Ambitious task

Print edition : November 15, 1997

The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister is putting in place public-access computer-based information systems on administrative and public services that are detailed and have wide geographical coverage.

RASHEEDA BHAGAT

THE installation of two computers plus a server at each of Andhra Pradesh's 78 revenue divisions within a short period of six months is quite an ambitious task. But going by the hectic pace the technology-driven Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu, has set for himself and his team with regard to "electronic governance" of the State, it will not come as a surprise if this scheme, which will have to be implemented by the bureaucracy, succeeds in meeting the deadline.

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu with a laptop computer.-A. ROY CHOUDHURY

Amazing as it may sound, the Andhra Pradesh Government has a multi-purpose household survey database (it is currently under validation) on all the 73 million people of the State. This comprises family-wise charts that give information about the caste, monthly income, education level, type of shelter and landholding status.

When surprise was expressed over the fact that this kind of detailed and computerised information is available with a State Government, the Additional Secretary to the Chief Minister and head of the nine-member software thinktank in the Chief Minister's Secretariat, Randip Sudan, told Frontline, "In 1995, during the T.N. Seshan era, when a door-to-door survey was launched for the purpose of issuing voter identity cards, our Chief Minister thought it an appropriate time to take advantage of this scheme, collect the data and computerise them." According to Sudan, the Chief Minister had, even at that point, realised that at some later stage, this information could provide a computerised record for issuing income, birth, death and caste certificates across the counter.

The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister does not appear to be willing to settle for anything less than a technological revolution. That he carries his laptop with him everywhere and can retrieve from it, at the drop of a hat, information on various topics like the SSC results of all the 35,000 schools in the State, and subject-wise at that, is old news. What is new is the fact that every Minister in Chandrababu Naidu's Cabinet and most of the District Collectors have been given a laptop. "And," Chandrababu Naidu told this correspondent in an interview, "Collectors who do not have one have been asked to buy one."

Chandrababu Naidu, who is keen on his top bureaucrats and Cabinet colleagues getting as much mileage as possible out of information technology, says that he cannot understand the reluctance of some departments to take the cyber route to success. "People think this is new," he said, "but it is not." "Computerisation is something I had used in 1985-86 to monitor about three lakh members of the Telugu Desam Party." He is, however, aware of the fact that "it will take them some time to follow this culture." "But," he added, "I am confident it will happen."

Each of the laptops and the table models belonging to top functionaries in the Government are loaded with the Chief Minister's Information System that makes available detailed information about various departments and projects in the State.

Take for example the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC). Information about the earnings per bus, earnings per kilometre, occupancy ratio, the number of people who travel by APSRTC buses every day, the availability of vehicles that are in working condition, the number of kilometres logged by every vehicle every day, data on punctuality, and even the cleanliness levels of the buses is available at the touch of a button. According to Randip Sudan, information on the number of buses that have not been painted and the number of buses that have "unsatisfactory" interiors, particularly upholstery, is also available.

Sudan says Chandrababu Naidu is also very particular about the punctuality aspect of the public transport system. As a result, detailed data on the number of buses that were late by less than 30 minutes, those that were delayed beyond 30 minutes but less than 60 minutes, those that were late by above one hour and so on are also available.

Health care is another field on which detailed information is available. This includes the number of beds in government hospitals, occupancy rates, out-patient and in-patient figures, the number of minor and major surgeries planned and mortality rates. Family planning and immunisation are two major thrust areas. Information on birth rates, immunisation of expectant mothers, immunisation charts of children and infant mortality rates in different mandals is therefore downloaded regularly into the Chief Minister's Information System.

THE State has its own Internet site (www.andhrapradesh.com) through which the Chief Minister can be reached. Every citizen can get in touch with the Chief Minister on the e-mail address given and give his or her comments on various issues, for example, the condition of roads, ports, the power supply situation and so on. The web site also gives prospective foreign investors comprehensive information about the State's industrial prospects, complete with Central and State-level taxation laws. Since the State gives a lot of importance to power generation, power generation plants and other projects of the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board are monitored closely by the Chief Minister and his electronic cell. The plant load factor (PLF), the cost of power generation, the revenue fetched and losses through pilferage are monitored continuously.

Explaining the impact this kind of monitoring has had in improving the efficiency levels in the governance of the State, Sudan gave an example from the APSEB data. "From April 1 till November 2, the PLF this year has been 76.03 per cent and the figure for the same period last year was 66.94 per cent, an increase of 9 per cent." If information on the quantum of power generated on November 2 last year and November 2 this year is needed, the Information System has this figure too. Against a PLF of just 54.93 per cent last year, the PLF this year on November 2 was 88.85 per cent.

