The Larger Question

I was amused to see the reaction of Srivatsa Krishna in “Counterpoint: Ring-Fencing the Good” (October 15, 2005). He has skirted around the main issue, which is: corruption in the e-procurement/e-governance deal. Instead of giving answers, it has raised more questions. Every Indian citizen who expects honesty in pubic life expects an acceptable explanation from the officials concerned in these allegations. The larger question posed by the chairman of Keonics on the e-procurement scam still remains unanswered, while the corruption dragon had moved on to Karnataka with the same coterie at the forefront. 

NISG, a private limited company, still continues to handle huge e-governance funds of the government, mobilized from sources such as UNDP, while other private companies are not given any such privileges. Promoting Microsoft’s proprietary technology in e-governance at a huge cost, when open-source software (OSS) technology is available almost free of cost, raises serious questions too, especially in the light of the developed nations themselves resolving to adopt OSS in e-governance. 

It is imperative that the clouds of doubt on e-governance projects be cleared, as e-governance itself is meant for transparency and reducing corruption. The very fact that someone like me-who had initiated large-scale, process automation-based e-governance initiatives in district administration during 1999-2001-had started doubting the e-governance initiatives at the national level and state level, shows that all is not well with the e-governance initiatives of the nation. 

It is commendable on the part of Dataquest for having taken the pains to understand the true meaning of e-governance. Srivatsa Krishna, IAS, currently has been working with the World Bank in Washington, DC on deputation has aired his personal views. Equally, I have also shared my personal views on the subject of suspected massive corruption in handling funds meant for e-governance. There appears to be a design to monopolize the government’s IT spending only through certain chosen companies, using non-transparent means. I have attempted to highlight this irregularity. 

I started my career as sub-collector in Mayiladuthurai (Nagapattinam district) and I was transferred to Cheyyar revenue division of Tiruvannamalai district during January 1994, when I refused to sanction 60,000 bogus cyclone-relief cases. 

Then, from Cheyyar, I was posted as additional collector (revenue) in Tiruchirapalli district and thereafter transferred to Madurai (February 1995). While working at Madurai during 1995, I refused to follow the dictates of the then district collector to help siphon off central government funds meant for the rural poor. Again, I was transferred out. This time I moved the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), making serious allegations of corruption in the construction of cremation sheds for the poor. The Madras High court initiated suo moto public interest litigation (PIL) and I was directed to present the facts. I filed an affidavit and on that basis the Madras High Court ordered a CBI enquiry into the scandal in February 1996. Two ministers, several IAS officers, and others have been arrested and charged by the CBI for various offences. The cases are still pending. 

When I questioned the order of transfer and made allegations of corruption, the very same allegation (which is now quoted by Srivatsa Krishna) was made against me before the CAT as well as before the Madras High Court. But the high court ignored those allegations. The truth is that I had earned for the government nearly Rs 15 lakh, by way of interest, by depositing the surplus money of the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Madurai, in State Bank of India, Madras Main branch during 1995. There is nothing unusual about depositing surplus money in high-interest-yielding deposits. The finance department of every state government does it as a matter of routine with regard to certain earmarked funds. The deposit was in the name of the DRDA (government) and in a government-owned bank (SBI). I used my brother’s contact in the process, when he was working in the Tiruchirapalli branch (350 km from Chennai) at that time. For having earned a hefty interest of 11.5% to 13% and an actual accrual of interest to the tune of nearly Rs 15 lakhs, I have been targeted by the accused in the cremation sheds scam as well as by a World Bank official such as

It appears that Srivatsa Krishna has easy access to the Tamil Nadu Secretariat’s ‘strictly confidential’ files. Srivatsa is correct that I received a show-cause notice from the current AIADMK government in the beginning of 2004 as to why I deposited money in SBI where my brother was working. This is a confidential issue known only to me and the Government of Tamil Nadu. It is open to question how Srivatsa came to know about this strictly confidential subject of Tamil Nadu’s Secretariat. Living in Washington, yet having access to confidential personal information file of an IAS officer in Tamil Nadu Secretariat raises serious questions!

