Belandur gram panchayat in Karnataka, which is the first in the State to computerise its administration, finds that e-governance cuts costs and removes corruption, among other things.
WHILE the pros and cons of introducing the tools of Information Technology in the rural areas are being debated at higher levels of government, Belandur gram panchayat in Bangalore Rural district has taken its first steps in e-governance. Situated about 25 km from Bangalore, this gram panchayat is the first in Karnataka to computerise its administration and aspects of governance. More than 10,000 people in 2,500 households across five villages come under Belandur panchayat. What makes this project unique is that it is an independent initiative funded by the village development committee (VDC). According to panchayat president K. Jagannath, this factor cut down red-tape and other bureaucratic delays.
Belandur is a comparatively well off panchayat, which is assured of year-round irrigation from the Belandur lake. (Rice cultivation and vegetable farming are the mainstay.) However, this prime water source is being polluted by the large-scale dumping of sewage from Bangalore city, an issue of major concern here. The main industry in Belandur, which is garment manufacture, employs a large section of women from middle-class households. There are also a large number of government employees living here, who commute to the city. Belandur has around 95 per cent literacy. According to Jagannath, "Literacy is the main reason why we were able to launch successfully the e-governance project and persuade the people to cooperate."
Belandur's e-governance project started with a single computer that was brought to the village in 1998 to replace the panchayat's old typewriter. This brought Belandur to the notice of Compusol, an IBM and Microsoft joint venture company, which is currently involved in research and development of e-governance software packages to suit the Indian context. At present the panchayat office has three computers, one for each of the bill collectors. Working closely with the panchayat members and village residents, Compusol managed to devise software packages to suit the needs of panchayat administration, handling the recording of property details, tax collection, data management and so on. Since this was the company's maiden venture, the packages were provided free of cost. The only investment made by the panchayat was towards the purchase of hardware, a total of around Rs.70,000.
The chief executive officer of Compusol, Subramanya R. Jois, said: "We just wanted to show everybody that e-governance in rural India is possible." He attributes Belandur's success to cooperation extended to the company by the village residents as well as the politicians who were involved. "It was the first time we saw politicians taking active interest and pushing the project through," said Jois.
The Belandur project has been an eye-opener for many people who considered e-governance as being synonymous with e-mailing and the Internet, said Jagannath. "Initially people related the computer to the television and entertainment and resisted the idea of investing in one. But once the applications and benefits were explained and shown, the whole village pitched in," he added. Following the success in Belandur, Compusol was approached by the MLA from Udupi, U.R. Sabhapathi, to do the same in his constituency. Now Udupi municipality has been computerised too.
According to Jagannath, the software has changed the way the panchayat functioned, cutting costs and removing corruption in the process. Property-related records such as land revenue details and land dimensions are now stored in the computer. Records of bills paid are made available to members of the public. Since the software uses the local language, ordinary residents have experienced no problem with getting involved.
In addition to speeding up processes such as tax collection and property transfer and reducing the workload of the three bill collectors, the e-governance project has set off other developments. Following the computerisation of tax collection, the panchayat has recovered huge outstandings. It has recorded a steady increase in collections and managed to mop up Rs.1 crore in 2001 compared to around Rs.14 lakhs that was collected in 1999. This has allowed the panchayat to channel funds for development projects such as macadamising roads and digging borewells. Now every household has daily water supply and pays Rs.25 a month as water tax. Belandur is also perhaps now the first village in India to have an underground drainage system: it cost the VDC around Rs.5 lakhs. The system has solved problems of clogged drains and slushy roads.
According to the residents, the panchayat's progressive outlook is responsible for the success story. For instance, of the 12 panchayat members, six are women, of which one is from a Scheduled Tribe. The post of vice-president is reserved for a woman candidate from the Backward Classes. Most of the members have studied up to Class VII.
Each member has read the Panchayat Act, said Nirmala Reddy, a member of the panchayat council. "Each and every resident of the village, including women, attend the gram sabha (village general body meeting) and make suggestions. I have never seen a suggestion being shot down because it came from a woman."
This attitude is reflected in the literacy situation of Belandur too. The government Model Primary School here has 150 girl students and 128 boys. However, the majority of the students belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. "The upper class people consider it a stigma to send their children to the government school," said Jagannath. Incidentally, many of the entrepreneurs and professionals who hail from Belandur passed out from this school. The school has kept up with the rest of the village by computerising its records, such as student particulars and enrolment details. From Class V onwards students are taught basic computer functions such as creating and handling files, word processing and drawing.
Following the State government's inclusion of Belandur and its adjacent villages in the Karnataka Information Technology Corridor, the panchayat, ironically, is attracting more attention for its real estate value then its success with e-governance. "We have accomplished so much on our own, but the government is only interested in our land," said Jagannath. Moreover, panchayat members claim that the Karnataka Industrial Development Board (KIDB) and the government's single window agency, the Karnataka Udyog Mitra, are being unfair to the farmers by paying for their land prices that are substantially below the market rates. The rate fixed by the government is Rs.6.5 lakhs an acre, whereas residents contend that the land should be valued at nothing less than Rs.40 lakhs an acre. Around 27 acres (about 11 hectares) of prime land has been taken over by the government at the fixed rate and 300 acres (about 120 ha) more has been notified till date.
Fearing that they will lose both their land and money, many farmers have sold their lands to private companies and developers. Around 3,000 acres (about 1,215 ha) of rich farmland comes under Belandur and the four adjacent villages - Ambalipura, Devarabisanhalli, Harlur and Kariammana Agrahara. According to Jagannath, almost 50 per cent of this land has been sold to private developers. In a desperate bid to help retain their land, the panchayat has issued a stay order with effect from February 28, 2002 against further land acquisition by the KIDB, until all previous acquisitions are investigated.
Ironically, none from the software companies or the Information Technology Department has bothered to visit the village and discuss the situation with the residents, claims Jagannath. "How can IT benefit rural people if their needs are totally overlooked by the State government and the software companies?" asked one resident. Around 140 acres (about 57 ha) of wetland has recently been earmarked for a leading software company. This raises the question as to how the IT sector will pay its debt back to the rural economy.