A head of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), Shankar Aggarwal is responsible for realising the government’s vision to make services accessible to the common man through the use of information and communications technology. Aggarwal, a 1980 batch IAS officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre and additional secretary (e-Governance), Department of Information Technology (DIT), discussed his achievements and plans ahead in an exclusive interview with Samir Sachdeva. Edited excerpts:
The NeGP has entered its fifth year. What have been the key milestones so far?
The NeGP has primarily two parts. The first was delivery of services under which we had identified 27 Mission Mode Projects (MMPs). Of these, 24 projects have been approved by the competent authority and most of these have gone live. However, as far as replication and national roll out is concerned, there may be some issues which may have to be addressed, but things are moving at a very fast pace and I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10 we have achieved something like 7.5. The second part is creation of e-infrastructure, the vehicle on which the services can be delivered. To create that vehicle, we have created State Wide Area Networks (SWAN), the secure network for government operation; State Data Centres (SDC), which are the repository of all information and applications; and the third is Common Service Centres (CSCs), also known as tele-centres. These are the centres at the front end where a citizen can go to seek services.
As far as this entire infrastructure is concerned, we have completed almost 80 percent of our job. About 26 SWANs, 11 SDCs and 94,000 CSCs are under operation in various states and we expect the entire e-infrastructure will be up and running in another three to six months. We have also been able to get the approval of the competent authority on the e-district project. Under e-district, we are going to automate all the back-end processes at the district and sub-district level. It will take one to two years for conceptualisation and one more year for implementation. In the next three years most of the work will be done and most of the services will be delivered in electronic mode.
Which mission mode projects under the NeGP would you like to identify as successes?
The entire NeGP, I would say. Today nobody questions the rationale for e-governance. Everybody says that e-governance is required for public transparency, accountability, efficiency and making life simpler.
Health is one of the key sectors which are not part of the NeGP. How are you planning to address this?
It has been decided that we will expand this basket of 27 MMPs and the cabinet secretary has given a direction to include education, health and PDS (public distribution system) as MMPs under the NeGP.
The DIT is pushing the Electronic Service Delivery (ESD) bill which mandates all government departments to deliver public services electronically after a cut-off date. How do you see the bill impacting public services?
Though we have identified these 27 MMPs, the state governments are taking time, so are some departments of the central government. Unless we create a legislation which will make it mandatory for all government departments and ministries to deliver services in the electronic mode, many departments may not be motivated enough to take necessary steps to deliver services. The only choice for them is to decide the cut-off date to achieve electronic delivery of services. They may decide on one month, two months, ten months or two years, but within five years all government departments must necessarily deliver all public services in electronic mode.
The bill mandates this at the central and state levels, but what about the services of the local government?
We feel that once it is adopted by the state governments, the third level of government will automatically get covered. Once it is adopted by the state governments, all panchayats and municipalities will get covered. Though these are elected bodies, for the purpose of administration they are under the supervision and control of the state.
How do you plan to promote e-governance through use of social media? We believe DIT is also coming up with a draft guidelines on this.
Through social media we can not only reach a larger number of citizens in terms of dissemination of information but also seek valuable suggestions and comments on our proposed policies. We are trying to come out with a policy framework on how to make use of social media.
Are you facing any resistance in this regard?
There may be some apprehension in the minds of some people that the government is not willing to bring in transparency or accountability, but the fact is that all government departments and everyone in the government from top to bottom is interested in bringing in transparency and accountability. The question is just how to do this. That is taking time because when you try to achieve it through a framework, you have to look after all aspects of this framework and make sure people don’t abuse their power in this framework. Individual security and privacy should not be compromised in any way.
How do you look at the potential of mobile governance in India?
Mobile phones have a far deeper reach than the internet as nearly 70 crore people have got a mobile connection. That means, mobile technology has reached very remote villages also. This means a mechanism is available to communicate information, transfer information, seek information, and once you have a communication channel you can seek services, you can deliver services.
Even as more than 60 percent Indians have access to mobile phones, not more than 0.1 percent use mobiles to access internet.
People are unable to make use of the internet primarily because while only two percent of people speak English, most of the content on the internet is in English. We have to have a greater focus on the local language, regional languages. The moment we get content in the local language, everybody will start using internet.
How is your Technology Development in Local Language (TDIL) initiative coming along?
