Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bull's-Eye for E-Governance

Shyam Ponappa / June 01, 2006

Karnataka’s land records and electricity billing systems are silver bullets.

If you despair about goal-oriented systems being introduced in India, here are two stunning examples to delight and inspire.

Land Records Online: The Bhoomi Project

The central government has tried since 1991 to computerise land records. Despite considerable efforts, by 1996, the project had, as one site describes it, “fizzled out”. This is attributed to a lack of clear objectives and a considered strategy, and lack of involvement of the district administration, particularly the revenue department, as well as inadequate training.*

The Karnataka government studied these dismal antecedents to see what worked, what didn’t, and why, then launched what by all accounts was a truly well-planned, systematic effort in the late 1990s. The revenue department led the effort at the state, district, and village levels; heading the team was Mr Rajeev Chawla, now Karnataka’s secretary for e-governance. The effort involved meticulous planning, detailed guidelines and workshops, designing (re-engineering) robust processes, hands-on engagement with scrupulous monitoring, outsourcing for consultants and data entry, and the training of staff. Key constructs included instituting legal changes, inducting the private sector, and user charges that are apparently reasonable and accepted as such.

As a result, Karnataka has 20 million land records of 6.7 million landowners in 167 taluks (tehsils) available online through kiosks distributed throughout. Manual records in these taluks are banned, while extracts such as the Record of Rights, Tenancy & Crops (RTC) documents for loans and all mutations of land records are done through finger-print verification online. Implemented between 1999 and 2003, Bhoomi won the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) Silver award in 2002, was a finalist for the Stockholm Challenge Award that year, and won the national award for e-governance in 2005.

If only we would apply all this to each aspect of infrastructure, piece by piece!

The project is not without criticism, e.g., some misinformation.** Incidentally, as the National Knowledge Commission’s (NKC’s) recent e-governance report by a group chaired by Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani does not cite the projects surveyed, there is no indication if they appraised Bhoomi, nor does the report give examples of the process re-engineering that it insists must be done prior to computerisation. Actually, one would expect process redesign to be an integral aspect of the system design, as reported for the Bhoomi project, rather than an a priori task.

What a constructive change that would be, to have online access to projects surveyed, with citations and access to material used for all such commissions and reports! Imagine the transparency this would bring to processes, commissions and reports, as well as the enabling of online participation during the process. Perhaps the NKC and Planning Commission will soon adopt this, and extend it to the rest of government.

Electricity Billing & Collection in Rural Karnataka

Energy sourcing and supply have been difficult in terms of sustained implementation in India, and equally so in Karnataka. An area of particular difficulty is in integrating electricity supply into the political economy, i.e., the interface with users. This has been true whether the users are state electricity boards (SEBs) buying from producers such as the National Thermal Power Corporation or independent power producers, or individual consumers buying from the SEBs or other suppliers or distributors. The most recent example was the reaction of Delhi’s residents to a proposed rate hike, other examples being the privatisation difficulties in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

The tendency to agitate for unreasonable demands is greatly exacerbated by politicians jockeying for opportunistic advantage. Its worst manifestation is the looting of the commons for populist measures, or the obstruction of beneficial development by special interests, often in the guise of championing the underdog or the environment. Unfortunately, we are at that stage in our political development at which it seems to require calculated irresponsibility (e.g. free electricity) for even good politicians to be re-elected. Ignoring this reprehensible strategy of buying one’s way in with extravagant, irresponsible giveaways of public resources to reap the benefits of a predatory position (for an interesting take, see Business Standard, May 6, 2006: “A lucrative career”) can lead genuine reformers to lose out, like former Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu, although there could be other reasons as well for his debacle.

Not the best circumstances, you might think, for administrators to institute public-private partnerships with citizens for effective governance. Especially not for billing and collection relating to electricity supply. Yet, this is exactly what the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited has managed to do. Chairman Bharat Lal Meena and his team in KPTCL and the electricity supply companies in Karnataka seem to have wrought a miracle. They revived the concept of self-employed collection agents appointed locally, which had failed earlier in Orissa. They combined this concept with an appropriate commercial structure and engineered effective government support at the state, district and village levels. These agents read electricity meters, issue bills, collect dues, recommend disconnections and discourage power theft, besides being communication channels between the villagers and the supply companies. Collections have reportedly gone up 50 per cent on average in much of rural Karnataka since 2003. ***


If these reports are anywhere near accurate, the implications are stupendous.

Systematic planning and implementation on the scale achieved by the Bhoomi project online is a real achievement. It shows how clear objectives can be set and achieved with meticulous planning and execution at the village level.

It is a new paradigm that is path-breaking, because it relies on developing effective systems for governance based on public-private partnerships.

Both projects represent a complete departure from the carry-over of the colonial mindset, the bane of much of our administrative machinery. The electricity billing and collection project extends the public-private partnership to a broad engagement with all residents.

Both projects show how the civil administration in India can transform itself to work with people to achieve desirable goals.

Here are applications that deserve study, to improve with complementary elements and integration, e.g., web-enabled, map-based, open systems from sources like Assam’s Asha and Dharitree and Andhra’s e-Seva, including features of New Zealand’s e-LINZ, to be replicated by systematic adaptation across states, as well as extended to other citizen-centred purposes in Karnataka and elsewhere.


** ‘Flaws in Bhoomi, India’s model e-governance project’, Keya Acharya:

*** “Lure Of The Lines”, Sugata Srinivasaraju, Outlook, Apr 24, 2006)

Shyam Ponappa

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