nath was an invited special guest speaker at the Economic Times E-Governance Forum