Two phones, three computers and Rs 20,000 per month. That’s a small price for good governance!
Ajay Singh | December 20, 2010
Professor Robin Jeffrey of the National University of Singapore has been researching the impact of mobile phones on Indian society and politics. Jeffrey, a scholar on India, believes that the mobile revolution in the country is comparable to the automobile revolution in the United States. It has empowered the marginalised sections of the society, especially the dalits, he believes, and impacted people both socially and politically. His view assumes significance at a time when the developed world seems quite amused over the fact that India has considerably more mobile phones than toilets. As per a United Nations think tank, nearly half of the country’s population is connected through mobile phones while just a third has access to proper sanitation.
Mobile phones have mushroomed even as basic amenities such as sanitation have lagged, as have the government’s efforts to reach its services to people in remote areas through the internet. If this points to the characteristically skewed development across the country, it also throws up an opportunity for the government to reach people through this new medium. In the drought-prone region of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, where governance initiatives have been as scarce as rainfall, district magistrate Raj Shekhar latched on to this new tool and came up with a citizen-friendly means of streamlining administration and making it more accountable. He set up a round-the-clock complaint centre, Jhansi Jan Suvidha Kendra, within the district collectorate’s campus and dedicated two toll-free lines to register citizens’ complaints.
Nearly six months on, this complaint centre has clocked more than 23,000 complaints and disposed of 90 percent of them successfully. Mobile governance may be an idea that has been talked about in New Delhi’s seminar circuit for several years but here, in Bundelkhand, its successful implementation still inspires surprise and awe. “A villager has to spend no less than Rs 20 to reach the officials concerned,” says Raj Shekhar, explaining the benefits of such a toll-free complaint cell, “Add to that the time and effort involved in travelling to the district headquarters and you find that lodging a complaint used to mean the loss of a day’s wage and harassment to the villagers coming from far-off areas.”
A toll-free dedicated number does not just save time and effort. It also spells accountability to an extent that is as new for the citizens as it is startling and demanding for the officials. The moment anybody calls the toll-free number 1077, from a landline or a mobile phone, the complaint is recorded both as an audio file and in a software programme. The system generates a unique grievance number which is provided to the complainant immediately and the complaint is passed on to the officers concerned via SMS on their official mobile phones.
Public grievances are therefore recorded without the hassle of being routed through rude or indifferent administrative staff. At the same time, this system minimises the possibility of fake complaints, as a couple of complainants found out to their horror when they landed in jail for misuse of the public facility. The district magistrate has also ensured that every complaint is addressed in a stipulated time frame. Just to be doubly sure, the operators at the Jan Suvidha Kendra are authorised to call up anybody, right up to the district magistrate, at any time if the seriousness of the complaint so demands. The district magistrate, on his part, makes sure that every complaint pertaining to a central scheme is immediately passed on to the central agencies concerned on his official letterhead.
Raj Shekhar says it costs less than Rs 20,000 per month to run the Jan Suvidha Kendra. The operators are drawn from different departments to man the Kendra where three computers have been installed. The only expense that the district administration incurs is on the maintenance of the office. Power shortage has been a perennial problem in the entire Bundelkhand region, which straddles backward areas of Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, which is why internet connectivity remains as serious a handicap as the dismal literacy levels. Mobile phone density has, however, increased exponentially, primarily because of large-scale migration of rural population to the developed regions in search of jobs.
Just two months ago, a few villagers informed the complaint centre that two men had been trapped as the Dhasan river swelled and inundated the villages. The district magistrate immediately sought the help of the army which rescued both men. Regular complaints, however, pertain to irregular supply of cooking gas cylinders, for example. In all such cases, complaints are readily forwarded to the civil supply administration and compliance reports sought immediately.
Jeffrey’s assertion about social and political empowerment appears valid when you take into account the fact that the Jan Suvidha Kendra is proving to be an effective deterrent against accumulation of social grievances. The feedback system devised by Raj Shekhar is such that anybody can log on to the website and see the progress on the complaints. That being the case, people no longer need to take
recourse to the Right to Information Act in most cases. At the same time, all district officials are directed to log on to the
website and stay updated on the disposal of public grievances.
Significantly, Raj Shekhar’s model is now being replicated in other districts of the state. His is an example of a self-motivated officer who has made a difference through his own initiative, that too in a state which has traditionally had a poor record for governance. Raj Shekhar is not doing something which goes beyond his call of duty, of course. He is just thinking out of the box for the welfare of common people. That he seems to be an exception among his peers, who appear increasingly indifferent to people’s plight, is a sad commentary on the conduct of Indian bureaucracy even as it does him even more credit.
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