The e-Panchayat project, implemented with a tech solution from the National Informatics Centre, is a positive developmentIndia’s right to information is perhaps a hallmark law, considering the fact that in the 21st century information is the basis of equity, empowerment, rights and access. While the law has caught the imagination of the people, it is still limited by at least two factors: lack of information access and communication infrastructure, and adoption as a proactive practice rather than reactive obligation.
We have been advocating for a long time that unless we have seamless digital and Internet infrastructure, the pervasive adoption of the transparency law cannot be achieved. Unless the people have the means to either access or consume information, even if they have rights, they cannot exercise it. I have shared several examples in the past through my columns as to how people, even in the remotest areas, can exercise not only their basic rights but also avail several opportunities if Internet access is provided.
Considering that the panchayat (village council) is closest to the doorsteps of the people, where delivery and monitoring of government schemes and entitlements take place, it is important to share with you some extremely positive development through the panchayati raj ministry. This positive development is amidst the fact that the ministry has to deal with the elected members of panchayats for every success, who are, in most cases, not even adequately educated or literate, leave alone digitally literate. I am talking about the e-Panchayat project by the ministry, which is implemented with technological solution from the National Informatics Centre. The e-Panchayat project has a component of having a website for each panchayat, which for the last 10 years is without any content. So much so that we started a parallel movement called Digital Panchayat programme to build the website of each panchayat with the involvement of panchayat members and local NGOs and show the ministry that only through civil society’s involvement can content be generated. However, we have been able to do this for just 500 panchayats compared with a quarter of a million such councils that have some 2.7 million elected members.
However, last week, I was speaking with Sushil Kumar, joint secretary at the ministry, and he showed me my village panchayat in Bihar, where I was born, on its expenses—all in the public domain. Likewise, there are 160,000 panchayats, about 64% of all panchayats, have entered few or all of their expenditure details in the online system called PriyaSoft that ministry of panchayati raj has put online at http://accountingonline.gov.in. This is certainly a landmark achievement considering that the entry is up to the individual voucher level being entered by the executive of the panchayat sitting in the remotest part of the country in a village, who may or may not have connectivity available all the time. Besides, the website also gives you the consolidated figure of how many receipts entered every day, per state, per district, and per panchayat. This is remarkable, considering the challenge of digital literacy and lack of Internet connectivity at the village level.
The ministry has also developed Panchayat Enterprise Suites (PES) consisting of 11 applications, such as a Local Government Directory for capturing details of local governments, including that of all elected representatives; PlanPlus for preparing and tracking annual action plans and projects; ActionSoft for monitoring of physical and financial outcomes of various programmes; Area Profiler for capturing profiles based on geographic, demographic, infrastructural, socio-economic and natural resources of the villages and panchayats; National Asset Directory for details of all assets created and maintained; Service Plus for electronic delivery of citizen services; and so on. Among all the modules, Maharashtra tops the list in terms of updating its panchayat status online. It would be a huge challenge to keep the momentum and create a culture of digital adoption at the village level. My suggestion to the ministry is to directly engage with civil society for training and capacity building in digital literacy to make sure that this momentum reaches all elected members of panchayats.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the Manthan Award. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance,ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.