Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Tech-tonic shift - Technology to tackle corruption - Harmony Celebrate Age Magazine April 2015 issue
Tech-tonic shift - Technology to tackle corruption
Harmony-Celebrate Age Magazine April 2015
Legal Eagle: Kris Dev leverages technology to take on corruption
Kris Dev, a tech-savvy change agent, stays focused on anti-corruption, transparency and accountability, reports Jayanthi Somasundaram
http://www.harmonyindia.org/magazine.html & http://www.harmonyindia.org/magazine/Apr15/index.html
Kris Dev's Facebook status announces his most recent RTI petition. It is aimed at a neighbour who has allegedly violated the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority rules. Turns out, instead of two storeys, his neighbour has built four. “Following this development, another neighbour has built three storeys, and each one is pointing a finger at the other,” says the 59 year-old change agent and Right to Information activist.
Gopala Krishnan Devanathan, fondly known as Kris Dev, has been leveraging technology to introduce transparency into the working of the public and private sectors. His foray into RTI activism is an offshoot of this larger endeavour. It all began when he started working with Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) as a management trainee, after he acquired an MMS degree at Madras University. During the 17 years he spent with SAIL, liaisoning with various government departments and officials at all levels, Dev gained an insight into how public corporations and other government agencies operate.
During the next six years, he gained the exact opposite perspective, when he left SAIL and joined the L.N. Mittal Group in North America. “When I returned in 2000, I noticed a major difference between our country and others – over there, when they mean business, they mean it. Here, we don’t. When I compare working systems abroad and in India, it is obvious that we are intelligent individually, yet collectively we are not. There is no synergy,” Dev says, adding that the perspective he gained from his overseas experience made him realise that he could help India get a better governance methodology.
So, as a next step, he set up ‘Life Line to Business,’ a start-up IT company, and in 2002, he launched an e-Governance product called ‘e-administration tool for e-Governance’. Dev implemented the portal on a trial basis at Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT), the nodal government organisation for implementing e-governance in the state. He and his team thus proved that transparency was possible and government paperwork need not take so much time.
The product was appreciated and even implemented by the Puducherry government on a trial basis. “In Puducherry, we were able to link 20 departments and the chief secretariat could check on all of them with a click of the button,” explains Dev, who adds the portal was used only for one year before the administration changed.
Shyam Sundar, a former colleague who worked closely with Dev for 15 years at SAIL, remarks, “Both of us have had several discussions on things that need to be changed in society. We kept tabs on various procurement activities to ensure things were in place.” Sundar now trades in commodities in Chennai. On the challenges Dev faced, Sundar adds, “He did not have a rosy path and faced several hurdles. However, he is a man of perseverance and focus.”
Bala Sandlyan, who coordinates events and workshops at the Indian Institute of Security Management, has had endless discussions with Dev on using technology for better governance. “Today, to take the right decisions, we need to be tech savvy. People need to be connected and we should be able to track movements. Dev had always envisioned this setup and worked towards it.”
He decided it was time to take technology to the people and worked on a unique biometric identification using a biometric smart card. He got a break when a local NGO in Ananthapur District, Andhra Pradesh, invited him to use this technology for 200 beneficiaries in a remote village for the ‘Work For Food’ programme. “Later, when floods hit one of the poorest of the poor areas of Andhra Pradesh, an international NGO provided some funds which were misappropriated by a smaller NGO, thereby not reaching those in need. They requested us to do a field visit and provide a solution.”
Dev set up a unique biometric system for the 200 beneficiaries in Gurrempetta village in Khammam district and it worked wonders. His work won him a similar project in Western Andhra Pradesh, following which h was invited by the Bihar government’s Principal Secretary for Panchayat Raj in 2007 to create a foolproof system in that state. “A biometric smart card can link a person to a bank account directly. It is a foolproof system. No ghost beneficiaries, duplicate beneficiaries or forged signatures,”
Dev’s work has won him several awards, like the Manthan-AIF Award 2006 for creating India’s best e-Content for e-Inclusion and Livelihood Creation. He is also the recipient of the Innovations 2009 Award (Ideas in Practice) for implementing e-Administration: e-Platform for e-Governance, from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Alumni Association and the IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE), Pune. Our crusader’s work in e-governance inevitably introduced him to the RTI Act. Dev attended the National Convention on the RTI Act in 2006, addressed by both the President and Prime Minister of India, and returned to Chennai to share it with more people. “RTI is a fantastic tool, if used properly. Simply put, Section 4(1)a of the RTI Act explains that the government should make information accessible to the public at any given point.”
The first RTI petition he and a group of activists filed was against the Punjab Warehousing Corporation, a Punjab government organization. The media had reported that India was importing food produce, which did not reach the people as it was rotting in the warehouse. “We asked them how much was spoilt and received an answer in 30 days. The value of the spoilt item was over Rs. 100 crores!” says dev. “Soon I started filing more RTI petitions and was assisted by people who had been using the RTI Act before me.”
In no time, Dev was conducting workshops for the public through various NGOs in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu. As silvers actively participate in community events, this helped build an audience. “I urge citizens to ask all sorts of questions – even if it is about a streetlight not working. I was helping a silver couple find out if a piece of land belonged to them as someone else had claimed it. They used the RTI Act and discovered that the property was their ancestral land and they were the rightful owners,” smiles Dev.
RTI assignments and requests were now coming in thick and fast but there was one workshop that Dev conducted that was a real eye opener. Govinda Krishnan, member of the State Planning Commission for Disability, and founder of Nethrodaya, a residential resource centre for the visually challenged, had invited Dev to speak on the Act to 50 visually challenged individuals. “The RTI is a powerful weapon and, armed with the knowledge that the authorities fear it, many of the workshop participants later filed petitions to empower themselves,” recalls Dev.
He makes an astute observation – that it is not an achievement to file so many RTIs; it is actually a reflection on the flaws in the system. “If the government can make information accessible and transparent, we need not file petitions. That’s how it is meant to be according to Section 4(1)a of the Act.”
Our crusader’s work turned into a campaign long ago and Dev is often mentioned in the media. “Even if I haven’t attended his workshops, I have been closely following his work,” says Dr. V. Suresh, a high court lawyer and national general secretary for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
As an RTI activist, there is never a dull moment. In 2006, Dev co-founded the Transparency and Accountability Network (TrAcNet), a global network of social organisations and activists who exchange ideas on creating a community-centric sustainable development framework using the principle of transparency for accountability. “We have participants from all over the world exchanging ideas and it keeps me thoroughly engaged.” He has also assisted in a project for the Ministry of Panchayati raj, Government of India, in its efforts to integrate districts with blocks and panchayats for devolution of 3 Fs – functions, funds and functionaries.
With so much on his plate and so much still to be done, does he ever mentally log out” “When offline, I travel, take long walks and spend time in my garden.”