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The E-panchayat and Rural India

New Delhi, Nov 30: According to the World Bank, “E-governance refers to the use by government agencies of information technologies (such as Wide Area Networks, the Internet, and mobile computing) that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government. These technologies can serve a variety of different ends: better delivery of government services to citizens, improved interactions with business and industry, citizen empowerment through access to information, or more efficient government management. The resulting benefits can be less corruption, increased transparency, greater convenience, revenue growth, and/or cost reductions.” The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) was introduced by the Government of India (GoI), in 2006 with the intention to transform rural governance by providing better access to information and hence, ensuring increased citizens’ participation in policy. The vision of the NeGP was to ‘make all government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realise the basic needs of the common man’. Thus, E-panchayat is a mission mode project (MMP) currently being implemented with a vision to empower and transform rural India. The E-panchayat project holds great promise for rural India as it aims to transform panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) into symbols of modernity, transparency and efficiency. This is a one of its kind nationwide IT initiative introduced by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) to ensure people’s participation in decision making, implementation, and delivery of programmes. The project aims to automate the functioning of the offices of around 2.5 lakh (elected) panchayat members and addresses all aspects of planning, monitoring, implementation, budgeting, accounting, social audit and delivery of citizen services such as issuance of certificates, and licenses, and the like.

Despite the lack of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and internet connectivity at the grassroots level, the MoPR, in partnership with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and the states, aims to transform the rural governance landscape. In this endeavour, 11 individual software applications, namely Local Government Directory (LGD), PlanPlus, PRIASoft, ActionSoft, AreaProfiler, National Asset Directory (NAD), ServicePlus, National Panchayat Portal (NPP), Social Audit and Meeting Management (SAMM), Training Management and Geographical Information System (GIS), under the aegis of the Panchayat Enterprise Suite (PES) were envisaged at conceptualisation. Ten software applications have already been rolled out while GIS, the 11th application, is currently being developed. The programme also includes a component to impart information technology (IT) literacy among elected representatives and panchayat functionaries, to enable them access and use the E-panchayat applications.
In order to popularise the usage of PES applications, MoPR has adopted the cascading model of building a pool of (district level) master trainers across the states. So far, over 27,000 PRI functionaries have been trained on various PES applications, while basic IT literacy has been imparted to another 20,000 functionaries and elected representatives through the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT).

Project challenges: The lack of ICT infrastructure and internet connectivity at the grassroots (gram panchayat) level is a problem, but it has not hindered the project rollout. Until when the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) provides connectivity to all the gram panchayat, most states are advised to undertake data entry through the nearest internet connected panchayat. States like Maharashtra, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, for instance, have prescribed a fixed data entry schedule. Also, in order to maximise adoption and usage of PES applications, MoPR and the states are strongly emphasising on the capacity building of elected representatives and panchayat functionaries. To this end, a cascade model has been used to train master trainers.

The road ahead: In the 12th Plan period, E-panchayat mission mode project has been dovetailed into the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan (RGPSA). Hence, states are required to achieve their E-enablement (ICT infrastructure and manpower) as a part of their annual RGPSA plans. Further, with connectivity at the gram panchayat level being achieved through the NOFN programme, the MoPR is planning to further promulgate adoption and usage of E-panchayat applications across all PRIs.
In keeping with the outcome of discussions with the Planning Commission to promote Integrated District Planning (IDP), it has been decided that in 2014-15, IDP would be piloted in two districts in each of the states. A national workshop organised in Gujarat on September 25-26, 2014 served to provide a platform for states to share their experiences and best practices in district planning, while identifying bottlenecks and formulating a road map for IDP. The Ministry is already in discussions with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the World Bank, and National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) to support states/ districts in the IDP process. A ‘Basic GIS Application’ with limited functionality in partnership with NIC is already available under the MMP. It enables top-level management at national, state and district levels to view the level of adoption of all PES applications. After discussions with state governments, ISRO, NIC, Survey of India, Bhaskaracharya Institute of Space Application and Geo-informatics (BISAG) Gujarat, NIRD, PRI officials, GIS experts, it is now intended to enhance the scope of the GIS application to enable scientific planning, monitoring and informed decision making. Discussions are underway with concerned stakeholders to integrate their specific GIS layers within this revamped GIS application for informed decision making. The upgraded GIS platform will be available for usage in 2014-15.

The ultimate goal of rural administration is to empower PRIs to set the direction and implement developmental schemes at the village level. ICTs, clubbed with GIS solutions, make it much easier to capture, integrate and analyse data by PRI decision-making bodies, despite limited literacy. The Ministry plans to leverage the GIS platform as an effective tool for undertaking IDP.

MoPR will be preparing a booklet with Maharashtra Remote Sensing Application Centre on using GIS for resource management at district and block panchayat level, highlighting synergy with the efforts undertaken by the rural development department. In line with the central government’s agenda for mobile governance, efforts have been initiated to translate the E-panchayat applications onto the mobile phone platform. A mobile application (m-ActionSoft) has already been developed for online monitoring of works at the gram panchayat level. MoPR is also planning a data repository (compendium) of assets created and maintained by the panchayat. It is in discussions with ISRO for engaging the latter’s Bhuwan platform for this task. To increase its outreach, the Ministry has foraged into social media through its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ministryofpanchayatiraj), while relevant news and information is also available on the Ministry’s website (www.panchayat.gov.in).

The Ministry has also launched a central help desk for logging, tracking and addressing queries/ issues related to PRIASoft and PlanPlus applications. The help desk has been tasked to handle day to day queries and guide callers/ users on the usage of these applications. Each query is assigned a unique query number for tracking until resolution. The help desk operates 12 hours for 7 days a week through a toll free number- 1800117200. It is currently operates in English, Hindi, and Marathi but shall soon cover other PES applications and operate in other regional languages too.

{Project Achievements
1. Accounting transparency: A path breaking initiative has been taken to put expenditure details (till the individual voucher level) of PRIs through PRIASoft online for public knowledge. Of the around 2.5 lakh (elected) panchayat representatives, more than 1.8 lakh panchayat functionaries have made vouchers entries in PRIASoft. Vouchers in excess of INR 631041 crores are currently available for public scrutiny.
2. Development planning: A bottom up development planning including citizen participation is being promoted and achieved through the PlanPlus application.
3. Citizen service delivery: States are being enabled to deliver various government to citizen services (dependent on the level of devolution of functions to PRIs) through ServicePlus at the the gram panchayat level. Maharashtra has already identified 19 citizen services—birth, death and domicile certificate, among others to be delivered through SANGRAM (Sanganakiya Gramin).
4. RTI compliance: The compliance is sought to be achieved through adoption of PRIASoft, NAD and SAMM applications.
5. Central repository: For the first time, a central repository of all the PRIs in India is available through the LGD application. The Survey of India is also in the process of adopting the repository as a single and legitimate source of PRI listing.
6. IT literacy: Till date, basic computer course (BCC) training has already been imparted to more than 20,000 elected representatives and panchayat functionaries for daily work. The Ministry is at work to cover about 50,000 panchayat functionaries and 1,00,000 elected representatives.
7. The E-panchayat programme has already received the:
· Silver award for the Best Government Website at the 2009 National Awards on E-governance.
· Web Ratna Gold Icon Award, 2012 for comprehensive web presence; and
· Received a rating of 4 out of 5 from the expert group headed by the PM’s advisor in September 2012. Most significantly, the project has utilised less than INR 100 crores for rolling out to across 2.5 lakh elected panchayat functionaries.}

The author is Senior Advisor, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, New Delhi.

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