Since Chandrababu Naidu is particular about power generation and water supply, every day, between midnight and 3 a.m., information pertaining to these two departments is collected. By 5 a.m. the electronic soldiers from Sudan's team are at the Chief Minister's residence, downloading the information into the computer system. Sudan himself is there by 6.30 a.m. so that the Chief Minister can review the data.

FOR those who are sceptical about such hi-tech exercises being able to provide the common man with concrete benefits, the answer lies in studying the computerisation of the process of issuing birth, death, caste and income certificates.

This exercise was launched in Chandrababu Naidu's Assembly constituency, Kuppam, last month. At the well-equipped National Informatics Centre, people expressed happiness over the fact that henceforth they would not have to run after officials to obtain these certificates. Clutching a computer printout of his caste certificate which is essential to get admission into a college, T. Kothandan, a student, said, "I did not have to pay anybody anything to get this."

Kothandan's statement raises the vital and sensitive issue of corruption. Chandrababu Naidu, who is aware that corruption, or more importantly, the public perception of corruption, can make or break a politician, says that he is trying his best to make his Government "transparent". Towards this end, he has launched a survey to obtain public opinion on the performance of various departments. A key question in the survey is about the corruption levels in various departments. About 100 people in each of the 1,100 mandals in the State participated in the survey. They were questioned about the levels of service in hospitals, police stations and power and water supply departments. This exercise is seen as a meaningful departure from the usual system of bureaucrats giving politicians a feedback on their own performance!

When asked if he had undergone any training course in the optimum and effective use of information technology, Chandrababu Naidu said, "I do not have to undergo any training." "I know what I want," he added, "and I have the experts to deliver it." "But I do believe that computer technology is money, it is wealth, knowledge and security."

His electronic cell is busy applying this technology to two crucial departments, commercial taxes and registration. According to Chandrababu Naidu, the State will have a totally computerised system of registering documents within a year. A special software has been designed for this purpose. Until now, the time frame for registering documents was two weeks. But in two of the branches where this technology has been incorporated, the process of registering documents is now completed within 30 minutes.

WHILE Chandrababu Naidu makes it clear that the cost factor will not stand in the way of computerising the State's governance, Sudan says that the mandal-level computerisation process, which is expected to be in place in six months, is going to cost Rs. 35 crores (this is part of the World Bank-aided Hazard Mitigation Project). The computerisation of APSEB data cost Rs. 46 crores and the Wide Area Network (WAN) computerisation will cost Rs. 10 crores.

The WAN will link the State Secretariat in Hyderabad and 23 district headquarters and Vijayawada. The WAN will be the crucial hub for providing facilities like video conferencing between Hyderabad and the district headquarters. It will also make available electronic data interchange services.

According to Sudan, putting the hardware in place is quite easy. Training the people and motivating them to use computer technology at the mandal level is the difficult part. But the State administration has taken care of the training component too. It was not for nothing that one of the people who was very keen on meeting Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates during his recent visit to India was Chandrababu Naidu. This meeting and the discussions Chandrababu Naidu held with other IT giants resulted in the establishment of the high-profile Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) at Gatchibowli on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

The Andhra Pradesh Government has already signed memoranda of understanding with the creme de la creme of the IT industry - Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. Under these agreements, Microsoft will set up a software technology school and IBM a school for enterprise-wide computing. The State Government and Oracle will jointly set up the Oracle School for Advanced Software Technology.

The State administration is all set to take computer technology to the village level through electronic kiosks. Connected through a network that will include the Secretariat in Hyderabad and the collectorates, these kiosks will make available information about government projects, especially those that come with loan assistance, to the people at large. The kiosks will also contain information about various government officers and their functions. Complaints from the villages will go directly to the Chief Minister's electronic cell.

Although the language of communication is now English, the State Government has begun to experiment with the Telugu script. However, there are teething problems with respect to the adaptation of the Telugu script because this involves the departments sending their data in both English and Telugu. According to Sudan, the adaptation of the Telugu script is the Government's ultimate goal. "We have begun with English, but we will ultimately go to Telugu, which is the language of the common people," he said.

The installation and operation of electronic kiosks will take some time. Chandrababu Naidu is, however, a man in a hurry. Battered by accusations from friend-turned-foe, Mohan Babu, the actor-MP, about "hi-tech corruption in the TDP," the Chief Minister is not willing to take any chances. He has initiated a 30-minute weekly programme titled "Dial the CM" on Doordarshan and All India Radio. This programme invites queries from members of the public from all over the State. While speaking to Frontline on November 3, Sudan was summoned to the Chief Minister's room since one such programme was scheduled in an hour's time. Apparently, the two of them had to discuss the theme of the week for the programme. No prizes for guessing the topic. It had to be Information Technology.

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