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Kiosks of Chaos

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DQI Bureau
New Update

Once again, the Government of India has taken a decision that is

going the same way as did its approach of extending the reach of information

technology. Much like we declared that Indian villages had electricity, drinking

water, healthcare, roads etc, the Government of India is half way to declaring

that India's villages have been computerized.

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Policy on Fast Wheels?



The government is already being accused of having chalked out the plan to

create 100,000 kiosks in the villages, at someone else's behest. The

allegation comes partly because of the speed with which the government is taking

the steps to roll it out. Microsoft, Reliance, and HCL are the prime suspects.

Some say the plan is being rolled out to popularize a technology that has been

created by professors of IIT Madras. Some others point at the MS Swaminathan

Research Foundation (MSSRF), which has chalked out Vision 2007 whereby it too

aspires to create 100,000 kiosks in India.

The plan, which was unveiled jointly with MSSRF just a few

months ago, aimed at creating kiosks that had PC, printer, connectivity, and

little else besides a grand vision. Once again, just hardware with little or no

applications to use. The approach sounds familiar, with a little twist though.

This time, the program will be managed at the national, state, and local levels

by private organizations. The government has figured that the new business model

will eliminate the need to create elaborate budgets and expenditure statements,

allow private organizations to take care of all the steps, while the government

can declare victory in attaining its goals.

But that's where it may run into a snag. The concept of

outsourcing the implementation of a robust strategy, where all the 't's have

been crossed and the 'i's dotted, is an acceptable management approach to

achieving results quickly while reducing the risks. But can one outsource

strategy?

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What About e-Gov?



In this case, the government is looking forward to asking a national-level

service agency (NLSA) to chalk out the agenda. That is akin to outsourcing the

governance of rural India, at least in the areas that will be covered by these

100,000 kiosks.

What the program aims at is spending about Rs 100,000 per kiosk,

and giving the NLSA a budget of Rs 1,000 crore. The chosen NLSA will invest this

amount and coordinate through the franchisees a business model that is

commercially viable. To that extent, the real and immediate beneficiaries will

be the hardware providers and the software providers of operating systems and

the essential applications. But will this plan achieve the larger goal of

supporting e-governance?

At the second consultative meeting with non-profit

organizations, held in mid-September, it was very evident that the government

was open to establishing state-level and village-level agencies without as much

as even creating a robust framework. One of the non-profits emphatically argued

against imposition of any framework on their kiosks, and the joint secretary

seemed to veer towards that position. Another non-profit argued for a

well-structured approach, before the program was handed over to the NLSA; and

the joint secretary quipped that since one party accuses the government of

over-structuring and another of lack thereof, the government may have just got

it right this time! This is very suggestive of a governmental process where

decisions are not weighed for their utility but for their convenience.

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What is the Goal?



How can the government outsource without a clear framework? Or is the

framework limited to putting 100,000 pieces of hardware in as many villages? Why

has the government not called on the expertise of the only company that has any

experience worth the name in rolling out of computers into rural India, namely

ITC? (It has recently been recognized as the world's best ICT provider for a

development initiative by the Development Gateway Foundation, promoted by The

World Bank.) Understandably, e-choupal and ITC want to stay clear of any

controversies that association with the government brings. In the event then,

who has the skills and the experience to create the framework?

It is worth noting that ITC took a couple years firming up its

strategy to roll out e-choupal. Their strategy was not about just putting

computers in the villages. Rather, creating a viable business model that was

sustainable and also contributed to growth of business, capacity building,

learning, and speeding up the process so that they could replicate the model in

six villages and more every day, merely three years into the game.

And what is the government aiming at? Are the mandarins assuming

that no matter what one does, putting any computing device anywhere is a good

investment? Or, that the local-level operators will make sure that the plan

works and delivers? Looking at the document prepared for the kiosks, it is not

clear what the government is aiming at. Of course, there are many services that

are supposed to reach the villagers by this means, to augment electronic

governance. That forms the backdrop of the scheme. There is little to suggest

that it can be accomplished, however.

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Will it be then just a front end? Even that is not clear, as

there are no clear-cut applications planned. Unless the government thinks

through the whole exercise, identifies all that can be reasonably achieved, and

plans and goes along a way where every bit has been defined well-its unlikely

to create a front end that works. Leaving it to the NLSA may be tantamount to

outsourcing governance and that is unlikely to be the policy's intent, surely

not a conscious one.

Who Will Run the Show?



