A technology-first approach can actually be a distraction and even creates the illusion of being the goal in itself
Shubhendu Parth | February 11, 2015
Technology is a boon for the society and governance, and it is there to stay. But technology is like salt in food. It has to be in right proportion: while one can manage with less salt, one cannot have food that has overdose of it. I was quite amused by this analogy given by the IT secretary of one of the largest states in India, but he set me thinking about the whole Digital India initiative that aims to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.
It also reminded me of a famous John Lennon quote. The founder of the rock band Beatles had once said: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
India’s vision of an e-enabled nation seems to be suffering from the same syndrome for over a decade now and Narendra Modi’s government seems to be taking it further, no matter how good the intention is.
Any technology-first strategy without a comprehensive integrated roadmap thrown in is bound to have its set of risks, when it comes to addressing the needs of a country like India.
To its credit, information and communication technology (ICT) has helped the nation change global perception about its capabilities. The ICT interventions have also helped the country overcome the issue of transparency in governance, curb corruption and bring probity in public life to a large extent. But does that mean as a country we start believing in ICT as a goal when we should be seeing it as a means?
It is also important to pause and check if some of the “mad rush” for embracing ICT might actually be driven by the technology vendors who, in their bid to sell, have “helped” government departments “create” needs around their respective solutions. If so, it may be worth doing course corrections at this very stage and drive process changes that are focused on the outcome.
Some of the early computerisation initiatives at the public sector banks, for example, have yielded good results in the form of new processes and accounting systems leading to the core banking system. The income tax department and the Indian railways are other examples where technology was effectively used to deliver better services. Interestingly, none of these were actually driven by the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY).
Even the national e-governance plan (NeGP), which can be credited with creating a massive ICT infrastructure and backbone for rolling out e-governance services across India, is not without a malady. The programme is a typical case of putting the horse before the cart, which in fact, is an implementation project that should have followed a citizens charter or a service level matrix for delivery of citizen services.
The reason: as the age-old Indian adage goes, jo dikhta hai wo bikta hai (what you see is what sells). And the technology that can drive the backend process change can seldom be seen. It is like the database and rules of an ERP system, which though drive the entire enterprise resource and ensure that the processes are not violated, are non-existent for the customers. What is launched and makes headlines are the swanky outlets, the websites that can be clicked to cheering crowds or programmes with fancy jargons.
The fact that eight years after formally launching the e-governance programme the country is yet to enact the citizens charter bill and the right of citizens for time-bound delivery of goods and services and redressal of their grievances bill. Even the much talked about electronic delivery of service bill itself tells a story of how lop-sided the planning has been so far.
And while the NDA government has been able to push through several bills taking the ordinance route, that an implementation programme (Digital India) was announced without a citizen service delivery framework being in place clearly indicates that despite a change in regime, the mindset has barely changed. This is much like creating a city master plan after developing the major infrastructure and landmarks.
A right approach could have been to first decide how the government wants to provide services to the citizens, say by 2020. The next step should have been to engage various ministries, states and union territories to create a framework at their local level, breaking it to the last-mile delivery level if required.
These could then have been used to create a common minimum standard of citizen service delivery, and helped bring about necessary process and legal reforms.
This would be the right time for DeitY to step in and map the ICT requirement needed to meet the citizen service level standards.
How can one decide what technology to use unless one knows what needs to be achieved?
During my recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Nanbu-chō town whose citizen charter says: “We shall love people and nature and create a beautiful town, and help create a warm-hearted town by continuing to practise kindness.” The charter further says that the citizens shall respect the town’s history and culture in order to contribute mental richness to the town and train themselves, mentally and physically to realise a healthy town.
Compare this to the rush of creating a Digital India, where the sole objective is to digitally empower the society and to create a knowledge economy. Also, the related government document defines one of the key focus areas as “making technology central to enabling change”.
The important question that needs to be asked is whether we should overall empower the citizens or just “digitally empower” them? Secondly, what will the citizens miss if they are not digitally empowered and the country targets to become a stronger economy rather than just a knowledge economy? Perhaps it will help to also define the key indicators of a knowledge economy and the related benefits so that it can be measured against the deadline set up by the government itself.
According to the Digital India document, by 2019 the flagship programme will ensure broadband in 2.5 lakh villages, universal phone connectivity, Wi-Fi in 2.5 lakh schools, all universities and 4 lakh public internet access points. The impact: while e-governance and e-services will be the order of the day, India will lead the world in terms using IT in health, education and banking, and will also have digitally empowered citizens with access to public cloud and internet.
