The rocky town of Ramanagaram, a 50km drive west of Bangalore, became famous in the mid-seventies when it became the backdrop for Sholay, one of Bollywood’s biggest hits, as the fictional village of Ramgarh that psychopath bandit Gabbar Singh reigned over.
Three decades later, Ramanagaram is in the limelight again, this time for an experiment that could change rules in governance among urban bodies across India. Using a specially built geographical information system or GIS, a technique that combines maps and satellite images with computers, the town municipality has opened up its doors to its citizenry.
Details of any property—tax receipts, ownership history or exact surveyed area—can be accessed on the town’s website, civic complaints logged in either online or through phone, the progress of municipality projects monitored, and accounts of the municipality be looked up.
Leading this change is a technocrat, Srikanth Nadhamuni, 44, who matches Sholay protagonist Amitabh Bachchan in height and baritone, and his eGovernments Foundation, a not-for-profit trust that builds and offers free software to help manage municipalities. With modules that can be customized in local languages, the software enables birth and death registration, property tax, accounts, ward works and complaints. And 64 urban bodies, including the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and 53 urban bodies in Karnataka, run it.
The benefit: the software allows municipalities and local governments to grow their property tax collections. This improves the finances of the local body, and the money can be used in efforts to improve civic infrastructure. And everything happens in a transparent rules-driven fashion.
The foundation, started in 2003 and funded by Nandan M. Nilekani, chief executive officer of Infosys Technologies, is effecting a slow change in the way governments operate.
“Most of the problems we face in India is due to poor governance. Lack of governance is what is holding our country back,” says Nadhamuni, a key member of the design team that built Intel’s Pentium processor. He then worked with Silicon Graphics and WebMD in Silicon Valley. Parts of his American work-life remains with him: he prefers using his laptop computer as his virtual office and is yet to come to terms with text messaging on cellphones—not so common in the US—instead preferring to make calls in answer to such messages. Nischal, his 12-year-old son, finds this amusing, says Nadhamuni.
An engineering graduate from National Institute of Engineering in Mysore, whose famous alumni include Infosys chairman and chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nadhamuni went on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Louisiana University. Schoolmates remember him as an energetic organizer.
“He’s got the ability to bring people and hold them together,” says Anya Saini, Nadhamuni’s classmate in Mysore from kindergarten to high school, before she moved on to study medicine. He’s regrouped his school classmates after nearly two decades on his return, she says.
At Sun Microsystems, where he met his wife Sunita, Nadhamuni was also known for his outside-of-work activism. He was part of “Indians for Collective Action”, a group that raised funds for charity and worked with non-government agencies in India.
“I had the luxury to look at India from outside and understand the complexity of issues here. But I also realized the problems were so huge that what NGOs could do is just a drop in the ocean,” says Nadhamuni who, in 2002, left the corporate race and moved back to India, a defining moment in his life that, he claims, was inspired by the couple’s role model Mahatma Gandhi. Sunita is now the chief executive at Arghyam, a not-for-profit trust headed by Nilekani’s wife Rohini that works to provide sustainable water for the people.
At a meeting of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, a now-defunct public-private partnership initiative formed to address civic issues in Bangalore, Nadhamuni met Nilekani—a votary of urbanization—to work out ways to help millions of Indians come out of poverty. “Our minds matched. We knew the problems. Urban areas occupy just 3% of the land, contribute 55% to India’s gross domestic product, but the municipalities’ revenue is a paltry 0.66% of the GDP,” says Nadhamuni. Three out of every four people who own properties in New Delhi, for instance, do not pay tax (on property), while property tax is the biggest source of revenue that global cities run on.
With more than Rs10 crore from Nilekani, the largely volunteer-driven eGovernments Foundation—half of the 600-odd volunteers are from the US, including urban planners, GIS and transportation experts—built the software, largely based on open source architecture.
“Everything is recorded in the system and in real time. It is all public data,” says Nadhamuni of the software that has been integrated with the back-end systems of the municipalities to ensure that there is little room for error through human interaction. eGovernments Foundation is being supported by the World Bank to implement the software to automate all the 167 cities in Karnataka.
Nilaya Mitash, former additional secretary for urban development in the Karnataka government, says tax collections in municipalities are clearly on the upswing after the implementation of software, which makes targeting defaulters easy. Mahadevapura, a suburb in east Bangalore, for instance, has seen its property taxes double to Rs10 crore in 2006 from the previous year.
“It’s a silent revolution and results will be there to be seen in the next three to four years,” says Mitash, an Indian Administrative Service officer who’s currently managing director of Rajiv Gandhi Rural Housing Corp. Ltd, a company promoted by the Karnataka government to promote housing for the poor.
Other results are emerging from the implementation as well. Nearly 1.14 lakh complaints—the largest number on how street lights don’t work—have been registered and handled on the software for Karnataka and the number is growing as citizens become aware of the power of software. “The citizen will be empowered as more transparency sets in,” predicts S. Sadagopan, director of the International Institute of Information Technology, one of the biggest advocates of the use of computers in government and a director of the eGovernments Foundation.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org