Such a long journey on info highway

Though much has been achieved, lack of integrated planning, execution and e-vision continues to haunt e-governance

shubhendu

Shubhendu Parth | February 7, 2014




Change is inevitable and there is no denying that. However, when we decided to review the seven-and-a-half years of the national e-governance plan (NeGP) and the change that technology had triggered in the government sector, we began by asking the same questions that I had probed in 2006 while working on the 10-point e-gov agenda.

Can automated death certificate generation ease the process and reduce the time required for sanctioning family pension or compensation by doing away with physical movement of files? Will automation of land records help the government at the centre and the states in proper allocation of funds and resource? Can automation of police services at state levels lead to better cooperation at the national level? Can the common services centers be used as an extension of passport seva kendras?

The answer to all these questions then was 'No'. The answer to the same set of question in January 2014 still remains a big ‘No’.

However, it would be wrong to say that nothing has changed since June 2006, when Prasanto K Roy (my editor at Dataquest) and I made a presentation before the department of IT (the earlier avatar of the department of electronics and information technology, or DeitY) on the 10 practical and achievable steps that can speed up ICT-enabled governance in the country.

While it would be foolhardy to claim that this presentation paved the way to the changes, the fact that over 25 key officials from the DIT led by R Chandrashekhar, president of NASSCOM and the then additional secretary, IT, attended three rounds of deliberation to arrive at the final version of the document says a lot about the seriousness of the effort.
It was the time when the national e-governance action plan (NeGAP) had just been rechristened as the national e-governance plan (NeGP). Besides, the government was negotiating with the World Bank for a $500 million loan to roll out the e-governance initiative.

It would be worthwhile to mention that the country’s first e-governance programme, NeGAP, was actually initiated in 2003 with the mandate to get the policy framework and completion of certain projects by 2007.

It is also important to note that after 1984, when India got its first personal computer, the country took its first step towards e-governance. And though the focus was more on computerisation, the period till the early 1990s saw India channelise its efforts towards networking of government departments and developing in-house applications in defence, economic monitoring, planning and for managing data-intensive functions like that of the election commission, census and tax administration.

The NDA government declared 2001 as the ‘year of e-governance’ and went full throttle ahead in creating the right environment for e-governance by enacting the IT Act 2000 – only the second country in Asia and the 12th in the world to do so. Beginning 1998, and the early years of the 21st century also saw the government moving ahead with suggestions of the first report of the national task force for making computers more affordable to people. Efforts were also made to make bandwidth more accessible.

The UPA government further created conducive environment by announcing the state wide area network (SWAN) and common cervices centre (CSC) policy and putting in place the RTI Act.

By end of 2008 e-governance had caught the fancy of the nation and the 11th report of the second administrative reforms commission (ARC) – ‘Promoting e-governance - The Smart Way Forward’ – suggested that expansion in e-government was necessary in India, paving way for government process re-engineering.

The missing link to 'good governance' in India then, as well as today, however, continues to be the lack of integrated approach to governance. While a majority of e-governance projects continue to run in silos with no cross-functional application of government services, there is still the concern about duplication of efforts and issues of one system not talking to another.

What we achieved
From a point where India exported more technology than what it actually used to an era where the country has nearly 197 services – 85 central, 92 by states and 20 integrated projects – being delivered through the ‘e’ way, there is a lot to talk about. The country has the critical backbone support infrastructure ready, with majority of the states today boasting of the SWAN, SDC, CSC and the electronic service delivery gateways.

To quote from the DeitY’s website, the other major core infrastructure components that have been put in place include the middleware gateways or the national e-governance service delivery gateway (NSDG), the state e-governance service delivery gateway (SSDG), and mobile e-governance service delivery gateway (MSDG).

Keeping in sync with the technology changes, the decision to set up a GI cloud, or MeghRaj, is another step forward. The department is also ready with the digital signature for mobile phones that the government can use for authentication and non-repudiation of information and messages as part of the m-governance and mobile service delivery.

On the application or project front, while the NeGP as approved in 2006 included 27 mission mode projects (MMPs), four new projects – health, education, PDS and posts – were introduced in 2011 to take the overall list to 31.

This is particularly important since inclusion of health (and telemedicine) was one of the 10 recommendations that we had made then.

The decision also reflects the priority accorded to the need of health and education for all and is in sync with the World Health Assembly 2005 resolution of adopting e-Health.
Though some of the states, particularly Tripura and West Bengal, have been effectively using telemedicine to extend their healthcare facility to the remotest corner, a lot needs to be done on this front in other states though. Besides, India still does not have an effective nationwide medical surveillance grid in place.

Standardisation of the health record format is another agenda that is yet to be undertaken, and it is important that it is integrated in the final plan on e-Health. In fact, standardised record format and the UID can be key enabler to the medical surveillance system.