Unfortunately, only three of the listed impacts are measurable – direct job creation for 1.7 crore trained professionals in IT, telecom and electronics sector, 8.5 crore indirect job opportunities and net zero imports in electronic sector by 2020.
Knowledge infrastructure reality
While a lot of effort has been made to digitally empower the citizen – both at the corporate and government level through the IT and mobile revolution that has changed the way the country works and even swears by and also on the higher education front, the country still lags behind on creating a “basic knowledge” society at the school or K-12 level.
Education also tops the list of e-kranti – the revised NeGP – that has been projected as the fifth pillar of the Digital India that talks about electronic delivery of citizen services. To provide better education to its future citizens, the Digital India programme promises to unleash the power of e-education by providing broadband connectivity to all schools and by providing free Wi-Fi in 2,50,000 schools.
Under the initiative, the government also aims to launch a digital literacy programme to impart IT training to children and push massive online open courses (MOOCs) to make education easily accessible to people. Besides, the government is also planning to take forward its plans of digitising the course books through an eBasta project.
However, here is a more realistic picture of the basic infrastructure and facilities available to schools in India.
I was in for a rude shock during my recent visit to my alma mater, Kendriya Vidyalaya in Patna. I was there for the alumni meet, feeling nostalgic entering the school after 27 years. My nine-year-old son was equally excited when we entered the massive gate that has now replaced the more humble entrance. There was a new building and the school assembly ground now had a beautiful garden. I entered the secondary block with my heart thumping loud.
“This is the classroom where I studied last…” A sudden silence dawned upon both, my son and me, just as I pushed open the classroom door. My son who had ran inside in excitement stood still beside a bench, its steel frame staring at his face. “Dad, you had said your school was very good. But all the benches in this class are broken,” he said. “And look there are no glasses in the window pane either.”
I saw a new green board that had been fixed using aluminium channels on top of the existing blackboard and decided to use it to score a point. “But why do they need to put a green board? They could have used the money to get new benches or fix the glass in the window panes,” he said.
We decided to check other rooms and almost all of them were in the same state, except for few rooms that had new furniture and even a projector to “show off”. This was one of the best government schools in Bihar funded by the central government.
One of my seniors, working in a school in Jehanabad (Bihar), further informed me that there was a state government school, very close to my residence in Kankarbagh that was running in just one room with around 30 children and six teachers.
Since there was no separate staff room, five teachers sat on a wooden bench on the road just next to a kiosk selling betel leaves and cigarettes. The school did not have any toilet either and the only option that both the teachers and the students had to use the open drain to relieve themselves.
The situation is not better in other states. An indicator of the same is the recently released school education report by Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE). According to the report, of the total 14,48,712 schools in India in 2013-14, 70,987 schools had only one classroom and as many as 1,20,243 schools had just one teacher.
However, there was marginal improvement during 2013-14. The number of single classroom schools dropped from 5.3 percent to 4.9 percent and the number of schools with single teachers dropped from 8.6 percent to 8.3 percent.
Overall, 17,010 new schools were set up in 2013-14. On the infrastructure side, 15.3 percent or 2,21,653 schools do not have girls toilets while 79,679 schools do not have toilets for boys. In terms of year-on-year growth, while the percentage of toilets for boys has shown a major jump – up from 67.1 percent in 2012-13 to 94.5 percent in 2013-14, the percentage of schools having toilets for girls dropped to 84.7 percent from 88.3 percent as compared to last year.
However, the U-DISE numbers may be a little misleading since the report does not make any distinction between usable and unusable toilets. According to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) prepared by Pratham, while only 65 percent of schools have usable toilets only 55.7 percent schools have usable toilets for girls.
Similarly, according to U-DISE, only 51.7 schools had electricity supply. In number terms this means that 6,99,728 schools were not even able to provide basic fan or light for their students. Besides, 68,089 schools had no facility for potable drinking water. The ASER data, on the other hand points that only 58.8 percent schools have a campus wall and 75.1 percent schools have a library.
Can the government’s Digital India programme help provide these basic facilities to the schools? The answer, obviously, is a big no. Also while we know that there will be Wi-Fi in 2.5 lakh schools or 17 percent of the total schools today, we do not know how this piece of basic technology will help increase access to quality school education or benefit the disadvantaged groups as well as weaker sections who have hitherto been deprived of even the basic education because of social and monetary reasons.
Are we falling into a trap of minting markets where the government programmes become a mere conduit for pushing the produce of a new digital economy? Are we putting a Digital India cart before the citizen-welfare horse? Perhaps, we can pause for a moment and put the horse first!
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