India’s nearly 250,000 panchayats are the gateways to its villages, where the bulk of the population resides. The objective of e-governance cannot be realised without digitizing these village councils and ensuring that their three million officers are trained to be a part of the nationwide drive. Sadly, we are a long way behind.
The country has 245,525 panchayat offices, including 582 zilapanchayats, 6,299 block panchayats and 238,644 gram panchayats. Of these, only 58,291 panchayats have computers, according to the panchayati raj ministry. Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh have no computers at any level. It is not known how many of these computers are functioning. My experience, based on interactions with panchayats across India, suggests most are either not working or there is nobody with the skills to use them.
The digital panchayat (DP) project of Digital Empowerment Foundation and National Internet Exchange of India is a step to bridge this digital divide. For three years, we have been working with the panchayats to create websites for each panchayat with their own domains, providing email IDs to all officers, and setting up a DP centre each for 25-50 panchayats. Panchayat officers can use these centres to access digital resources for learning, capacity building, drafting notes, letters and documents and as a community information resource.
But these DP centres can be viable, usable and sustainable only if they are managed by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have experience and some degree of influence over the local bodies. Identifying such NGOs and convincing them to dedicate their resources and staff to include DP as an additional programme in their kitty is not easy. But there appears to be no alternative; not only is the literacy level of panchayat officers abysmally low, but they also lack the attitude to learn and enhance their capacity.
I have interacted with more than 1,000 panchayat officers. They seem to be functionally illiterate, have no sense of responsibility or accountability and have little exposure to digital tools except mobile phones. A majority have no idea about most government schemes. Although they claim they want to learn how to use computers and the Internet, they are absent when training is offered. All of them want websites, but they are willing to help only as facilitators of content creation or aggregation. In the case of women panchayat officers, it is mostly their husbands, brothers or sons who interact.
Nonetheless, the panchayats remain the most potent level of governance to work with for development, as they deal with all 29 development-related subjects: education, agriculture, public distribution system, women welfare, health, sanitation, culture, market affairs, roads, energy, water, rural housing, poverty alleviation, training and vocational education, among others. What is missing is a pool of honest leaders to champion development at the panchayat level and a result-oriented implementation methodology.