Quick question: What do you mean by e-Governance? Forget Wikipedia, and government-provided definitions, what would your own definition be? Something like "Get government stuff easily and straightforwardly done through the Internet without having to go to government offices, face stony faced officials and labyrinthine processes"? Well, that is my idea too, but only it does not seem to be the idea of those are implementing above said e-Governance processes and projects. Our governments have been proudly proclaiming that "they have been pushing e-governance" and all that but all I see is badly designed websites crammed with blinking Times New Roman and Monotype Corsiva links and text, frames and tables with fat borders and announcements of birthdays of VIPs' cats. It looks like by "e-Governance", means creating websites from where you can download application forms (in PDF) which you will have to print out, fill up and submit at the nearest (or farthest) government office. So can we presume that the entire setup is only for the government to save money on printing forms?
Sarkari idea of e-governance. Scan files as non-searchable PDFs and post them on ugly websites.
— Soumyadip Choudhury (@soumyadip) March 5, 2013
Everyone hates government offices and getting work done through them. Processes are complicated, labyrinthine, the places are filled with dust, papers, files, chaos and confusion. People, officials and peons are everywhere and anyone who wants to get something done will not know where to begin and where to end. There seem to be absolutely no systems in place except those which serve the officials' own interests unless the right buttons are pressed and the right strings are pulled. I am sure this is not the case with only India but around the world. But what we are talking here is about e-Governance, the magic potion that was supposed to end all that misery. But all it has done is to add another layer of deception to the entire confusion. To illustrate this, I would like to give a small example. Being told that all govt processes could now be done "through the online", I decided to push my luck and logged on to the Internetz to find out if the entire thing actually worked. Here I chronicle my adventure.
e-Governance and Someone in the Department
So I needed to have this official document "LOL" to be converted to a new format. I found a link saying LOL Conversion under "Online Services" on the concerned govt. department website. I entered all my details on the page and was presented with a "Case number", a "Download Form" link and an "Online Payment" link. I downloaded the form and found that all fields were already filled with my details which I had to sign and submit at a "single-window-operator at the concerned office along with a e-payment challan (receipt) of Rs.550. Online payment turned out to be fruitless as they accepted only two banks' online transfer. Guided by Google, I went to one of the "kiosks" where any payment for the govt could be done, paid 550 cash and got the challan.
At the government office I found the "Single-operator" window and handed the form and challan. I was brusquely told that I should get an "order raised" by some triple-lettered acronym officer and then get that order counter-signed by another person and... I found the officer's office only to be told that he is "busy" and I should "come back later". I said I would wait. Then a smiling person approached me and asked what the issue was. I told him. Still smiling, he took my form and challan and went to the single-operator, and after returning in under a minute handed me an acknowledgement slip. He gave me his number and asked me to come back in a week. I also parted with two blue-colored pieces of paper which had the smiling face of an old Gujarati gentleman printed on them.
I went back the next week only to be told, "For all that you have to come back later" and later "There is lot of work here, come tomorrow!" I called the smiling person from the previous week. He checked and told me to come back the next day because "the officer hasn't signed the document". Giving up, I called someone who I knew knew someone who knows someone who could help me. Someone then called me with the name of someone working in the department (no phone numbers because you know, corruption). I went to the enquiry and asked someone for the someone working there. Someone came after 20 minutes to whom I explained my situation. Someone then directed me to someone who was the same someone who told me off before. Someone asked me to sign here and here, extracted my new LOL document from a stack of LOL documents, handed it to me and disappeared (Yes, the "officer's" signature was on it). I wanted to thank someone but there wasn't anyone around.
e-Governance - the Expected, the Actual and the Could be
When I was informed that LOL document conversion could be done "through the online", this is what I expected: [box type="shadow" ]
- You log on to the website
- You enter your LOL document details and some other details to authenticate yourself
- Page is populated by your details pulled from the database
- You state what is to be done (from a dropdown presumably) - "Change to new format"
- You enter whatever details are necessary (maybe upload a photo) and submit the entire thing
- You are redirected to a payment page where you make the requisite payment by Credit Card
- Your payment is authorised and you receive a Case Number or something like that
- In a week or so you receive the new document in the mail at the original address
How naive of me to expect stuff like this, right? To their credit, steps 1 to 3 were actually present. However, that does not justify anything. Of course, most parts of e-Governance involves things like complete digitization of mountains of paper-ridden data, which appears to have already been perfected as the system seamlessly fetched my LOL document details from some database. And some services also offer provisions for online payments, though severly restricted (no credit cards, for instance). Looking at it in one way, it seems that whatever e-Governance that has been deployed aims only to arrest revenue leakage and save employees from choking on dust in crammed record rooms. The citizen still has to take printout of forms and haul off to the kaaryalay, which shows that "e-Governance" has only succeeded in adding more steps to the entire process. In my case above, the official version would read: "You can convert the document by registering and paying Rs.550 online". But that does not get it done because you still need to approach a person behind a counter to actually get the thing done. There you have to know "somebody" or wait or maybe part with blue/yellow/red colored pieces of paper. The whole process seems to be cleverly engineered to reduce employees' workload without affecting their "revenue stream".
