E-heaven cannot be ushered in by law alone

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The Electronic Service Delivery Bill is a mere reiteration of good intentions and can hardly make e-governance a reality

By N Kalyan Raman

Illustration: Anand Naorem

WE CAN presume, at this juncture, that the Electronic Service Delivery Bill, 2011, will be adopted in the winter session of Parliament. The Bill aims to “provide a legal framework to promote efficient electronic delivery of government services”. It provides for adoption of a set of time-bound service delivery obligations by both the Centre and state governments; setting up of Electronic Service Delivery Commissions for oversight, review and appellate functions; and delineation of the mechanisms through which these will be performed.

According to a 2010 survey of e-government readiness by the United Nations, India ranks 119 worldwide and fourth in South Asia. Clearly, a lot needs to be done.

But why should a government legislate what are, to all intents and purposes, its programmatic goals and commit to a pre-imposed deadline of five years? These are normally the result of a programme planning and analysis exercise undertaken by each government, in light of the resources and capabilities available to it. Besides, if some goal — delivery of all public services electronically within five years — is not achievable in the normal course, what difference can a legislative mandate make? In India, our experience with such legislation has been less than happy, although it seems to be the fashion under the current UPA-II government. Whether it is universalisation of elementary education or appointment of Lokayuktas, state governments suit themselves regardless of any obligations that may be handed down from the Centre. Moreover, mandating the delivery of a pie-in-the-sky could well prove to be dereliction by other means.

Basic conflict between a transparent system of service delivery and the equally systemic, if illegitimate, need to collect economic rent by leveraging service delivery also remains unaddressed. When it comes to the crunch, electronic delivery of certain services can easily be made hostage to compulsions of graft, as we will no doubt learn. This has been borne out already by a few impact assessment studies. Good intentions alone will not deliver us from this harsh reality.

Under this Bill, only those who are serving or retired officers of Secretary rank can be members of State Electronic Service Delivery Commissions. To believe that such a commission can, in any manner, prevail upon the state government is to be wildly unrealistic. Further, the commission’s functions mainly involve data collection, analysis and formulation of recommendations to the state government on electronic service delivery. These staff functions could be better performed by an independent programme management office manned by specialists than by of a bunch of civil servants past their prime. Constituted thus, the commission will never be autonomous from the expediencies of the government of the day.

When it comes to the crunch, e-delivery of services can easily be made hostage to compulsions of graft

Finally, if there are grievance redressal mechanisms set up by each department, which are evaluated periodically by the commission, why should the latter also act as an appellate authority? A three-member commission cannot possibly entertain and resolve complaints from citizens across the state, pertaining to services provided by a host of departments. Other, more realistic alternatives must be explored.

So far, the National eGovernance Plan, piloted by the Department of Information Technology at the Centre and approved in 2006 has remained a technocratic, top-down, supplier- driven initiative that has put infrastructure far ahead of everything else. Political support for this programme at the state level, a critical ingredient for its success, can hardly be ensured through legislation. Political negotiation and consensus-building between the Centre and the states are the need of the hour. It is such political commitment that will ensure effective service delivery on the ground, not a collection of legislative pieties.

N Kalyan Raman is a technology & policy analyst.
nkalyan.raman@gmail.com

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