In the wake of the pandemic, e‐governance efforts have gained interest among administrations across the world at unprecedented levels especially in the case of a large country like India. New-age technology, including strengthened Internet connectivity, online education and key e-reforms have helped facilitate the government’s efforts to reach the citizens’ doorsteps amid the new normal
E‐governance is a concept wherein citizens are engaged, enabled and empowered using technology and their participation in governance is determined by the efforts and processes by which they:
a) Receive information in relation to the public policies/programmes,
b) Engage in formulation/implementation of such policies/programmes,
c) Share feedback/opinions/values.
There is another school of thought, which thinks that both citizens as well as the government are motivated by the framework of e‐governance that connects technological opportunities with public value formation.
The World Bank, on its part, defines e‐governance as “…the use by government agencies of information technologies (such as Wide Area Networks, the Internet, and mobile computing) that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses and other arms of government. These technologies can serve a variety of different ends: better delivery of government services to citizens, improved interactions with business and industry, citizen empowerment through access to information or more efficient government management…..”
E‐governance has often been referred to as the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) by the public sector with an aim to make the government accountable, increase and promote transparency, enhance information and service delivery and encourage the participation of citizens in the decision-making process.
India, as a country, has made numerous efforts related to the launch and adoption of e‐governance initiatives, which has been introduced in various fields. However, except a few, most of such attempts have not been able to deliver the desired results over a longer course of time, resulting in underutilisation of public funds. Moreover, time and again it has been noted that e‐governance initiatives’ adoption and success varies across geography, mainly on account of the prevalence of diversity in India.
In the wake of the COVID‐19 pandemic, e‐governance efforts have gained interest among administrations across the world at unprecedented levels, especially in the case of a large country like India catering to a population of almost 1.3 billion people. Post pandemic, the importance of e‐governance in the lives of people at large, has witnessed a paradigm shift both in applicability as well as acceptance. The enforcement of social distancing by Central as well as local governments in the past few months has led to enhanced role of e‐governance in delivering critical to common services/facilities to its citizens.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the weaknesses of regulatory systems designed with the past in mind. Governments around the world have had to rewrite rules at a breakneck pace both to allow their citizens to benefit from innovations such as telemedicine and drone delivery and to help their economies adapt to the many disruptions the pandemic has caused.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased not only awareness of many such issues but also the urgency of addressing them. In many areas, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digitally-enabled ways of producing goods or services as physical interaction has become less possible. As governments rebuild afresh following the pandemic, they cannot afford to let the innovation that will power economic recovery and address social and environmental challenges be held back by outdated regulation.
It is pertinent to mention here that in its fight against Covid, India has leveraged e‐governance for various kinds of information dissemination, tracing and monitoring activities. One such initiative is the AarogyaSetu app — a contact tracing, syndromic mapping and self‐assessment digital service. The app had seen nearly 17 crore downloads during this time since its launch in May 2020. Another such e‐governance initiative was the e‐pass service delivered through the service plus framework and was used by 17 states of India to provide movement through e‐pass services during the pandemic.
In another such use of e‐governance, information on the availability of hospital beds, related to Covid treatment, was made available by the Delhi government. The initiative was coupled with a helpline number to raise grievances, in case the patient is not admitted to a treatment facility. E‐governance services have helped India in responding to the Covid situation in an expeditious manner and has continued to act as a strategic asset in the fight against the pandemic.
The Indian government came out with a slew of economic measures to aid growth, including a stimulus aimed at boosting domestic demand by about $9.94 billion. E‐governance has come to the aid here too in the form of providing quick and effective solutions to enable proper dissemination of intent, for example, the government of Delhi created an employment exchange/aggregation platform for prospective employees to register. The platform could be used by prospective employers to hire. The initiative was so successful that all applicants by August 8, 2020, were either hired or shortlisted for 1 million jobs posted on the portal since its launch on July 27, 2020.
Quite significantly, one has to keep in mind here that two-thirds of Indians live in poverty; 68.8 per cent survive on less than $2 (Rs 147) a day; 30 per cent actually survive on less than $1.25/per day. There are 1.3 million anganwadis, 1.2 million, 1.1 million helpers, 10 crore beneficiaries, including children under six, pregnant women and lactating mothers. The novel Coronavirus disease has called for a need to restructure governance to cater to these vulnerable populations.
