Using data to improve social welfare schemes

As secretary of DeitY, Aruna Sharma is steering UIDAI and overseeing the execution of Digital India programme.

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Pratap Vikram Singh | May 9, 2016 | New Delhi


#Digital India   #interview   #UIDAI   #Aruna Sharma   #DeitY   #aadhaar  
Aruna Sharma, secretary, DeitY
Aruna Sharma, secretary, DeitY

Before taking over the reins of DeitY in February, Aruna Sharma was heading the department of panchayat and rural development in Madhya Pradesh. As secretary of DeitY, she is steering UIDAI and overseeing the execution of Digital India programme. In an interaction with Governance Now, she talks about the database-driven social welfare regime and uses of Aadhaar. 

 
What are the developments under the Digital India campaign so far? 
For a citizen, whose key concern is to have easy access to government services, we are facilitating service delivery through common services centres [CSCs]. Now maximum government services are being made available online and they are also available at CSCs.
 
Connectivity was a limiting factor in the success of CSCs. But many centres now have dongle and VSAT connectivity. We are also exploring white space. Ultimately, the high-speed connectivity is going to be provided by optical fibre network.
 
From the industry’s view, electronics, software and services related policies are becoming business-friendly. In electronics, MSIPS and electronic development fund are big capital subsidy that the government is offering to push the electronics industry.
 
Onus of pushing e-governance projects is now more on the states after the 14th finance commission report. Your comments?
In all schemes the funding pattern has been made into 60:40 – 60 from the centre and 40 from the state. In the 14th finance commission, instead of 32 percent, states have got 42 percent share of revenue. This 10 percent increase will create extra fund flow at the state level. This gives advantage to state governments; they can decide their priorities. For example, Kerala will like to put little [less] money in education as they have done well in education and now people would like to pay for education. So the support will go in a different direction.  
 
As far as paying for the skilled manpower is concerned, states will definitely come forward to put money as these teams play an important role in execution of e-governance projects.
 
As far as software [related expenses] is concerned, the state governments will not have to spend. The central government is providing it free to all the state governments. Software is being developed through NIC and the private sector.
 
For database, we are going to count on the RGI [Registrar General of India] and SECC [Socio-Economic Caste Census]. The database, anyway, comes from state governments. The cost of creating these databases, however, is borne by the central government. We will provide a mechanism to update database in a given timeline. So if tomorrow the state government has its unique scheme it can use the database for identifying right beneficiaries.
 
Mission mode projects on education and health haven’t progressed.
Yes, today [at the time of interview] itself we had a third round of meeting with the health ministry. The government is coming up with a health insurance for '1 lakh and another '60,000 if  there are two elderly members. This is an upgraded version of RSBY [Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana]. It’s a good amount to take care of health expenses of a family. ICT is going to play an important role in terms of implementation and monitoring.
 
Besides, the health ministry already has a strong ICT system related to child and mother health. The health ministry is also implementing hospital management system. It is an intra-hospital system. AIIMS is doing it. It will become a common system and will give data about the kind to diseases patients are suffering from. You will know how many TB cases are there in an area or in which area only male children are being born. Then the government will know what changes need to be brought in the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques [PCPNDT] Act, 1994. The national dashboard will throw up these analytics. For a country of our size, you can’t have this kind of intelligent interventions without ICT.  
 
In education sector, a common scholarship portal is being worked out. There have been instances of teaching through video conferencing. That makes a lot of difference. All competitive exams are happening online.
 
Does connectivity continue to be a major challenge?
The telecom department is aware of it and is taking steps in this direction. The cabinet secretary himself is monitoring the whole programme. 
 
Majority of the places have some form of connectivity and if you look at majority of transactions which happen at panchayats, it is not very big in numbers. Take the example of a bank, which caters to villages in a 5-km radius with a dependent population of 20,000. The bank will have transactions for not more than two-three hours. So the limited connectivity need can be met by a dongle. The situation is grim in areas without any telecom connectivity. That’s why we are working on white space connectivity.
 
