• Shubhi Chhabra

The Challenges of E-Governance in Digital India

Ramesh (Name changed) operated his Pragya Kendra (PK) on his uncle’s license that he got transferred to his name (No record or details of this transfer were accessed by your’s truly). However, ever since a second iteration of the center was introduced, he hasn’t been able to update his license, and so operates without one, making it an unregistered PK. As a result, Ramesh, for now the only PK manager in all of Rajpur in the eastern state of Jharkhand, is able to offer only a limited set of services - in addition to conventional xerox, and printing services on the side. Also referred to as Common Service Centers (CSC) in other parts of India, the PKs provide a range of services in what is known as the Government to Citizen (G2C) Framework. In Ramesh's case however, the lack of a license only allows him to offer a service known locally as “jhaar”, which include only caste, income and residential certificate applications.

The G2C framework is a culmination of a long-standing project in India that seeks to provide a more seamless citizen-government interface, through which everyday government services like birth and death certificates, residential forms, etc., can be made available online and in decentralized centers such as those run by Ramesh. Citizens can access several services through these PKs at nominal costs – far lower than the cost of visiting a government office. Village Level Entrepreneur’s (VLE) Licenses enable PK owners like Ramesh to process these forms electronically, and thereafter track the status of requests online. But for Ramesh in particular, the lack of a proper license transfer under the new system means that he has to take hard-copies of filled forms to a nearby village, where the PK owner of that village processes them on his behalf.

As with village communities in other parts of the state, almost everyone is aware of who the PK owner is, where the PK is situated and abreast of the vernacular of the business run by Ramesh. The level of awareness declines when people are quizzed about the services offered at the village PK, viz. the Block PK, or a bigger-village PK in the adjoining village, for instance. As a result many people end up making the trek to Block-level CSCs to avail the services that could have been accessed in their own village – incurring extra expenses, and loss of revenue to PK owners like Ramesh. Many are also oblivious about service charges and more generally, about the full-scope of benefits that CSC is designed to provide.

A sign outside Ramesh's PK.

But Ramesh is a part of a story that translates back to 2006, when the first iteration of CSC was launched by the Central Government in Delhi under the National E-Governance Plan. In 2015, the government launched “CSC 2.0: A Way Forward” as an update on CSC 2006. Described as a scaled and dynamic version of CSC 2006, CSC 2.0 was launched as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India plan. Functioning under the National Rural Internet Mission, CSC 2.0 aims to establish over 2.5 lakh CSC centers at each of the 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats across the country for the delivery of various essential (and non-essential) services.

In a nutshell CSC 2.0 seeks to establish one stop service delivery hubs with the intent of improving government service delivery infrastructure through digitization. At the heart of the process, and driven by entrepreneurship, is a public-private partnership (PPP) model – when implemented properly, PPP in India has yielded efficient, professional and timely delivery of services. A CSC established to extend a plethora of G2C and B2C services, including extension of “essential” digital support, spawns services with a variety of applications related to educational and employment opportunities, railway, air and bus reservations, banking and insurance facilities, and filing of tax returns, among others. It further enhances awareness levels in remote societies by bringing ease of access to information on state welfare schemes and laws, Right to Information, and Grievance Redressal Systems at subsidized rates. Known as Citizen to Government (C2G), access to such infrastructure aids in extending government-citizen interaction, in a country with a billion people. In addition, the PKs provide nodal centers for critical G2C communication like disaster warnings, while also acting as local banking centers – transferring remittances and payments of all kinds.

Broadly, CSC aims to fulfill three areas of the larger Digital India Program:

  1. Digital Infrastructure as a Utility to Every Citizen;

  2. Governance & Services on Demand; and,

  3. Digital Empowerment of Citizens).

Theoretical frameworks, however, can easily belie ground realities – case in point, Ramesh’s license. But more systemically, the lack of a security net for PK owners, given investments undertaken by them for establishing the outlet, and the labyrinth of bureaucratic entanglement they have to undertake, discourages new PKs. The financial investment for a functional PK along with working capital, is quite substantial, particularly, in a rural area. Most VLEs in Jharkhand do not prefer to operate from Panchayat Bhavan (office of the administrative unit in villages), for they’re often at the outskirts of the village and unprotected, notes Ramesh. Panchayat Bhavans are notorious for lack of security – making it difficult to store equipment overnight. In many cases, even daytime loots and attacks are common at such places. Jharkhand has a pressing law and order problem and this makes it extremely difficult to run a full-fledged business in the state, even one where public services are being delivered.

