Going slow and (un)steady

A status check of the government’s e-governance initiative for panchayati raj institutions

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Taru Bhatia | August 6, 2016 | New Delhi


#ministry of panchayati raj   #e gov   #aadhaar   #e panchayat   #panchayat  
A woman at Bhitaura block office, Fatehpur, feeding data of PMAY applicants into the computer
A woman at Bhitaura block office, Fatehpur, feeding data of PMAY applicants into the computer

 For the past six months, the usual workflow in the gram panchayats of Fatehpur district, Uttar Pradesh, has been disrupted. After the December 2015 panchayat elections in Fatehpur, the gram panchayats are yet to begin work on karya yojana (work plan) as discussed in the gram sabha (village meeting). The pradhans are introduced to a new system this time, which is said to be disrupting their functioning.

 
Under the new system, karya yojana has to be first uploaded online. After this a unique ID for every work will be generated. The ID will also give an estimated expense for the completion of work, and funds will be granted accordingly. Only after the ID is generated, execution of the plan can begin.
In fact, panchayat heads can withdraw money from their accounts only when the work is completed and its picture is uploaded online. The ID can be used to track the progress of work and maintain its data, so that in future if a panchayat head demands funds for the same work again he or she can be questioned. 
 
This new system is part of the e-Panchayat initiative of the ministry of panchayati raj (MoPR), intended to bring transparency and accountability in the functioning of the rural local self-government organisations. Approved in 2011, e-Panchayat is a mission mode project (MMP) under the national e-governance plan (NeGP). The project aims to computerise the workflow of districts, blocks and gram panchayats. Be it planning, monitoring, implementation, budgeting, accounting or social auditing, everything has to be recorded online. The government aims to cover 2.5 lakh panchayats across India and bring their records online.
 
The government, with its technical partner national informatics centre (NIC), has developed 11 web-based applications. The core ones include PlanPlus which will record the work plan of gram panchayats, PRIAsoft for capturing expenditures and generating IDs for every work, ActionPlan for monitoring work progress, and Asset Directory to record details of assets created and maintained in a gram panchayat.
 
“E-Panchayat is a kind of an arrangement in which information about panchayats is available online. Whatever they are spending and doing are also available to villagers and government at state and central level. This brings transparency in the self-governing bodies at the village level,” says DK Sharma, joint secretary, MoPR.
 
However, the project is facing several roadblocks on the ground. Despite its launch in 2011, the Tarapur Bhitaura gram panchayat, 30 km from Fatehpur, will begin e-Panchayat implementation from this year. The panchayat organised its gram sabha in the first week of July, but three weeks later its data was still not updated. As a result no work has been executed under the karya yojana. This is because the panchayat secretary of Tarapur Bhitaura is overburdened with work. Vijay Pal not only collects data from Tarapur Bhitaura but also from eight other gram panchayats. Only after collecting data from all the nine gram panchayats he has to go all the way to the district office to upload data. The computer facility at the block headquarters is used only for updating data related to MNREGA and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). 
 
“What can we do? We have at least five gram panchayats under us and all the schemes, whether Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, MNREGA or e-Panchayat, have to be implemented and monitored by us. We have to make visits from gram panchayats to block and district offices,” says Pal. “The work pressure is too much. And if anyone complains about us, our job gets into trouble,” he adds, wiping sweat from his forehead.
 
Other panchayat secretaries in Fatehpur share a similar story. “It would have been better if secretaries get password and user ID to upload data on e-Panchayat software. We could then go to any nearby internet cafe to upload it. Right now too much time is wasted in travelling,” says Randhir Singh, while discussing karya yojana of the Badagaon gram panchayat at the new pradhan’s house. Singh looks after eight gram panchayats. Singh says that he is not comfortable working on the online software despite twice receiving training.
 
The entire work of commuting long distance and uploading data is a parallel exercise that panchayat secretaries carry out along with the manual procedures. 
 
But the district panchayati raj officer (DPRO), Fatehpur, Jitender Kumar Mishra, rejects the claim made by Singh saying, “Secretaries do have user ID and password to upload data on e-Panchayat software.” He, however, along with the district and central level administration, admits to lack of manpower on the ground. 
 
There are 121 panchayat secretaries at present for 840 gram panchayats in Fatehpur district. “We need at least 264 panchayat secretaries,” says Mishra. Though village locals pitch in as panchayat mitras (assistants) and help the secretaries in collecting data and monitoring projects, but they cannot replace the entire work of a panchayat secretary. 
 
Also, internet connectivity is a huge problem. Hardware and broadband facilities have not yet reached gram panchayats in the district. Even wireless internet signals are weak across villages in the district including those of Idea, Vodafone and BSNL. The only place other than the district and block-level offices that has internet connectivity is Hussainganj, a village cum town in Fatehpur. 
 
At the block-level office, there are multiple rooms with computers and servers where workers feed data from files into software. Even though they are connected with BSNL’s broadband and NIC network (NICNET), connectivity is still an issue. “BSNL signal is usually weak but NIC is good,” says a woman while entering online data of applicants for the PMAY. “It takes two hours to upload a file when the network is slow,” she says. 
 
“Without enough human resource and infrastructure, execution of e-Panchayat will be a problem,” says DPRO Mishra. To address the hardware crunch, the MoPR plans to provide 8,000 laptops and smartphones to panchayat secretaries across UP. “So far we have covered 1,500 gram panchayats out of 59,073 in the state. The rest we will cover simultaneously. The total expense will be around Rs 32 crore,  of which 75 percent will be borne by the centre,” says Prashant Mishra, consultant for UP, MoPR.
 
He, however, maintains that funds are not enough when it comes to providing hardware to each gram panchayat. “So the strategy that we have adopted is to form clusters of gram panchayats and then distribute hardware to each cluster,” he adds.
 
National-level status
This is just an example of one district of Uttar Pradesh. Other states are facing similar challenges. Currently, one lakh panchayats across the country upload their work plans on e-Panchayat applications. “But this is happening at a very slow pace. Initially, the national optical fibre network (NOFN), a central government project, was expected to be operational in 2013. But it got delayed. We cannot enforce digital schemes until facilities are available at gram panchayats,” says Sharma of MoPR.
 
Then there are some states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh that are using their own applications for the entire workflow of panchayats. At present the lack of interoperability between the central and state applications is a challenge. 
 
“If somebody launches their own application then they can go ahead with it. Meanwhile, we have asked the NIC to develop software to integrate information of such states with the national portal,” adds Sharma.
 
The road ahead
The primary role of the central government is to provide training and fund maintenance of software applications at the district-level. Last year, the e-Panchayat programme received Rs 19 crore for training and this year it got Rs 22 crore. 
 
“In addition to training, we are trying to provide computers to panchayats which do not have the machines at all and where states are also not helping much,” says Sharma. Hence, the government has decided to bring the e-Panchayat project under the Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Yojana (RGSY) by October. RGSY focuses primarily on providing financial assistance to the states/UTs for training and capacity building of elected representatives and functionaries of panchayats. 
 
“Under the RGSY, if funds are available in its other schemes, it can be utilised for e-Panchayat,” says the joint secretary.
 
The central government is also planning to deliver other government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, direct benefit transfer (DBT), e-district services and grievance registering facility through the e-Panchayat portal. “People will only be interested if they feel advantage can be drawn out of it,” says Sharma.
 
taru@governancenow.com

(The article appears in August 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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