Friday, August 1, 2008

The change ahead

Under the National Common Minimum Programme adopted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, high priority was accorded to improve the quality of basic governance, service delivery and to ensure transparency and accountability. e-Governance as conceived under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), aims to improve the delivery of Government services to citizens (G2C) and businesses (G2B) by shifting from the paradigm of governance to e-Governance, thus embracing new developments in technology. In order to pursue the above-mentioned objectives, on June 14, 2006, the Department of Information Technology, in a major initiative, unveiled various components of the ambitious National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) covering 27 Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) and ten support components to be implemented at Central, State, and Local Government levels, at an estimated cost of INR 23,000 crore over the next five years. At the State-level, the Mission Mode Projects (MMP) would include services pertaining to road transport, land records, commercial taxes, employment exchanges, agriculture and horticulture, civil supplies, treasuries, land registration, policy and education, while at central level, it will cover areas such as insurance, Central Excise, National ID, pensions, e-Posts, banking, visa and income tax.
Under the NeGP, the Government has planned to establish 1,00,000 broadband-enabled Internet Common Services Centres (CSCs) in rural areas of the country so as to connect the citizens of rural India to the World Wide Web. An outlay of INR 5742 crore has been earmarked for the CSCs scheme, and the scheme would be implemented in Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. The CSCs scheme is expected to create one lakh direct jobs and 2-3 lakh additional indirect jobs. Through the CSCs, the Governments at the National, State and Local levels are expected to provide e-Services such as registration of birth, death and marriage certificates; providing information on weather conditions and prices of various agri-commodities to rural farmers; issuing of electronic ID cards for farmers, which will possess all information about the citizen/farmers etc. The CSCs are expected to be run by village-level entrepreneurs or members (preferably women) from self-help groups who are being financially backed by NGOs or co-operative banks/MFIs. For the states of Assam and Tripura, request for proposal (RFP) has been issued for 4520 CSCs. For the state of Punjab, bid evaluation has taken place for 10,576 CSCs. For the state of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Haryana, either MSA has been signed or letter of intent (LOI) has been issued. In fact many of the states are at different stages of implementation. Haryana comes in the top bracket in India in the implementation of State Wide Area Network (SWAN), CSCs' e-Disha Ekal Sewa Kendras and State Data Centre, and will be ready to launch the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) by March 2008. CSCs are considered as one of the infrastructure pillars of the National e-Governance Plan and are expected to serve as the physical front for delivering government and private services at the doorsteps of the citizens.Under the NeGP, it is proposed to create State Data Centres for the States to consolidate services, applications and infrastructure to provide efficient and effective electronic delivery of G2G (government to government), G2C (government to citizens) and G2B (government to businesses) services. These services can be provided by the states through common delivery platform seamlessly supported by core Connectivity infrastructure such as State Wide Area Network (SWAN) and Common Service Centre (CSC) connectivity extended upto village-level. In order to make the CSCs operational, the Government has approved a scheme for establishing State Wide Area Networks (SWAN) across the country in 29 states/ 6 UTs at a total outlay of INR 3334 crore with Central Assistance component of INR 2005 crore over a period of 5 years. These SWANs are expected to extend data connectivity of 2 Megabits per second upto the block level in all states and Union Territories (UTs) in India. The block level nodes in turn will have a provision to extend connectivity further to the village-level using contemporary wireless technology.
The CSC scheme has a three tier implementation framework
a. At the first (CSC) level, there would be existence of the local village level entrepreneur (VLE—loosely analogous to a franchisee), in order to service the rural consumer in a cluster of 5-6 villages.
b. At the second/middle-level, there would be the existence of an entity termed the Service Centre Agency (SCA—loosely analogous to the franchiser) in order to operate, manage and build the VLE network and business. An SCA would be identified for one or more districts (one district would cover 100-200 CSCs).
c. At the third level, there would be the existence of the agency designated by the State—the State Designated Agency (SDA)--so as to facilitate implementation of the scheme within the state and to provide requisite policy framework.
Under the CSC scheme, in order to enable the state-specific implementation plans to benefit from such economies of scale, aggregation of best practices, content providers, etc. the DIT would be appointing a National Level Service Agency (NLSA). Apart from the NLSA, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) has been proposed for regular monitoring of the CSC scheme.
The major challenges before the Governments (as discussed in eINDIA 2007 Conference) in order to deliver e-Services via the CSCs are as follows:
a. The amount of funds allocated for the CSCs scheme is quite large. One may question whether such an allocation by the government may lead to lowering of allocation for other important services (given the fact that there must not be wasteful expenditure on the part of the government which affects the fiscal scenario) such as pertaining to basic amenities—water supply and sanitation, public distribution system, housing facilities for the destitute and displaced, health care and immunisation, etc.
b. For the CSCs to continue working in the rural areas, there is need for electrical power. Rural electrification and availability of alternative sources of power can lead to the successful operation of CSCs. Without such arrangements, CSCs would fail to deliver.
c. The motto of the CSCs scheme is to provide rural population (citizens and businesses) e-Services which is efficiently and effectively delivered at affordable rates. However, this requires not only adequate infrastructure (connectivity, broadband, etc.) but also a trained pool of manpower and capacity-building of the rural masses. Rural youths and members from self-help groups (SHGs) who are literate but not adequately trained for recruitment in the CSCs, can be provided IT-based training (in both hardware and software). Similarly, rural masses (say, for example, one member from one household, as it had happened in the case of Akshaya, a Kerala state IT mission initiative) can go through capacity-building sessions so that they know the importance of e-Literacy, e-Commerce, usage of Internet, etc. Unless the rural masses realise the utility of CSCs, e-Governance becomes a word without meaning and purpose.
d. The CSCs scheme has been given adequate importance by the current UPA government. But one needs to take into account the problems surrounding the successful implementation and replication of CSCs. There are alternatives to the proposed CSCs scheme under the NeGP. One can raise question whether the existing unique socio-economic fabric and feature of a village, allows for further replication in another village (or elsewhere). Although much of the emphasis has been given on decentralisation, but in reality panchayats have been also termed as institutions laden with power, hierarchy, etc. The pertinent question is how can technology overcome such challenges in order to reach the objective of transparent and accountable e-Service delivery at the doorsteps of rural families.
e. For the successful implementation and replication of CSCs, there is need for alternative technologies. A technology which is suitable to one terrain may not be suitable for another terrain. The opportunity cost of adopting one technology over another needs to be checked.
f. There is clearly a need for co-ordination and management (for financial, technical, human resources development and other purposes) amongst the VLE, SCA, SDA, NLSA and SPV.
g. There is need for looking at the long term financial sustainability of CSCs.
Under the NeGP, it has been envisaged that each centre (CSC) would be Internet-enabled centre, located mostly in rural area. Each centre would cater to roughly six villages and would provide services offered by the government and the private operators. The CSC scheme, as approved by the Government of India, envisions CSCs as the front-end delivery points for Government, private and social sector services to rural citizens of India, in an integrated and holistic manner.
The CSCs are thus seen not merely as service delivery points. Also the entire gamut of services desired at these centres is a loadful. Not all of these services are ready to be deployed. They are considered as Change Agent/s that would promote rural entrepreneurship, build rural capacities and livelihoods, enable community participation and collective action for social change—through a bottom-up approach. However a bit of education on driving change from there too might be in order.
Guideline for the Implementation of the CSCs Scheme in States, Department of Information Technology, Government of India,

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