On the other hand, the absence of financial support (grants or loans) infrastructure for establishment of PKs, and inadequacy of electricity supply impacts customers and service providers alike. The problem is partly resolved when private companies are brought to the mix. Companies like UTL, who contract out VLE licenses to individuals, ensure the availability of power generators, and software support, albeit at a cost. Ramesh who’s a part of Block and district level groups of VLE’s laments the lack of quick digital support from the government in cases of problems with the primary (central) software. Electricity or software failures can derail service availability for hours on end. In another village, a citizen points out how people check electricity supply before heading out to the PK.

Scant awareness exists with respect to the cost of the services decided by Central or State Governments, as well as CSC provisions, including prescribed time-frames for service delivery, and redressal mechanisms. Literacy is an impediment to citizens receiving the complete benefits of a welfare scheme, so is corruption. An entirely digitized public service delivery system doesn’t eliminate these impediments in practice. The complete dependence on CSC’s and VLE’s – who are not government officers or representatives – in receiving pension, employment, and other benefits, means that old pensioners are either not receiving full pensions, or have to wait longer to receive the money as the VLE does not pay them until he/she receives the funds from the government. In many cases, citizens are asked to pay extra for photocopy or printing of the receipts, or aren’t given receipts by the VLE’s, or have to get additional documents avail services, beyond what is required – so as to benefit the VLE. All this is a result of a lack of awareness and access to substantive information.

Take Ramesh for instance. He runs an unregistered PK – the only one in his village – but is not equipped, or even authorized to provide any services in reality. He’s however a part of local VLE groups and extended network that allows him to use the neighboring village’s PK. It’s enough to raise serious questions on the state of monitoring and regulation of the scheme on a large scale. Given the kind of investment involved and how VLE’s are chosen from within the villages, the caste and class biases are evident. Usually, only the higher strata get the opportunity of becoming the service providers – making it easier to harass beneficiaries. Besides, not all PKs are appropriately equipped with basic minimum requirements of hardware such as a laptop with a 250GB hard drive, two printers, UPS etc.

Lastly, Ramesh brings an interesting angle to our analysis. Often, he circulates information, or distributes certificates through Whatsapp, as it saves time, and the hassle of physically making the copies available to those who live afar (houses in these villages are often scattered in different clusters 1-5 kms apart). News about an update provision is circulated through the VLE Whatsapp Groups, it also serves as a platform for VLE’s to share problems, flag complaints, etc. While it’s seemingly swift to process complaints and disseminate information, and remain in constant touch with senior officers, using Whatsapp sweeps a lot of data under the rug. Ordinarily, this information should be in state records, accessible to citizens who wish to access it, and available for judicial processes, if required.

Theoretically, a state proposed public-private partnership should improve access to services, reduce costs, and reduce systemic inefficiencies like corruption. However, contextual realities ought to be considered while constructing schemes at national and state levels. Technology mediated endeavors can help accomplish and overcome these problems, and provide better, more efficient services to the citizens. But these must be weighed against possible future inefficiencies. There are further immediate questions and impediments of making public services available through an entirely digitized process. In a country where digital literacy is limited and poverty rampant, the focus should be at ensuring a basic level of awareness, and in creating systemic checks as people engage with these services. Otherwise, the result could be the opposite of what was intended.

All the information referenced in the article is collected first hand by the author from her field visit to Jharkhand in June, 2018, as part of her research on CSC implementations, and ground level work in Jharkhand, India. Polemics and Pedantics has no independent way of verifying the authenticity of the information, the manner of its collection, or any other related factors. The author has assured Polemics and Pedantics of her ability to use the information for this article, and has indemnified Polemics and Pedantics against any liability arising from such use. The names of the VLEs and village have been changed to adhere to the consent policies of the survey.

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About The Author

Shubhi Chhabra is a student of Sociology, with an interest in exploring the interface of emerging technology with development. She's currently pursuing a masters in Sociology at Ambedkar University, Delhi, where her dissertation revolves around Big Data, that she's quite trying to settle somewhere. Shubhi also holds a Bachelor's Degree in Economics from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.

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