It is a different matter that the deposit was made in Madras main branch of SBI, when my brother was working in Tiruchirapalli (350 kms from Chennai). Srivatsa should also be aware that when I served in Tiruvarur district as its district collector during 1999-2001, large-scale e-governance practices resulted in the district being declared the ‘corrupt-free district in TamilNadu’ by a group of prominent NGOs in Chennai. I was also declared ‘the man of the next millennium among the bureaucrats in India’ for e-governance work by the Week magazine in its millennium issue. 

Srivatsa had strongly defended the ‘reputation’ of IAS officers. I wish I could subscribe to his theory. As a joint vigilance commissioner (1996-97), I had the occasion to look into several files concerning IAS officers. My vigilance ‘position notes’ submitted to the government would disclose the extent of corruption afflicting politicians, bureaucrats, including IAS officers. Words and deeds should bring out the reputation of an honest officer, not mere gossip. 

As Srivatsa says, Satyanarayana and his NISG are not answerable to the government. This is precisely our concern. NISG, a private limited company, handles crores of rupees of public money. Without the Government of India agreeing to the proposal, UNDP (which is the sole financing agency for NISG) would not have agreed to invest a single penny in the name of e-governance. For that matter, no UN agency can spend its money on India’s development unless it gets a case-by-case sanction from the respective ministries in Government of India. 

As NISG is a private limited company, it does not come under the purview of the Parliamentary committees, CVC, CBI, or CAG. NISG does not come under the purview of the recently promulgated RTI either. The expected spending on e-governance is to the order of Rs 25,000 crore in the next few years. As Srivatsa matures, he would understand the implications of these words. 

NISG’s board cannot enquire into allegations against its own misdeeds, not absolve itself of all the allegations! It would be like acting as judge and the prosecuted simultaneously.

The entrustment of promotion of e-governance to a non-governmental organisation-namely the NISG of which J Satyanarayana is the CEO, and the manner in which e-governance is implemented in the state of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka-requires detailed investigation. I repeat this is my personal view, not the views of any organization in which I am working. 

Srivatsa had also talked about icons in the IAS, in the area of e-governance. India lives in villages. Till date, more than 40% of India’s population lives below the poverty line. India has its quota of great icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar. Mahatma Gandhi became an icon because he chose to identify himself with the masses and fought for their freedom. Dr Ambedkar became an icon because he chose to fight for the rights of the so-called untouchables when he could have lived a comfortable life by looking the other way. Among the living, Medha Padkar is a living icon as she chose to represent the tribals who have absolutely no powers. An icon in the field of e-governance should have worked for the upliftment of these masses, using e-governance tools. No one has cared for the widows and the old-age pensioners so far, by using e-governance tools. Although the schemes for these marginalized segments have been in vogue for more than 10 years. There is no e-governance for the upliftment of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes who constitute the worst among the marginalized population in India. There is no e-governance in any of the rural development schemes of the Government of India or in any of the state governments, save for some computerized reporting mechanisms. Bribery, deception, and corruption are part of the lives of these people, who are categorized as ‘below the poverty line’ in the panchayat registers. Has any icon cared to look at them?

E-seva of Andhra Pradesh or Bangalore One of Karnataka could never come under this category. E-procurement initiative of AP has so many unanswered questions. Real e-governance is yet to be fully spotted in India.

We are not concerned with funds belonging to individuals or private companies. The subject relates to use of public funds to provide e-governance for the welfare of common man. It is a case of trust. When there is an allegation about breach of trust by men entrusted with public money, there should be proper investigation and if it found true, the guilty should be punished. There are attempts to shield the corrupt. The ‘Counter point’ of Srivatsa Krishna, IAS, only reinforces the resolve to fight corruption more vigorously. 

C Umashankar, IAS Commissioner for Disciplinary Proceedings Salem, Tamil Nadu

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