Now, imagine if everything were to be completely digitized, where would they get their paper pieces from? Is it that why e-Governance is not made all-encompassing by completing the last mile? e-Governance is touted as the magic wand that will eradicate corruption from Government offices in India in one stroke. But as we can see, it has not, because the crucial "human facing" part in the process has not been eliminated. And corruption will persist as long as there are people involved. Despite all the reports about government processes being digitized, little seems to be moving ahead which would make wonder if there is resistance from within itself. Most development projects in India never take off because "vested interests", which can be powerful people, organizations or just mobs, do not allow things which go against their interests or different from their ways of life to happen. Looking from a perspective of the general Indian societal and cultural philosophy and some applying some anecdotes gathered from real life, one can see that the reason why change in governance or any change in this country for that matter faces so much resistance and takes so much time and effort is largely psychological, which is the psychology of resistance to change and not just corruption.
Why it is so Hard to Change Things in India
What is that humans most Fear of? The Dark? Spiders? Snakes? Salman Khan driving a Hummer? Once while traveling in a train in Kerala I overheard this conversation between two gentlemen whom I suppose to be government employees:
"... നമ്മുടെ ഡിപ്പാർട്ടുമെന്റിൽ എല്ലാം ഓണ്ലൈൻ ആക്കണം അത്രേ... ഈ പിള്ളേർ എന്താ വിചാരിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നത്? ലാപ്ടോപ്പും ഫോണും ആപ്പും കോപ്പും ഒക്കെ വച്ച് നമ്മളെ അങ്ങ് ഒതുക്കി കളയാമെന്നാണോ? നമ്മളൊക്കെ ഇത്രയും കാലം ജോലി ചെയ്തോണ്ടിരുന്നതിനു എന്താ ഒരു കുഴപ്പം? അങ്ങനെ ഒക്കെ തന്നെ അങ്ങ് പോയാൽ മതി..."
"... they want to make all our department process online it seems. What do these kids think? They can put us down with their fancy laptops, phones, apps and .... ? We have been working like this for ages and there is no problem in doing work like that. It is good enough that we continue that way..."
Collectively, the biggest fear Homosapiens have is of the unknown and of change into the unknown. This "unknown" can be a physical place or a drastic deviation or radical change in the way how one lives. And frankly, e-Governance represents one kind of this change. All of us know how comfortable and "entrenched" government jobs are and hence lusted after. Little changes in that world and the average govt. employee wields a lot of power and influence over the general populace (aam aadmi if you will) because government stuff is not something you can live without. However, with this great power comes almost no responsibility and officials wield their power with arrogance to feed their own egos and in some cases, pockets. This has been the scene forever now which is now being threatened by the advent of a networked world where e-Governance will mean that citizens will no longer will be at the mercy of officers to get their things done. In the Railways for instance, computerization in one stroke did away the manual "pushing" tickets up and down waiting lists and stripped many a railway official of their power, prestige and standing. In the same way the guy on the street becoming digitally empowered will result in the officer's current position, prestige and income being substantially impacted and reduced by all these newfangled tools of technology. Technology is the only thaing that can reduce corruption. Dharnas and handouts will not.
I had always thought that people oppose e-Governance, computers, English etc tooth and nail because income streams of some of them might get hit if people get empowered. However big a reason that might be, that is not the primary reason. The primary reason is the fear of change, that the new will usurp the old, that "tradition" will be replaced by an uncertain and unknown way of life not known to the old, disturbing the comfort zone they lived in and even questioning their ways of life they had gotten used to over their lifetime, everything they believed to be how life should be lived. People of the old view this "new" way of life with hostility as they will see "kids" armed with tools of the new age threatening to disarm them of their "power" and influence they wield. Loss of income is a byproduct. This is also the case why people oppose same-caste marriage, different-caste marriage, mingling of the sexes, alcohol, questioning of elders and anything that is "modern" from a "traditional" point of view.
And this is also why e-Governance in India is a sham.