Are there competent non-governmental agencies that can run with such an

ill-defined program at the helm? Will the agencies be able to define the program

in a way that meets the expectations of e-governance? On the face of it, it is

hard to vouch for it because as of date, no private agency has any experience of

governance or the ability to scale it up. They may have the know-how of

delivering to the government; some may even aspire to become an arm of

government in a way that is profitable. Perhaps scaling up may not be a big deal

for Reliance, Tata, or Bharti. However, they will have to get ready to take

lessons in what a government is all about.

When there is no front-end, would there be a back-end? The

government has little back-end that extends beyond small pockets. Some

nationwide applications such as income tax are already facing data-integrity

issues and have had a tough time integrating various smaller applications and

databases. Efforts to integrate billing applications are confined to large

cities, as they primarily address the urban billing needs only.

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That is where the government expects smaller, nonprofit bodies

such as Tarahaat and Drishtee to play a role. However, Drishtee-and many

organizations like it-do not want to be burdened with the governmental

superstructure and its dictates. That would hardly qualify them to be the

partners in this exercise.

God Lives in Details



In the event, what makes the government optimistic? Unless the local

franchisees see revenues coming, they are unlikely to go for it. Unless they go

for it, the state-level agencies will have a tough time getting into it-and

that will render the plan far from viable.

Ideally, the government could have started by learning the

lessons of all such programs since independence. Unless a program is well

planned, from vision to the last nail, it is unlikely to meet the goals. The

government could do well to learn from ITC's e-choupal-it takes a couple

years, of a dedicated team, to



plan the things well. Such a plan could identify and detail what can be
delivered, to make the model viable while meeting the needs of governance. Then,

it could specify each and every detail. Setting up 100,000 kiosks, which will

start yielding what the government aspires to, may be much more likely then.

Otherwise, these kiosks may add to the chaos that is being caused by rising

expectations that meet poor delivery. There is little worse in turning people

off an initiative than a shoddy implementation.

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Satish Jha Special Adviser, Kofi Annan Centre for Excellence

in ICT mail@dqindia.com

CSC and Behold

In its bid to leverage the advancements of information and

communications technologies (ICT) to deliver all possible government and private

services, especially in rural and remote areas, the Government of India is

working on a plan to create a network of 100,000 service delivery centers-common

service center (CSC)-in rural areas by 2007.

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According to the draft policy guidelines prepared by the

Department of Information Technology (DIT), the CSCs would deliver a package of

government and non-standard, region-specific services including: agriculture,

animal husbandry, health, education, land and panchayat matters, social welfare,

employment, and environment.

The list also includes citizen services like registration of

births and deaths, getting information about various schemes, availability of

forms and contact directories, grievance redressal, and matrimonial services.

Besides the utility services, information about business activities and

availability of related forms and documentation and consumer welfare services

would also be part of the proposed services bouquet.

According to the policy framework, the DIT would provide 50% of

the required grant support for CSCs, and the state government would have to

provide matching financial support. Besides, the Government of India has also

mandated financial support from Nabard, under the Rural Infrastructure

Development Fund. The required grant support would be determined through an

appropriate tendering process.

The policy guideline says that it aims to encourage and promote

public-private partnership (PPP) in the rural ICT domain: by encouraging

establishment of these CSCs on an entrepreneurship model at the panchayat or

village level. It also aims at creating opportunities for non-government or

private entities to play a major role in the actual implementation of the

scheme.

According to the draft policy, the CSC project would be

implemented through a three-tier structure. While a local village level

entrepreneur (VLE) or a franchisee would be at the bottom of the service

delivery pyramid, the service centre agency (SCA) would form the second or

middle-level service delivery mechanism and handhold the VLEs by providing

business and technical support. This, the CSC guideline claims, has been done to

create an enabling environment as the VLEs would not be in a position to manage

and sustain the CSC from day one.

Besides supporting 100 or more CSCs at the district and the

state level, the SCA would be responsible for identifying the required

applications and services, harnessing the network, identifying and training the

VLE, and setting up and running the CSC-both directly and through the VLE. It

would also supply, aggregate, and update the content besides addressing various

requirements of the CSCs. The SCA will also be responsible for conducting a

detailed benchmark survey for the specific area, to assess the demand viability,

identify content, create appropriate the service package, and evaluate the

suitability of a location for establishing a CSC.

While an agency designated by the state would implement the

scheme through its field formations and/or the district administration. Plans

are afoot to appoint a national-level service agency (NLSA) at the central level

to implement and manage this program, which is one of the integrated projects

under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP).

Shubhendu Parth

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