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by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 29, 2011 11:52 AM
The draft Electronic Service Delivery Bill, 2011, is aimed at making government services available online. But there are many hurdles to bringing in effective e-governance, says Hemchhaya De

At a time when India is hotly debating the Lokpal Bill, another significant piece of legislation is about to make its way to Parliament this monsoon session. The government has mooted the draft Electronic Service Delivery Bill, 2011, to ensure that all ministries and government departments provide their services to citizens online. 

The bill, drafted by the department of information technology (DIT) under the ministry of communication and information technology, could have far-reaching benefits for citizens. If implemented, one would no longer have to stand in long queues, make frequent trips to government offices and deal with red tape in order to procure even such basic documents as driving licences or land record copies. 

Of course, the key question is whether the necessary infrastructure will be in place to allow citizens to access these services via the electronic mode. In a country where active Internet user penetration in rural areas is as low as 2.13 per cent, the feasibility of e-governance depends on the state providing enough number of access centres.

E-governance is not a completely new concept in India. The Centre laid down an ambitious National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) in 2006 and roped in industry bodies like Nasscom to facilitate the delivery of e-services. According to a Nasscom report, there has been substantial progress in NeGP. Of the 1,100 services targeted under the plan, over 600 services in both government-to-citizen (G2C) and government-to-business (G2B) domains across central ministries and state departments can now be accessed electronically.

However, many experts feel that the NeGP has not lived up to its promise. "Progress in NeGP has been slow," says Subhash Bhatnagar, honorary adjunct professor at IIM, Ahmedabad, and member of the steering committee of the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) for the communication and IT and information sector.

That said, some states have been running successful e-government projects. “Take Karnataka’s online delivery and management of land records,” says Bhatnagar. “The online system offers services to ordinary people on a first-come, first-served basis without subjecting them to the whims and fancies of babus.”

However, Karnataka is an exception rather than the rule and many states are lagging behind when it comes to extending e-governance. “IIM, Ahmedabad, carried out an e-governance impact assessment study in 12 states. West Bengal is one state which hasn’t fared well and it figures in the bottom half of the list,” reveals Bhatnagar.

The draft Electronic Service Delivery Bill aims to exert pressure on states and government departments to fully automate or computerise their services to citizens. Crucially, it sets a clear time limit for delivering online services. The bill says, “every competent authority of the appropriate Government” is required to publish or specify the services that will be digitised within six months from the commencement of the law. “If there’s any delay, departments have to explain it in writing,” says a senior official of the DIT who does not wish to be named.

The bill further mandates that all public services should be delivered in electronic modes within five years from the commencement of the law. This period may be extended by not more than three years.

In addition to a grievance redressal mechanism, the bill proposes setting up a Central Electronic Service Delivery Commission to enforce the provisions of the law. The commission should comprise a central chief commissioner and not more than two central commissioners — all of whom shall have “worked as secretary or equivalent level… either in the central government or in the state government”.

Many experts feel that the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction. “The bill will reduce red tape and promote efficient services in various government departments,” says Payal Chawla, partner, Hemant Sahai Associates, a Delhi-based law firm. “The time limit of five years with an extension of a maximum of three years to bring all the services in the purview of the legislation is well-intended.”

Agrees Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based organisation which carries out research in IT. “The bill ensures that government departments publicly commit to Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and demonstrate compliance to these SLAs,” he says. “Like the RTI Act, there is an office of the central chief commissioner which can penalise officials who don’t provide electronic services or comply with their own SLAs.”

But others argue that the bill is too open-ended. “I’d have liked to see the services specified clearly,” says Neel Ratan, executive director, PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Just starting an e-service isn’t enough — the quality or level of performance of the service needs to be ascertained as well. The bill seems to be silent on how quality can be ensured.”

Bhatnagar too feels that the draft bill should have first clearly defined what “electronic service delivery” is all about. All it says is “electronic service delivery means the delivery of services through electronic mode including, inter alia, the receipt of forms and applications, issue or grant of any licence, permit, certificate, sanction or approval and the receipt or payment of money”.

However, electronic delivery of services should encompass all end-to-end steps necessary for delivering the service, points out Bhatnagar. “Receiving an application, receiving supporting documents, receiving payment of various fees, issue of licence/receipts/certificates/ documents such as ration cards and passports and payment of dues to citizens should be web enabled. Citizens who wish to carry out the transaction through a portal without having to visit a government office should be able to do so,” he says.

Furthermore, says Bhatnagar, government agencies should ensure that every citizen has access to a public service delivery centre (government owned or private) from where he or she can access such services. And a person shouldn’t have to travel more than 10km to access these services.

Experts say there are several hurdles to e-governance in India. “The domestic IT industry has not focussed on this important market and services have been decentralised without ensuring common standards. So different states may be using different software, which can make the whole system messy and lead to uneven and poor quality projects,” says Abraham of CIS. “We are still very far away from the sophistication of G2C and G2B systems currently deployed in many Western countries.”

In sum, enacting a law to bring in complete e-governance may not be enough. Without the necessary investment in the country’s technology infrastructure, the initiative, however well-intended, may never truly get off the ground.

Graphic by Mantashir Iqbal Shaikh

This article by Hemchhaya De was published in the Telegraph on 24 August 2011. The original can be read here

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