Wednesday, June 01, 2005

TN's e-Gov experiences spotty, but ongoing

Tamilnadu's foray into e-governance has not yet lived upto potentialbecause policy makers may be implementing top-driven projects withlittle public participation. Still, the state does have its ownexamples of how things could work. Krithika Ramalingam reports.

23 March 2005 - When the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development ofWomen (TNCDW) announced its paper-less office in summer of 2002, manycitizens in the state waited with bated breath for the full rollout ofe-governance. The idea of files moving from desk-to-desk at the speedof thought got the babudom great press. But three years down the line,e-governance has been a late starter, operational in around 15 of the108 urban local bodies in the state under the three-year-old WorldBank funded scheme or failing to sustain where it had earlier beenimplemented.Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts believe thee-governance experiment in Tamilnadu has been slow because the policymakers are busy re-inventing the wheel, moving into investment-centricmodes and implementing projects that are top-driven with little publicparticipation.The Information Technology Act does not empower the public to insistthat documents be accepted in electronic form by any governmentdepartment. This has become an excuse for the slow roll-out. -- NVijayashankar, cyber law expertTake the example of Tambaram Municipality, near Chennai. It was one ofthe first urban local bodies in the state to introduce online paymentof property tax and water tax and issue birth and death certificatesin July 2003. The turnaround time for files came down to not exceeding5 days from weeks. But after the yearlong mentoring by an ICT NGOstopped, the system has gone to the dogs.
"Now the touch screen that they used to collect the taxes is stored ina dusty room in the Tambaram Tahsildar\'s office away from the public.The records are not updated and residents often are asked to bringback old receipts for the municipal officials to cross check thedetails of the property. If e-governance is to bring down turnaroundtime for mundane work like tax collection and issue of documents, thenTambaram Municipality is an example of how not to run it," says KMahadevan, a resident of Goriwakkam in East Tambaram.Santosh Narayanan of Foundation of Occupational Development, the NGOwhich mentored the project till July 2004, says the municipal staffwas originally so enthused that the next day they had turned upnattily dressed in ties and their attitudes toward work changed. Thenthe Municipal commissioner was transferred and the project lost steam.The online grievance redressal system on the web is defunct with the site becoming a victim of cybersquatting."Information and Communication Technology projects take commitmentfrom the top, the participants should be receptive to the idea, andthe political set up should concur. Vendors or NGOs can only givelogistical back up from outside, but cannot drive the projectsthemselves. If the end-user is not involved, e-governance is bound tofail," says Narayanan.This could be the template into which most of the failed ICT projects– be it on the e-administration, e-government services or e-governance– fit. The Sivaganga district collectorate returned to paper-centricoffice after a brief dalliance with e-governance, the project scrappedafter the district collector who had introduced it was transferred.The weekly web durbar of Thiruvallur collectorate – grievanceredressal mechanism through which the collector simultaneously", connects to 50 villages – is floundering after a change in head.Legally also, India's Information Technology Act does not have aprovision to prevent the return to non-computerised workflow.Information Technology expert and author of Cyber Laws: I T Act 2000and beyond, N Vijayashankar, says permanence of e-governance should beworked into the Information Technology Act. He says: "Section 9 of theAct does not empower the public to insist that documents be acceptedin electronic form by any Ministry Department of the CentralGovernment or of the State Government. This has become an excuse forthe slow roll-out." Vijayashankar is also an advisor to the KarnatakaGovernment for its e-governance policies.But it is not as if Tamilnadu does not have examples of how thingscould work. Using software from Andhra Pradesh Technology Services,bought at a ridiculously low cost of Rs. 10,000, TNCDW ChairpersonQudsia Gandhi and Executive Director Dr Santhosh Babu cut redtape tosize in their office.The tapals/petitions were scanned, coded and sent to relevantofficials, establishing a workflow process that could be managed andmonitored at any point by the head of departments. This reducedpaperwork, which was used only in the final stages to take printoutsof file summaries once the files were closed. Also, it made tracking afile's progress simple. This workflow process and document managementformat has become the most popular one for e-administration tools."But the most valuable part of the exercise was learning about changemanagement. When the idea was floated around, it became evident thatmany among the staff had reservations. Questions like 'would jobs belost? Will there be a re-allocation of responsibilities if one werenot to be familiar with computers?' were repeated. We had to speak toeach staff individually to enlist their support," says Dr Babu. And inthis case, the system is functional even after both Qudsia Gandhi and
