Around a decade ago, no one would have imagined the extent to which the Internet would change our lives. Be it payment of utility bills, filing income tax returns, buying a dress or contacting a childhood friend, everything is possible with a few clicks on the mobile or the laptop and that, too, without sacrificing the comfort of one’s home or office.
Ever since Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister, one item that has been engaging his attention is e-governance through broadband connectivity in rural areas and use of regional languages for the purpose. The task is easier said than done, as is evident from a report on global information technology released in April.
The World Economic Forum and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University had conducted a detailed study on the growth of information and communication technology (ICT) in 148 nations. The report mentions an index—Networked Readiness Index (NRI)—measured on a scale of 1 to 7 to calculate the extent of preparedness of a country to adopt and harness the benefits of ICT.
India ranked 37 among 82 countries in 2003. Though the number of countries increased, there has been a consistent decline in India’s ranking over the last decade. It slipped to the 83rd position in 2014 from the 68th position in 2013. The fall signalled India’s dismal performance in comparison to other countries. It is one of the least performing BRICS nations.
India’s vast size, huge population, lack of infrastructure and awareness regarding new technology pose a problem. If one goes by the information provided by the department of electronics and IT on its website, one is shocked to know the total number of e-transactions for standard services like utility service bills payments, transport facilities, education, etc. were only 121.63 crore during the last six months.
The number of e-transactions per 1000 people comes to 910 on an average. However, there are states like Assam, Bihar and Sikkim where this number falls to a paltry 27, 28 and 16 e-transactions respectively. On an average, only 0.75 per cent of transactions are done online for an average of 77 e-services provided throughout India. The Union Territory of Lakshadweep has the highest percentage (4.54 per cent) of online transactions with the lowest number (22) of e-services being provided since January, Andhra Pradesh offers the highest number (359) of e-services though the usage is only 0.27 per cent.
In this scenario, how can we think of a faster and growing India when we seek solace in one of the most cumbersome and tedious offline procedures? For a country like India, whose population is around 1.27 billion, e-governance, if effectively implemented, can do wonders. Imagine a farmer using e-procurement service to sell his produce without any intermediary, a fisherman negotiating with wholesale buyers and choosing the best offer while still at sea, a student getting admission without paying donation and children in remote areas attending online classes, etc.
It is an established fact that adoption of e-governance helps cut costs, reduce paperwork, and save time and energy—both for the end user and the service provider—and ensure transparency. The resources so saved can be put to use in profitable areas. Apart from this, it is also observed that e-governance helps in recovering initial set-up costs of a particular project in a shorter span of time than the offline mode.
An impact assessment study of five widely used e-projects, conducted by IIM Ahmedabad, concluded that e-governance reduces corruption by eliminating intermediaries. It says that “a breakdown in the system often leads to rent-seeking behaviour and corrupt practices. Online transactions viz-a-viz e-governance minimise system breakdowns”. It is unfortunate that despite all efforts made by the government, India could not reap many benefits from ICT. There is a huge gap between service delivery and reality. Though development through e-governance has been catching up in cities and towns, rural areas remain devoid of such technological advances.
The UPA government had launched the Bharat broadband service with a view to installing broadband connectivity in six lakh villages. The project, estimated to cost `20,000 crore, was scheduled to be operational by December 2013. However, the government could lay fibre cables in only 40 development blocks covering merely 800 panchayats against the planned 2.5 lakh panchayats during this period. At a time when the world is talking about 6G connectivity, India, that is Bharat, does not even have 2G broadband connectivity in most areas. The project has been mired in controversies like disagreements on the type of optical fibre to be laid, wrong estimation of project costs, incremental costs in the form of additional optical fibre for connecting gram panchayats, etc. Even the actual layout plan prepared by BSNL was not in accordance with the ground realities and responsibility had to be given to the National Informatics Centre.
It was found that ducts for optical fibre could not be manufactured in India. The government later downsized the project to include only 1.1 lakh panchayats. The cost of building the necessary ecosystem for public services was not included in the project cost. Funds earmarked for the entire project were spent on three pilot projects alone. One of the main reasons for the failure of e-governance projects is the lack of a broad vision in assessment of ground realities, lack of infrastructure, issues of adaptability to new technology or miscalculation of obstacles in transition. It is certainly a tough job to make traditional government functions compatible with computerisation that requires an entirely different approach and business process.
It becomes essential to engage experts from the IT sector for new ideas, evolution of modified business processes and analysis of big data—huge clusters of complex information incapable of analysis through traditional methods or technology to study consumer-end user preferences, tastes and requirements. The successful implementation of e-governance depends to a large extent on the identification of end user requirements, modification and simplification of business processes and a committed leadership.
The Modi government has an uphill task to bring the urban and rural areas at par at least IT-wise. It is a different matter whether the government will be able to deliver on its promises of e-bhasha, e-services, broadband connectivity and e-governance or not. If a prime minister who wants to be on Twitter terms with every citizen cannot achieve it, who can?
The author is a company secretary and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org