Towards empowerment

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

How a project that provides village residents easy access to information could make all the difference to their lives.

A HOT summer afternoon more than a decade ago, somewhere in eastern Uttar Pradesh, we (a group of civil service probationers) were on our rural visit. A frail old woman with wrinkled skin and a weather-beaten face had been trying to approach me several times that day. One did not understand her mumblings, spoken as they were in an eastern U.P. dialect of Hindi. Initially thinking that she might just be begging, we ignored her. She was literally grovelling, making it more and more difficult for us to ignore her. Realising that she had something to say we asked the local patwari (village-level revenue official), who was part of the team taking us around, about her problem. He gesticulated something to the effect that she was insane. Whatever be it, one was sure that this woman was not insane.

I decided to get to the bottom of it. With the help of some friendly villagers and a `seemingly helpful' patwari, I found out that all she wanted was her record of rights for the piece of land she owned. She had been waiting to get that for a long time. I requested the patwari and then had to throw my weight around to get her what she was legitimately entitled to a document indicating her ownership and location details as per revenue records.

Should getting some information that is rightfully yours be such an uphill task? A loud `No'. Shouldn't it be easily and conveniently made available to the citizen, virtually at her/his doorstep? `Yes, of course'. Let us look at this issue more closely. We are talking of making information, forms, and the process of form submission and follow-up, available at the citizen's `doorstep'. This throws up several `hows'. How does one reach the beneficiary who may not even be functionally literate? How do we keep the cost of delivery low? How do we ensure the sustainability of such a delivery model? How does one keep the role of the already overburdened government machinery to the minimum? How do you really reach the citizens virtually at their doorsteps, thus removing the `fear of office'? And then how does one guard against asymmetric access (access not limited to a privileged few)?

That weather-beaten face kept coming back to me ever so often, goading me to do something in this direction. As Collector of Panchmahals, a backward district with a significant tribal population in Gujarat, I had such an opportunity. The Collectorate along with the Concept Centre of E-governance of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, a cross-section of citizens and technical stakeholders started working on the project. We chose ICT (Information and Communication Technology) as the basis for the delivery mechanism. This was prompted by the fact that ICT may act as a form of infrastructure, offering open-ended scalability a highway of sorts connecting citizens of the district that could be used to `ply' different development-related activities. Thus, Mahiti Shakti (power of information) was born.

Mahiti Shakti has a key differentiation that enables it to address successfully the `hows' discussed earlier. The project chose to leverage the all-pervasive network of STD/PCOs. The operators of STD/PCOs were approached with the idea. It elicited an enthusiastic response despite the need to invest in a personal computer/printer/UPS system, a one-time deposit and an Internet connection. Perhaps, declining profits owing to slashing of long-distance call charges coupled with the fact that this project offered a new source of revenue, helped. Down the line, earning an average of about Rs.5,000 a month, they became the key propellers of the project. Self-sustainability was an important goal and the project did not rest on "crutches" of grants and subsidies. Using this network also ensured uniform `fear free' access at the village-level and provided a qualified human interface taking care of even the functionally illiterate. The project was institutionalised with the formation of a district e-governance trust. The trust built a corpus fund out of the deposits collected from its approved operators, who were called Mahiti Shakti Kendras (MSKs). An agreement was signed between the trust and each MSK, clearly delineating their roles and the economic, social and ethical guidelines for their operation.

The project involves online submission for various applications, online grievance redressal, downloadable forms of all government departments, the budgets of village, taluk and district panchayats (normally shrouded in mystery), as well as detailed asset-wise progress of district planning boards, MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) and MLA funds. The electoral roll and the below poverty line (BPL) lists were also made available. A unique GIS (geographic information system) developed by RESECO (Remote Sensing and Communications Unit) contributed village-wise maps with information on 95 parameters. Another interesting feature was the blood group data of the willing blood donors of the district, with their contact details. Lara Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), had carried out the blood screening and grouping. Citizens could now draw on this data at times of emergencies through any MSK. The MSK network was augmented by the milk cooperatives collection centres that were already equipped with PCs. The MSK `network' now traded information with the citizens for a cost. NGOs started sharing their specialised knowledge with a larger geographically distributed audience using Mahiti Shakti. The wheel had started turning.

"Beta", said the frail old woman of the remote eastern U.P. village, "may God bless you". Clutching her land document, and tears welling up in her till then dry eyes, she whispered in a voice choked with emotions, "may He be kind to you and offer you the best may He elevate you to our village `patwari' in your next janma". Her words cannot overemphasise a citizen's total satisfaction on getting access to information. Projects such as Mahiti Shakti, when implemented nation-wide, will pave the way for easy access to information and empowerment.

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