Where the government-owned corporation seems to score over governmentdepartments is that there is greater autonomy of functioning, bothfunds-wise and in administration. For the 40-seater office, neitherchange management nor funds was an obstacle as moststate-government-owned corporations have budgetary allocations forcomputerisation/e-administration processes. On the other hand, in hugegovernment departments such person-to-person contact forimplementation or raising funds - through annual budgetary allocations– is more time-consuming.To cut costs, an expert committee on e-governance headed by the vicechancellor of Anna University – central technical university –recommended the use of open source software. One such open sourcevendor is Lifeline to Business Pvt Ltd, an ICT company that hasentered into a market agreement with the Electronics Corporation ofTamil Nadu (ELCOT). But before marketing it, ELCOT decided toimplement e-administration in its own offices.ELCOT is a government-owned corporation overseen by the stategovernment\'s IT department. It has been appointed to monitor thestate\'s e-Governance mission and is the implementor of policydecisions taken by the IT department.Since April 2004, after evaluating other software, ELCOT has switchedto a web-based, platform-independent e-administration software of LL2Bthat uses a Linux-based application. (Linux is renowned for becomingthe global open source community\'s rebuttal to Microsoft\'s proprietaryWindows operating system.) LL2B\'s president V D G Krishnan said theopen source route more than halved the costs, which could then be usedto train users. This advantage has enthused the Chennai MetropolitanDevelopment Authority, Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Boardand the Treasuries Department to go the paperless office way.", Concerns of transparency and accountability have also been the movingforce behind e-governance and Krishnan believes tools such as his willopen up the system to public scrutiny. Other ICT experts however,differ radically from this point of view and fear that e-governancecould fail if the implementers internalised the inherent faults of theprevalent system into e-governance. "Technology by itself cannot bethe cure for what ails the system. The person manning the computerscould still demand speed money; it would require a change in valuesystem of the society," says Santosh Narayanan.During a recent collections drive, suburban water tax collectors forTambaram and Alandur found defaulters in their paper-based recordsamong those who had already paid through kiosks. Many were forced topay up a second time rather than face disconnection of drinking water,reports one resident. In Tambaram and neighbouring Alandur Municipalities, thecomputerisation of tax collection has neither resulted in an increasein payments nor transparency, nor effectiveness. Residents repeatstories of how computer-unsavvy the local body officials were, unableto retrieve duplicates of lost receipts."A part of the public-partnered underground drainage scheme in AlandurMunicpality pre-dates e-governance. The receipts for deposit paymenthave not all been digitised and there is some confusion about who haspaid and who has not. Those who have misplaced the deposit receiptsfind it difficult to get duplicates because of this duality." says anAlandur-based flat promoter.In both these muncipalities the back-end operations for property andwater tax collections are yet to be completely and coherentlydigitised. "The tax collectors during a recent a door-to-doorcollection drive found defaulters in their paper-based records amongthose who had receipts from payments in the kiosks. Many were forcedto pay up a second time rather than face disconnection of drinking
Change would also be required in the government\'s approach toe-governance, say experts. Though the need for a central e-governancedirectorate has been identified, it is yet to be set up. Tamilnadu\'se-governance mission lacks a clear policy guideline and the privateparticipation has been poor with inappropriate tendering processes,especially among small and medium enterprises with innovative ideas.Vivek Harinarain is the top bureaucrat for Information Technology inTamilnadu. He confirms that Tamilnadu is in the process ofestablishing the e-gov directorate, which will take stock of existinge-governance processes. "With the metrics from the nationale-governance action plan, the ELCOT has already started businessprocess re-engineering to weed out the mistakes from existingprojects", says Harinarain.Vijayshankar throws light on tendering practices in government thatcause outcomes to go wrong. "For example, the government should seekthose who will be able deliver birth and death certificates at thecost of Rs.5 per document that measures up to certain criteria insteadof floating a lowest-bidder tender describing the processes that mightnot be cost-effective", he says. If the government were to seekvendors who could deliver a service at minimal cost instead ofdescribing the processes through which the services should berendered, private participation would be greater, argues Vijayshankar.Other issues about intellectual property rights violation are raisingtheir heads with competing, sometimes even collaborating vendors,infringing on copyrights. With the government willing to give only anin-principle sanction for most projects, vendors are fearful if the\'Antares vs. CommerceOne\' situation would not be repeated, he says.(In July 2003, Antares Systems Ltd had sought CommerceOne and AndhraPradesh Government be restrained from infringing its copyright in its",e-tendering software product Tenderwizard. In its complaint, Antaresalleged CommerceOne, along with Microsoft and Compaq, bidding jointlyfor the e-procurement initiative and thereafter, copied and reverseengineered the e-tendering software of Antares and deployed thesoftware.)Despite these difficulties, Tamilnadu's IT department is going aheadwith its e-governance initiatives. The statewide, wide area network toprovide data, voice and video connectivity project was undertaken inthe last financial year. Though late, ELCOT has started astandardization project to evaluate e-governance tools and enter intomarketing agreements with vendors, as part of its e-governmentmission. "The less-paper initiative (LL2B's e-governance tool) has wonawards from the Department of Administrative Reforms and PublicGrievances. It was an economical decision to market thise-administration tool. There will be revenue sharing between the ELCOTand LL2B", says Vivek Harinarain.In Chennai itself, the state's capital, pilot projects have only meantonline payment of bills for customers of Metrowater and theelectricity utility, Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). IT officialsare now scaling up this project to cover other public utilities andother services such as payment of old-age and widows' pensions.

⊕Krithika Ramalingam23 Mar 2005Krithika Ramalingam is a Chennai-based development journalist

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