Has white space evolved enough to be used to provide connectivity?
Of course! Technology-wise it is ready. IIT Bombay and IIT Chennai have done experiments. To work on this model, we are in talks with DoT [department of telecommunications] to check the legality of the whole issue.
 
The moment we clear administrative issues, then rolling out of the plan will not take very long.  [After it is approved] we can connect everybody in two-three months. That’s the advantage of this technology. Of course, it will not have great speed. But it is better than zero connectivity.
 
Out of 2.5 lakh panchayats, we have laid down cable in 80,000 panchayats. There are some issues in making them operative. They are cracking it.
 
How do you propose to use Aadhaar, now that UIDAI has statutory backing?
Aadhaar is a tool to ensure that money going from the consolidated fund is reaching to the right person. The giver of money has every right to know that you are the right person. So the government can always ask you to give your Aadhaar number.
 
However, Aadhaar is only used at the last step [of service delivery] – at the time of remitting the amount. We are developing a mechanism in which we will not be required to seed each and every database. We will have a common database where Aadhaar will be used only at the time of verification.
 
There is a confusion about Aadhaar-based cash transfer. Beneficiaries don’t know in which bank account they will receive the payment.
 
To address that we are creating a common big data [social security platform] and in that system an individual will decide in which account she or he wants to receive benefits. All schemes payments/benefits will go in that account. Citizens will have to suggest if they want to change their bank account in which they receive payment. Systemic errors, too, create confusion. When we started DBT [direct benefit transfer] for housing – and this was done without using Aadhaar – many beneficiaries were given the same account number. In the database, when we decide entitlement, there are a number of checks we have to do.
 
What will be the mechanism to update the database?
There are only six corrections [updates] which happen. Births and deaths are two which will be done by the Registrar General. Then there is marriage: a girl goes out of a family and joins another family. Then a family moves out completely or a family splits. The birth and death updates will be done on an auto mode by the registrar, which could be the health department or a local body. The latter four will be on request.
 
In rural areas, we are thinking of giving the power to update to the CEO  of janpad, and in urban areas we plan to entrust the municipal head or, say, the chief municipal officer to do the correction.  
 
The common database will be updated regularly – with timely registration of births and deaths. Since all departments will be pulling data in an auto mode, the moment a death happens it will automatically reflect in the PDS database. So next month they will reduce ration entitlement by five kg [as per the National Food Security Act every member of a beneficiary household gets five kg of ration]. When a child is born the food department will enhance ration by five kg. When a marriage takes place and a woman is added in the family, the department will add five kg ration in the overall entitlement. The department will reduce ration allocation for her paternal family.  PDS and health databases need to be dynamic. 
 
Will we migrate to a fully database-driven social welfare regime?
Ultimately, it has to be. Even today it is. Just that the data is in silos. Pension has its own database, so does MNREGA, PDS and others. Database-based delivery is an established practice today. This is not something new we are doing.
 
We have successful examples. Six states are already using common database [to run social welfare programmes]; they have evolved their common database parameters. Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Haryana and Meghalaya are attempting to move in that direction. 
 
Why is it taking so long for the government to set up the cyber coordination centre? 
The National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC) is being set up to enable real-time situational awareness and rapid response to cyber security threats with pro-active threat detection at the national level.  It is a complex project. The implementation involves major components; namely, data collection, transport, processing and detecting attacks through correlation and analysis, storage and ultimately leading to achieve security analytics capability and create a cyber threat model. In the first phase, secure data collection framework is being set up and correlation, analysis and detection of security threats will be carried out on the collected data to generate situational awareness. Further, tests and proof of concept of commercially available technologies will be conducted to identify and develop security analytics. In Phase II of the project, the set-up will be scaled up with the help of understanding and experience gained in the Phase I.  Phase I is expected to be completed in four months. With the availability of funds and skilled manpower, Phase II of the project will be completed by August 2017.
 
What are your priorities as DeitY secretary?
My priority will be digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. 

pratap@governancenow.com

(The interview appears in May 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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