We are trying to convert information in the local languages and we have already notified a certain standard so that people are able to share information in different languages.
A majority of government websites are still not mobile compliant.
It will take some time. I think mobile technology came a little early – at a time when everybody thought it was only for the purpose of communication. Nobody thought that it could be harnessed for transmitting information also. This realisation has come only recently.
The DIT has recently come up with a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a citizen contact centre. How is it different from the CSC project?
CSCs are just the front end where one can go to seek services. A contact centre, on the other hand, is a common telephone number that anyone can call in case of a query or a problem. In the US, for example, you can just dial 911 for emergency services. We want to create the facility of a common number for non-emergency purposes also.
Which states are the best in implementing e-governance?
All state governments are moving very fast towards the era of e-governance, whether it is Bihar or UP or Kerala. But the southern states certainly have the advantage. They were the first movers, so they have already covered some distance. I am sure the other states that have started recently will catch up very fast.
What is the status of State e-Mission Teams (SeMTs) in states?
We were supposed to recruit some 350 professionals from IITs, IIMs and other institutions and we have been able to not only recruit but deploy 150 professionals to various states and we feel that within six months time we will be able to recruit another 200-250 professionals. These professionals are going to be the eyes and ears of the state governments at the programme level in the area of e-governance.
What role can institutions such as the National Institute for Smart Government (NISG) play in e-governance?
NISG is an excellent organisation. It’s a unique organisation because 51 per cent equity is held by the private sector and 49 per cent equity is held by the central government. However, for all practical purposes it is a government organisation and government departments find it comfortable to negotiate with it or while negotiating with the private sector through it. That’s the value of NISG.
How is capacity building in central and state departments progressing?
Capacity building is the responsibility of the departments concerned. Whenever they take up an e-governance project, they are expected to earmark sufficient funds for capacity building and they are doing so. Take the UID (Unique Identification) project or the CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & System) have earmarked funds for capacity building and people are trained for that particular project.
How will the UID project help?
Today the biggest concern is that we don’t have proper identification for each and every resident of this country. So it becomes very difficult to ensure that the subsidies are properly targeted. Once a unique identity is given to residents on the basis of biometrics, services can be easily targeted and this can become a common thread among all government departments and programmes.
What are your efforts towards building awareness for e-governance?
In democracy, pressure groups work very well and if we create awareness we are naturally creating pressure groups and there will be a demand to deliver services in electronic form by the government. And if there is some kind of pressure on the government, the government will work faster. Last year, we took the initiative of starting Commonwealth Express, wherein six coaches were devoted to ICT and these coaches covered almost 50 destinations.
What was the response?
Excellent. This year, we are thinking of starting a mobile exhibition which will go from one place to another.
How are you going about assessment of e-governance projects?
As per the mandate given to us, all e-governance initiatives have to be assessed in terms of their impact. This assessment exercise has to be undertaken through independent third party organisation, IIMs and IITs. Whenever we take an initiative under e-governance and once it has reached a certain level, we deploy these agencies to undertake third-party assessments.
The National Knowledge Network (NKN) has already been planned for the education sector.
That is only to provide a mechanism to transmit data and knowledge. It is only a channel, but ultimately the content has to be delivered.
You mean a separate project on education?
It has to be there. If you want to improve the quality of education in this country, that’s the only way to do it.
Cloud computing is among the major emerging areas. Are you planning to leverage it for e-governance?
Through cloud computing, it is possible to use information and resources and share them. Today every department has got its own resources, its own platform. This means a huge cost because everybody is trying to start from the scratch and everybody is trying to build up their own network and their own storage facilities. This also means issues of interoperability because I have got my own silo and you may have your own silo and these two may not be able to talk to each other. On the other hand, if you work through a common platform interoperability is assured.
Are you in the process of building interoperability framework?
Yes, we have initiated it and it will be done. We have notified standards for the purpose of interoperability. We have also come out with the policy on open standards which has been notified. In the meantime, we are trying to develop the interoperability government framework.
Are the states following these guidelines?
These will be followed because whenever we give any money we put a condition that all these applications will have to follow the standards notified by the DIT.
Many countries, including the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia have taken open data initiatives. Are you planning anything along these lines?
We have also taken an initiative in this particular area and our stated policy is to encourage open source software. The government has decided in principle that the entire data and information which has been created and generated with public money should be available in public domain unless it is sensitive or confidential.