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Why we need to do better on e-governance
Many years ago, in a bid to evangelise the use of the Internet in India, a global technology giant decided to ‘seed’ some non-traditional locations in India with Internet access-enabled devices and free WiFi. These ‘non-traditional’ locations included schools in low-income areas, and slums.
Some time later, they noticed a few interesting things happening. Some enterprising individuals had started offering a whole host of ‘services’, using this free Internet access, to other, more technologically challenged, neighbours for a small fee. From downloading, printing and selling application forms for various government services such as ration card and water connection to downloading movies to CDs, they had managed innovative ways to use the Internet and profit from it. Some of these ‘services’ were not exactly what the proponents of the experiment had in mind when they started. They found, for instance, that one of the most sought-after ‘services’ was providing access to porn sites/ clips. Nevertheless, the bulk provided genuine and clearly needed services to people who otherwise had to depend on agents and touts for securing access to basic services that they were, at least on paper, legally entitled to.
In fact, such learnings eventually prodded the government to reluctantly push forward with not just e-governance initiatives, but deliver access to e-governance through measures like the ‘e-seva kendras’ which facilitate e-form submissions, e-filings and e-payments for government services.
Unfortunately, while there is much talk of pushing the cause of e-governance in India, actual progress has been slow. True, the so-called G2C (government to citizen) stack is now well-advanced. You can access most government service providers electronically to get bills and make payments. With the introduction of the GST network, you can now pay almost all your taxes electronically, file returns, claim refunds, and so on.
However, in other areas like public health and land records, the progress has stopped with putting up some downloadable forms online. Many government departments still insist on physical forms and signatures, despite the near universalisation of an identity instrument like Aadhaar, which allows simple and foolproof authentication.
This is probably why India continues to rank a relatively low 96 in the United Nation’s E-Government Development Index, whose 2018 rankings were released last week. That is probably because there is little to write home about, despite the astonishing pace of digitisation in India.
The UN E-Government Development Survey is the only global initiative to measure and track how governments are faring on the e-governance front. According to the UN website, the report “looks at how e-government can facilitate integrated policies and services across the three dimensions of sustainable development”. With an EGDI index score of 0.5669, India is just above the world average of 0.55. The Asian leader in e-government, South Korea, scored 0.9010 (marginally behind world leader Denmark’s 0.9150). India’s score is also shy of Iran (0.6083). Even in the SAARC region, Sri Lanka is ahead of India.
However, India does rank very high in one sub-index. It moved up 12 places in the E-Participation Index, from 27 in 2016 to 15 in 2018. While not as general as the EGDI, the EPI looks at issues like e-information, e-consultation and e-decision making to arrive at a score. India’s high ranking does signify two things: that the government is making more information available online and that more people are in a position to access that information, and also electronically participate in policy formation and decision-making. A good example of this was when the government first mooted its ‘smart cities’ initiative, when citizens were able to actively participate with ideas on what kind of initiatives their city should adopt and how these initiatives should be designed and implemented.
Unfortunately, that form of crowd-sourced public planning appears to have been just a flash in the pan. The reason the UN compiles this index and urges member countries to focus on e-government initiatives is that there is a clear link between greater e-governance and easier public access to government services and a reduction in poverty and inequality. One of the biggest reasons our poverty alleviation measures have failed to achieve the desired impact (apart from corruption and leakage) is inefficient targeting, and lack of information with the intended beneficiaries about plans and schemes meant to assist them.
Access is crucial
Knowledge is power, but access to knowledge is another kind of power. This is where digital can be a great disruptor. With the India Stack (Aadhaar, UPI, etc. aimed at ensuring presence-less, cashless and paperless service delivery), and the ongoing mobile and broadband revolution, India can become a world leader in e-governance. But it may have to learn some lessons from Iran and South Korea first.