Digital tools vs analogue mind

It may be a good idea for the government to think of investing in a manner that ensures that the existing system works and, to make them work, use all possible digital tools.

We are a country where we love hardware more than software. Let me explain. Whenever there is a need to construct a building—whether an office, panchayat bhavan, community centre, health centre, anganwadi, school or even a toilet—where there is a chance of tendering involving the purchase of things, we are extremely quick and efficient. Perhaps that allows money to change hands and keep the pockets warm of people who are at the helm of things.

But we fail comprehensively when it comes to matters such as how to use such infrastructure, how to integrate it with software, how to train human resources to manage and run the infrastructure and how to monitor them either by automation software or by applied systems.

Go to any government building, whether in a town or a village, and you will see that the building was sanctioned and built quite quickly and inaugurated with pomp by a minister or a political celebrity. But their upkeep and usage is always in question. We lack either in hiring the right people or right number of people and, even if we have adequate human resources, they are not trained, not motivated and do not have a sense of responsibility or accountability. We have developed a great system of looking at each and every occasion of spending public money as an opportunity to use the situation to benefit ourselves without committing to work.

I was travelling recently across various parts of the hinterland. I got tired of taking pictures of diverse government infrastructure, imposing, non-imposing, dilapidated, unmaintained, closed, locked, partly opened, manned by sleeping men and often unmanned. And the situation is not only with brick-and-mortar stuff, but also with digital stuff. In government schools, there are hundreds and thousands of computers lying unused, never opened, and in a majority of the places, especially in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, completely untouched.

Asking the school kids and teachers would reveal that either the school does not have computer teachers or the principal does not allow computers to be switched on because they fear that if something goes wrong with the computers, they may be held accountable. It is better, therefore, for the school staff to send in reports, month after month, that the computers or digital equipment are working fine.

Go next door to the panchayat bhavan; almost every one of them has been given computers and printers, but the entire digital infrastructure is kept clean, unused and beautifully covered by a colourful towel. Many of the panchayats have Internet connections, mostly through Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), but visit any of the Internet users in a village and you will find them complaining that their Internet connection has been mostly down.

Taking our own example, wherever we are working across 60 plus districts, and if we have a BSNL connection, we end up having non-working connectivity, and are pushed to using dongles for Internet access.

Moreover, in some places, we also provide Internet connectivity as a community service, and all those who were using BSNL have shifted to our community connectivity because of its reliability.

These days, the government has built Atal Seva Kendras (ASK); I am talking about the ones in Rajasthan, which earlier used to be named after Rajiv Gandhi. The ASK buildings have three rooms—a computer room, a village councillor room and a meeting room. The entire building is solar-powered. I would like to invite all of you to please visit and tell me how many of them you find open or working or used or functional.

The question is, why did we spend so much money for new buildings if panchayat buildings were already in existence and why not spend money on making sure that the buildings are used, monitored for usage and there is a real-time update of their efficacy?

Last week, I was in Telangana, where they use Photoshop for editing Aadhaar cards. If you have an Aadhaar card and you are still not old enough to avail pension or post-retirement entitlements, don’t worry, the local fixer is fully digitally enabled. They will scan your Aadhaar card and change your age in Photoshop so that you can apply for all those entitlements.

The question is, why is the entire database of Aadhaar not available to the departments offering entitlements? And who cross-checks eligibility and identity? Are we only interested in buying hardware and not in embedding the necessary process and software and change management training and capacity building?

Go to any of the community health centres in the villages; they look like they haven’t been used for ages. If at all some of them are in use, you will feel that your health will further deteriorate by going to any type of health centres at the panchayat or taluk level because of the poor quality of services available.

Again, we have no hesitation in buying and making infrastructure and putting buildings and equipment in place, but pay no attention to their usage.

The bottomline is that even in the era of digitization and e-governance and automation, our mindset is the same as before. We treat digital tools as pieces of stuff where buying them and budgeting for products are the only important things; making them work, integrating them with the required software and integrating them into a logical intelligence with trained experts are not necessary.

It may be a good idea for the government to think of investing in a manner that ensures that the existing system works and, to make them work, use all possible digital tools.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India.