While the standard documentation format would enable data from various departments to interact better, and thereby help in better analysis of the big data, the smartcard-based Aadhaar can also double as the citizen health card that can be used to maintain an online health record of the person throughout his/her life, no matter wherever he/she goes.
The compiled database can then be corroborated at the district health office, where it can be mapped with the help of the GIS of the area. This healthcare-tracking mechanism can help generate real-time data and mitigate disease-related risk at the early stages.

Consolidate, standardise, motivate
These are the key mantras that are as valid today as they were seven years ago and DeitY seems to have covered a lot of ground on this front. While suitable monitoring and coordinating mechanism for implementation of NeGP through third party auditors (TPAs), nodal agencies, SeMTs and special purpose vehicles have been put in place, we also have some success on the standards front.

DeitY has taken the right step by setting up an institutional mechanism for evolving and adopting standards for e-governance applications, and has been able to come out with documents for biometrics, metadata and data standards, localisation and, most importantly, the interoperability framework for e-governance and the most recent standards for the preservation of digital records in India. Process has also been initiated for standards on security and mobile governance.

Consolidation of e-gov applications and a central repository of resources were other key recommendations that have been taken forward. The idea was to reduce duplication and increase replication of successful initiatives both in terms of delivery mechanism as well as process re-engineering. The pilot version of the eGov app store was launched last May. The mobile apps store is another step in the right direction and in accordance with technology trend and mass scale adoption of mobile and small form factor end-user devices.  
The store will act as a common repository for developed apps, components and web services that can be used by various government agencies and departments at the state and central levels. It will also feature all the popular core and common apps that can be replicated across the central and state levels.

However, despite a lot of capacity building – and DeitY needs to be praised for it – not much has happened on the motivation front, particularly since a lot of it is linked to the administrative and police reforms that have been pending for more than a decade now. Besides, untimely transfer of key officials or e-gov champions has often been cited as the reason for the midway failure of projects or their inability to scale up.

While prime minister Manmohan Singh had in 2005 indicated a fixed tenure for senior officers, the report on administrative reforms seems to have been lost somewhere between the political and bureaucratic corridors at the centre and the unwillingness of the state governments to address the issue that may undermine the authority of the political bosses.
The recent observation by the supreme court that “fixed tenure of bureaucrats will promote professionalism, efficiency and good governance” is a case in point. It is also important to bring about changes in the service rule to enable post-transfer availability of the officer for project consultation for a minimum period of one year for hand-holding of new projects in his previous department, if required. This will ensure that the projects, irrespective of whether it is ICT-driven or otherwise, does not fall through due to lack of understanding or the champion who has been driving it.

Getting the policy wrong
While DeitY has come out with policy on open standards and framework for document authentication and guidelines for websites, use of social media and digital certificates there are still concerns about guidelines on e-procurement solution and information security.

Also, there is a need to provide legal sanction for all government-to-government, government-to-citizen and government-to-business transactions either through adequate changes in the information technology Act 2000 or a new Act that makes online transactions and digitally signed certificates a legal document, admissible in the court of law.

Concerns about the infamous Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 continues to remain the bone of contention with incidents like the Palghar case in 2013, thereby failing to effectively address the legal, policy and regulatory issues generated by the emergence of social media.

The year 2013 also witnessed the approval for national cyber security policy (NCSP) 2013 that aims to create an assurance framework for enabling action towards formulation and implementation of security policies, best practices and techniques and harnessing competence of human resource. This will enable the government to set up a national cyber coordination centre (NCCC), a multi-agency body with representatives from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and the armed forces.

However, the fact that NCCC would have the authority to scan communication traffic within the country, flowing at the point of entry and exit, including international gateway, has raised the long-pending need for a policy to deal with privacy issues.

The issue of citizen data privacy was also triggered by concerns related to the process followed by UIDAI for the safeguard of the citizen data, including biometric information that it captures for issuing the national identification number and the related Aadhar card.

Justice (retired) KS Puttaswamy, who went to court against the linking of state benefits to the UID scheme in an interview to The Hindu rightly pointed out that the project infringes upon our right to privacy, which flows from Article 21 that deals with the fundamental right to life.

Interestingly, while the recommendation was aimed at doing away with multiple data collection processes by creating one card system and common data structure at every level – similar to the US social security card or Singapore's resident card system – UID actually ended up adding one more document in the wallet.

In fact, the changing trends in technology, the issue of cyber snooping and the digitisation of citizen information with various government and private sector organisations makes it imperative for India to adopt a privacy policy. This assumes further significance with the increase in the number of G2C and G2B transactions being outsourced.

While the RTI Act has empowered citizens to seek information, and in turn compelling the government to move to an e-office environment, the Electronic Delivery of Services Bill that requires all public authorities to deliver services electronically, when passed, will certainly act as the after-burner and bring e-governance to the right trajectory. The sooner, the better.

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