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Volume 11, No. 1, April 2001


Table of Contents

E-Government Services take off in India

Madanmohan Rao
madan@inomy.com

 

With the mushrooming of cyberspace initiatives of the Indian central and state governments, ‘e-government’ has become a buzzword.

Six sets of recent developments reflect the complex roles governments will need to take on in cyberspace: (i) growing concerns over the digital divide between and within countries (especially in DCs); (ii) the spread of Freedom of Information legislation in many countries; (iii) the presidential elections controversy in the U.S. (leading to calls for online ballot box solutions for accurate counting); (iv) the complexities of issuing new domain names (e.g. ICANN's selection of new top-level domains; (v) the Chinese government's independent administering of Chinese language domain names); (vi) and cyberlaw issues revolving around hate speech (e.g. the French government ban on Nazi memorabilia sales on the Net) and pornography (e.g. recent accusations against Indian portal Rediff.com). 

State governments in India are quickly matching the central government's own information age initiatives like the recently passed IT Act 2000.  According to a recent NASSCOM-McKinsey report, the e-government infrastructure and services sector in India is a billion dollar market for IT vendors, software and training companies.

A conference in Chennai on "Electronic Governance and Democracy in the New Millennium," was hosted by the India chapter of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (www.amic.org.sg).

"As a large provider of services and a leading employer, it is a good sign that the Indian government has decided to allot at least 2-3 per cent of its budget for information technology expenditures," said Rajeshwar Dayal, head of the Delhi office of the German foundation Friedrich Eberhardt Stiftung (www.fes.de).

In other parts of Asia, the ASEAN group of countries has announced an "e-ASEAN" initiative in Southeast Asia, focusing on e-government and e-commerce. "10 multinational companies - like Oracle, Sun and GM – have been identified to handle four clusters of IT projects. The ASEAN countries are not rigidly bound by ideologies of the past," said Vijay Menon, secretary general of AMIC in Singapore.

Despite all the country's progress in the IT sector, India still lags considerably in global indices of human development and information society parameters, cautioned M. Anandakrishnan, IT advisor to the Tamil Nadu chief minister. "IT tends to be one sector where all political parties are generally in agreement that there is some potential for alleviating some of society's problems. But we need a considerable amount of sharing of lessons and expertise between the different states of India," he said. While the "IT triangle" of the cities Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad is showing good progress in e-government, other areas need to catch up fast. 

Today, most state governments in India have some degree of departmental computerization under way; many have basic informational websites, and some even have IT Secretaries and IT Parks. Tamil Nadu is making notable progress in online citizen services in Tamil and English, especially web-based information about land records, birth/death certificates, subsidy schemes, GIS systems, college admission forms, and examination results. "One must not under-estimate the cultural problems involved in creating such team spirit and open sharing of knowledge," warned Anandakrishnan. 

In addition to "pushing" information from government to citizens, the Internet can also open up a channel for citizens to communicate their grievances directly to government, said P. Subramaniam, a World Bank consultant on e-government. Public grievances can be aired online regarding electricity cuts, water supply, phone connections, ration cards, sanitation facilities, and transport services.

Online services provided by the Indian government's National Informatics Centre (www.nic.in) include passport application (http://passport.nic.in), registration procedures (http://igregn.tn.nic.in), school exam results (http://results.nic.in), trade guidelines (http://commin.nic.in), telemedicine (http://indmed. nic.in), customs EDI (www.chennaicustoms.com), and land records computerization in talukas (administrative unit).

Companies active in e-government services in other parts of the world - such as IBM, EDS and NCR - are stepping up operations in India as well.  "Our kiosk solutions offer e-government services like payment of traffic fines, utility bills, land and income taxes, and provident fund payments in Singapore. Our partners in Southeast Asia include Singapore's DBS Bank and Malaysia Airlines," said Srinivasa Rao, business head for self-service solutions at NCR India (www.ncr.com). 

NCR's business clients for kiosk solutions, cash dispensers, ticketing machines, check clearance, barcode scanning and datawarehousing include leading airlines, telecom providers and retailers; it also provides government services in Brazil and Egypt. "But there are regulatory obstacles from RBI (Reserve Bank of India) in offering automated cash payment solutions for ticketing kiosks in India," Rao said. 

"We are involved in major state government initiatives for massive skill-building at the school level," said L. Balasubraniam, senior vice president at NIIT (www.niit.com). "We need to address multiple channels of education, not just in classrooms," said Balasubraniam. One of NIIT's more innovative schemes in this regard is its "Hole in the Wall" experiment to expose slum children to the Internet. This initiative of IT training via "technical emergence" of Net browsing skills has received US$1.3 million in funding from the World Bank. 

Large international companies like NIIT and ApTech are playing a big role in skill building and software solutions for e-government; but this leaves out many of the smaller IT players who cannot tap into these government contracts, opined Hari Padmanabhan of Unitech Computers.

In the West, governments often use offline and online methods for conducting a referendum on various issues; this is likely to happen in India as well, where many newspapers already conduct informal opinion polls on their Web sites. 

"The Net will force news media - not just government - to become more accurate, responsive and accountable," said Mukund Padmanabhan, deputy editor of The Hindu newspaper (www.thehindu.co.in).  Media sites covering government issues can effectively link to government sites and to other media, thus creating a seamless organization of online information, he said.

In addition to offering services like exam results online, academic institutes must gear up for re-orienting their syllabus towards new media, said Leela Rao, academic director at Manipal Institute of Communication (www.manipal.edu). Indian universities also need to create databases of their academic publications like journals and dissertations, an area where academic publishing in India considerably lags behind its counterparts in the West. "Early media-centric models of development based on broadcast technologies like TV have failed, but the Net brings in more of a horizontal element and thus new kinds of potential," said communications professor B.P. Sanjay of the University of Hyderabad. 