An anganwadi worker needs to cater to a population of 1,000 in rural and suburban areas under the guidelines of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). An anganwadi worker plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between people and healthcare centres to accomplish education, nutrition and health needs of children up to six years. The implementation of new policies and programme such as digitisation of anganwadis would therefore be truly challenging.
There is no doubt whatsoever a necessity to create e-governance reforms in India is the need of the hour. Delivering public services to citizens electronically is a very narrow vision of e-governance. Rather, in the spirit of the definition of economics as the allocation of scarce resources, e-governance and digitisation need to be broadly incorporated in more domains of governance than one, including studying the resources present in India, assigning them to different sectors of the economy based on requirement and merit, allowing sufficient coordination between the sectors to maximise their efficiency, creating a transparent monitoring system to track the progress of the sectors against planned dynamic targets, providing sustainable incentives to expedite this progress, shuffling resource allocation among sectors as per need and merit, helping evolve the resources and the modus operandi to manage them.
Two civil servants elaborate on the importance of e-reforms, facilitating e-governance even during the pandemic period.
Chairman-cum-Managing Director of Hidco Debasish Sen talks about how New Town initiated key e-reforms to help even the elderly see through the lockdown days and adapt to the new normal. Excerpts:
Q) Do you think low digital literacy can create a roadblock in the country’s digital quest? How can this be overcome?
The fruits of tech-driven development will surely bypass those who are not able to adapt to the digital era, especially after the pandemic with work from home, online education and even OTT entertainment becoming the new normal rather than the exception. More importantly, the opportunity accorded to everyone in a digitally connected world, irrespective of whether he is in Kolkata or Sandakphu, will be lost in absence of a good level of digital knowledge.
Q) Tell us about the key e-reforms that the government has initiated with the help of HIDCO. How will it impact the lives of citizens?
In Smart City New Town, Kolkata, we have been constantly trying to bring technology to the streets, to the people, to the old and the young in an inclusive manner. A walk down the Smart Street near Hidco Bhavan reveals cloud-connected shared bicycle docks, water ATMs, EV chargers, wi-fi trees and solar benches. In the sphere of government service delivery, almost all urban services are delivered online from building plan sanctions to payment of property taxes, application for allotment of plots to the issuance of trade license and blockchain-enabled birth and death certificates. A 24×7 helpline gives a human face to all the technology adoption problems.
Q) Smart cities, smart buildings need smarter citizens. Do you think that digitisation can bridge this gap and how?
During the lockdown days last year, we called upon volunteers to train senior citizens to use Zoom VC and other useful tech apps so as to enable even the elderly to be in the circle. In Smart City New Town, we took multiple IEC activities to emphasise digital money so as to avoid the spread of the virus through cash transactions. We trained security staff at gates of residential apartments to use apps like ‘MyGate’ that adds a level of security on visitors, including delivery personnel. And we undertook virtual seminars to sensitise people about online bank frauds and cybercrime. There is no doubt that we need to train up all sections of society in order to fully harness the fruits of a digitally connected world.
Raj Kumar Yadav, IAS, Sikkim IT Secretary, discusses how online platforms gained considerable significance during the pandemic, helping in better governance.
Relevance of IT in today’s era of digitisation with everything becoming online, from education to economy, is highly impactful. Right from online education to payments and bookings, every department is adapting to this new normal that gained more importance post lockdown due to the Covid crisis. It was during this time that I was posted as the IT Secretary as this was a major responsibility to oversee the various activities in the department. Our Chief Minister has launched EOPC and it was first implemented in the IT Department. Almost all the operations have become online. We no longer keep physical files and all of them are stored on online platforms. There are plans for implementing CMOPs and DCOPs in every department. In addition to this, 15 online services will be launched that includes documentation of various services to helicopter bookings and many more.
Also, several IT parks are being set up to promote the use of technology and in Sikkim, data centres are to be set up so that we can lease out space to other companies. The process is in its intermediate stage and currently we are looking for core developers who will initiate it. Speaking of e-hospitals and telemedicine in the pre-Covid era, storage was a major problem along with the availability of medicines. Recently e-stores have been set up in order to understand the requirement of medicines. If any store of PHS is running short of medicines then that requirement will be automatically updated on the e-store and accordingly the availability will be met.
