This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on December 31, 2015.
Santosh Devi and Raju Devi of Raniwara in Jalore district of Rajasthan are from the Bhil tribal community. They are widows of the same man and live with their grandchild. Earnings are meagre here—every time the postman brought pension payments to the old ladies, he would take a cut of Rs.50. In the past three months, even the pension has stopped.
They are also entitled to 35kg of subsidized food under the government’s Antyodaya scheme but their ration cards show they have not received it for the past seven months. These forest dwellers eke out a living as daily wage labourers, live in a makeshift house and have never availed their housing entitlement from the Indira Awaas Yojana.
There are many such stories that are emerging from the ongoing Accountability Yatra on a daily basis. This yatra (march) aims to cover all 33 districts of Rajasthan in 100 days, and to mobilize people join in and put pressure on the state government to bring in an accountability law.
I joined the yatra last week and travelled for four days to familiarize myself better with the details of a poor person in a village whose life is dependent on government entitlements. On 22 December, the yatra reached a place in Kherwara tehsil of Udaipur district. More than 500 people had gathered to file their grievances—no ration card, no delivery of subsidized food, pension payment pending, widow pension erratic or not started, schools without teachers, teachers without students, failure to get their names listed with the national food security act; they need a house, their land not titled. The list was endless.
There is one thing common to all the grievances—government officials and public servants are not doing their job, they are insensitive, they are not accountable, they do not care, they are never punished, they never reach out to the people.
We moved to another location in Dungarpur and were welcomed and hosted by more than 1,000 tribal people, mostly women. We received more than 1,300 grievances, mostly related to rations, pension, forest rights and disability. In every district the yatra meets people, mobilizes them to put together their grievances and deposits them at the government collectorate. In each district, the Accountability Yatra committee meets with the district collector to familiarize themselves with the situation regarding government functionaries and to give details of the grievances. Till last week, the Accountability Yatra had travelled to eight districts and collected 3,764 grievances.
The people who are completely dependent on the government can be classified into several categories. There are those who do not know about government entitlements; those who know, but are unaware of the details; those who are constantly running between offices and never get to even file their entitlement; those who are inarticulate or illiterate and are constantly exploited because of their lack of knowledge of government schemes; and those who do not trust the government and do not expect anything from it. I met scores of women who were unable to even explain their complaint.
In the middle of seriously floundering government accountability, e-governance, or the use of electronic and digital media to deliver citizen services, is of immense importance. We are a country where a large proportion of the population is digitally illiterate. A majority of the women still do not posses mobile phones. In the midst of this, several of our welfare programmes and government services are going digital, which excludes the majority of the country’s population—those who are functionally or digitally illiterate—from accessing government entitlements. For example, many of our government complaints systems have been put online—you need to either complain online or you need a unique mobile number to get the OTP (one-time password) verification while you file the grievance. At least that is what the Rajasthan government does. The question is, how many of our country’s population can even decipher and understand the meaning of OTP?
However, there are some digital initiatives that bring the government closer to people who live in villages, like e-Mitra kiosks in Rajasthan, which are run by private companies and entrepreneurs to provide government services to citizens. But guess what, almost all e-Mitra kiosks have been caught charging for free government forms and overcharging needy citizens. Besides, everything that e-Mitra does in the name of efficiency is actually an additional level of bureaucracy as they only scan forms and upload them online. Another example is that of ration card holders’ registration under the food security law. Why aren’t all ration card holders automatically registered under the food security law? Why do those who cross the poverty line have to re-register for food security? After all, their status may have only marginally improved.
While there is a case of adequate awareness of our entitlements and how we can avail them, digital adaptation by the government through isolated moves is not helping the cause of poverty reduction in any way. Our digital systems in e-governance invariably do not talk to each other because they are made by designers who do not understand the ground realities. These systems only help to boost the bureaucracy. They are unaccountable rather than smart, efficient and responsible. Take the case of two brothers who have been orphaned. They are entitled to an extremely helpful entitlement called Palanhar at the rate of Rs.1,000 per child per month. But their guardian has to apply separately for availing the Palanhar Yojana scheme, rather than the school management sending data about the kids to the government office authorizing that those two kids are already registered as orphans and are thus eligible for Palanhar.
I just hope that the government understands the apathy and lack of capacity of its functionaries to serve the people genuinely, and bring in an accountability law so that every government servant realises their responsibility and delivers services to citizens adequately.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra – 15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India. He is also a member of the community radio screening committee at the ministry of information and broadcasting. His twitter handle is @osamamanzar.