NGOs and voluntary organizations are expected to play a key role in taking the Net to rural areas, as well as in compiling traditional knowledge in sectors like medicine, cuisine, and folk culture.

Digital democracy must also include online participation by socio-cultural complexes like arts clubs, libraries, youth associations, gender groups, cooperatives, tribal organizations, human rights activists, disaster relief agencies, and advocacy groups for disabled citizens, according to a paper submitted by Damodaran Sivakumar of the University of Kerala. 

"E-governance initiatives must promote digital research. The profession of e-governance is an effective tool of management; it is both a science as well as an art," according to Sivakumar. 

Kiosks and community centre solutions will play a key role in bringing e-government services to a wider user citizen base, especially since an estimated 60 per cent of Indian Internet users access the Net via cybercafes. The Department of Telecommunications reportedly earns 30 per cent of its revenues from public long-distance call booths, which can thus open up new revenue streams if Internet-enabled. 

The key solution to bringing the Net to a wider citizen base resides in innovative approaches like installing cybercafes along railway stations outside cities, using solar power for computers, developing low-cost PCs, and leveraging new access techniques like DSL (digital subscriber loop) and WLL (wireless in the local loop), said professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the electrical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras. 

Low-cost Internet access technology called CorDECT, developed at the IIT's Telecommunication and Networks Group (www.tenet.res.in), has been used in France, Brazil and China, and in Indian districts like Kuppam (in Andhra Pradesh) and Madurai (in Tamil Nadu); other trials have been launched in Hyderabad, Patiala and Delhi (Connaught Place). 

"While Internet backbone costs are coming down, last mile costs are still high in India, thus leading to low penetration of phones and Internet," Jhunhjunwala said. By way of comparison, India with a population of over a billion has only 25 million phone connections - as compared to China which has 150 million phone connections today increasing at the rate of almost 30 million new phone connections each year. "The Internet is more than telecommunications - it is power. But the Internet can create a strong digital divide if you don't do anything about it," he warned.

The last-mile costs of telecom and Internet access in the West are low enough to be recovered by ISPs via user fees, and thus the basic access industry has matured to include more value-added features, Jhunjhunwala said. "We need regulatory change in India to allow private companies to more easily offer telecom solutions like CorDECT in rural areas," he urged. More companies need to focus on growing the Internet market solely in developing nations; many of the companies in mature urban markets pay only lip service to rural market access, he said.

Citizen confidence in e-government can also increase with appropriate cyberlaw infrastructure, said N. Vijayashankar, cyberlaw consultant and author of "Cyberlaws for Netizens" (www.naavi.com). "The IT Act 2000 allows for electronic documents and digital signatures, and it outlaws computer crime. We need to go further and create a cyberlaw literacy movement among bureaucrats, policymakers, police officials, judiciary and Netizens," he said. "Netlaw is still a new field. Lawmakers and enforcers should use their own creativity in interpreting cyberlaws and not blindly follow other countries; at the same time they should not re-invent the wheel where basics are concerned," Vijayashankar said.

A growing trend in countries around the world is the move to enact a Freedom of Information Act, which should foster more open e-government. "Governments should be under an obligation to promote a culture of openness. Access to information should be as unrestricted as possible," urged Venkat Iyer of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association at the University of Ulster, UK. Over 40 countries provide citizens a right of access to state-held information through legislation; it acts as a weapon in the fight against government abuse and corruption, he said. 

Attention must also focus on grassroots reaction to and utilisation of e-government services, said Arul Aram, chief sub-editor at The Hindu newspaper. There is apprehension among some government employees that e-government may involve reduction of government jobs; and those who actually do launch e-government initiatives must be responsive to email queries and not just be content with publishing reams of government statistics online. 

Good case studies and success stories of e-government must be documented, urged Aram; for instance, the Gujarat Road Transport Department's computerized check-post project in India has eliminated corruption at 10 octroi posts on the state's borders, and increased revenue from Rs. 60 crore in 1998-99 to Rs. 250 crore in 1999-2000 (44 rupees = 1USD; 1 crore = 10 million). The Internet will affect politics by helping people make more informed choices, based on a wider variety of information," Aram said. Case studies have been documented of the impact of the Internet on political activism from Spain and Mexico to Zimbabwe and China. 

Recently published books focusing on e-government and electronic democracy include Government Information on the Internet (Greg Notess), Cybersociety (Steven Jones), The Control Revolution (Andrew Shapiro), The Internet Upheaval (Ingo Vogelsang), and Community Informatics (by Michael Gurstein). Useful online resources include the Web site of the Australian government (www.ogo.gov.au), Centre-For-eGgovernment.com, GovTech.net, Privacy International.org, Teledemocracy.org, and the e-government sections of IIITB.ac.in and NASSCOM.org (http://www.nasscom.org/ template/itpolicy.htm).

"IT is the rage of the age. But while many politicians are jumping on the bandwagon and announcing e-government plans, the challenge will be for them to live up to these promises," cautioned T.H. Chowdary, IT advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government.  "Internet access charges need to come down from phenomenal to nominal," he urged. The Andhra Pradesh state plans to add "e-government outlet" facilities to the public long-distance call booths in 400,000 villages out of a total of 600,000. 

Chowdary observed that though India was one of the first countries in Asia to shake free of Western colonial rule, it still struggles with the lowest levels of development and literacy in Asia. “Computerization, Intranets, FM radio, e-townhalls, and televised state assembly meetings must all be collectively harnessed to bring in true e-government”, Chowdary concluded.

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