Connectivity and Internet facility:
Today, the Internet has surpassed all forms of advancements and digital intervention surely has a long way to go. Keeping this in mind, Sikkim is now focusing on improving its Internet connectivity. Connections like Jio, IndusNet have already been requested to study areas and locations to set up 5G connectivity so that rural areas can access Internet connections. Sikkim will give the land free-of-cost to the Internet service providers and in return, they will set up connections wherever it is feasible. This will be a win-win situation for both and the proposal has already been sent. This will also benefit the overall billing system because billing and payments are done online in various states. Sikkim was not in that category for a long time. So with more connectivity, along with the urban, the rural areas will now be able to access information online. Internet connectivity is going to change the scope of communication in Sikkim.
Ease of doing business in Sikkim:
Under the leadership of the Chief Minister, the government of Sikkim has scaled new heights and created the perfect climate to encourage investment. We have used digitisation to change the business climate of this North-East state of India. In the forthcoming years, we would like to showcase the true potential of the state. Sikkim’s IT department has already initiated some key projects with the help of the Commerce Industry of the Government of India that will turn it into an investors’ paradise.
We have already started collating a massive pool of data on lands available in the state. Sikkim has already begun crafting a digital land bank that will help investors to apply online for plots and acquire the same at the click of a mouse. I believe that this will not only expedite the entire process but also encourage transparency in business.
Agro-industry in Sikkim:
Recently, Sikkim has been declared as the telemedicine and agriculture hub. A lot of projects have been given to different states in a similar fashion. We have taken help from STPI, a Government of India organisation, and planned to set up a 100-seater base to include several start-ups under the body. This will largely benefit the agro-industry because if there is any requirement of crop technology or a new product that will yield more crops, it can be made by the start-ups. Every start-up will thus get a boost and an aid of Rs 25 lakh. The agro sector will be up-to-date with the latest technology and the start-ups under the STPI base will get a push. The tentative proposal has to be sent to the Government of India for approval. Once it is approved, the project can begin.
Tourism post pandemic:
Earlier, Bagdogra airport was the main mode of contact for people travelling to Sikkim from Kolkata or Delhi. The recently opened Pakyong airport in 2018 has been a blessing since it will now be possible for people to fly directly to the state. Also, guest house bookings, bookings for Sikkim House and helicopter services will now be available online. Earlier, people had to wait for long hours to get their bookings confirmed and the process would be very time-consuming. Now, with digitisation and widespread use of online platforms, tourism will definitely get a massive boost.
Education and role of IT:
Since the days of Covid, students stopped going to schools and most of the teaching was done online. Education saw a new normal and students slowly adapted to this. But back then, the Internet connection was not as strong as it had to be and therefore, we stressed stronger connectivity so that we could reach out to the rural students as well. A lot of private radio channels came up where lessons were aired online so that students could listen to them and study. In addition to this, Airtel Digital also launched their live channels where students can learn relevant topics and subjects. To facilitate all this, we have currently focused on Internet connectivity.
Policing and IT:
According to Supreme Court guidelines released in 2018, every police station must be under the purview of CCTV cameras so that there is no infringement on human rights. It also has been stated that every CCTV recording should be officially kept for one-and-a-half-years. In addition to this, the CCTNS software is maintained by the IT Department that is used to keep a track of all crime-related issues. The IT Department is responsible for maintaining and strengthening the overall surveillance system.
Journey to become an IAS:
The journey of turning into an IAS was a long and tedious one. Initially, there was no clear idea as to how to crack the examination or what steps should be followed but after my Graduation, I made up my mind to become a civil servant. After completing my Graduation, I started full-fledged preparations and finally after five long years, I cracked the IAS in 2009. Thereafter it has been a long journey.
Challenges for youth:
Today one of the biggest drawbacks seen among the young IAS officers is that they rarely follow passion. In civil services, the main focus is to keep goals and policies public-oriented so that ultimately it serves the people in their best interest. But in order to serve people in their own cadre and to keep them satisfied, most IAS officers overlook that the general public is to be put in focus and all activities must be designed in such a manner so as to ensure that they receive maximum benefit. This is why community participation is of utmost importance. The first step should be to communicate with the general public, inform them and make them aware and lastly, implement the process. It is very important that young officers spread positive thoughts rather than harp on the negativity.