Need for robust information infra
New Delhi: According to the Digital India Program (DIP) that the government has announced recently, about which I talked in brief in one of my earlier pieces (mintne.ws/1ELthTz), one of the most important promises is to make all government entitlements pertaining to individuals available through the cloud. Which means, up to about 13,000 government schemes to be made available in a digital format accessible any time, anywhere, by anybody. My calculation of the number of schemes is based on our organizational experience when we were simplifying each of the schemes per state and found that, on average, each state has schemes in access of anywhere between 300 and 450.
Once we talk about government entitlements for citizens, the first question of biggest concern is how to make the information about the entitlements reach the people, in what medium, in what language and at what cost? Incidentally, earlier this year, we got a project from the European Union, which is about “delivery of information about government entitlements in the backward districts of India”. We have named this project “Soochna Seva” (information service), and actually, the philosophy on which the project is based is Right to Information and its most important clause, “Proactive Disclosure”. To start with, we wanted to check on the ground—what’s the situation among citizens who live in remote areas, in backward districts, and in unconnected geographies? Our mandate is to serve five districts of India: Ranchi in Jharkhand, Guna in Madhya Pradesh, West Champaran in Bihar, Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand, and Barmer in Rajasthan. They all are designated backward districts and to check the prevailing information scenario in various villages and panchayats, we reached out to 2,602 households in our tablet-enabled baseline surveys.
What we found is something that could be a reference for any plan that envisages serving rural citizens. Of those surveyed, only 67% on average have mobile phones, with Tehri Garhwal having the lowest percentage of 60 and Barmer as high as 78%. Of all the people who have mobiles, a whopping 75% have feature phones, 19% have feature phones with cameras, and only 6% people have smartphones. In fact, if we remove Guna, where 24% are smartphone users, in the other four districts, smartphone users are less than even 2%. Let us not forget that more than 33-40% people, according to the survey, do not have mobile phones at all, leading to the assumption that they do not have any media available to them to consume or disseminate information.
What purposes do mobile phones serve in these districts? All the mobile phone owners use their phones for calling, 23% use for SMS, 20% for entertainment, and only 1% have email addresses and may use the phone for accessing Internet and social media. In Ranchi and Barmer districts, nobody was found to have an email account.
With ID cards remaining one of the most important documents required by citizens to avail any entitlement, the survey found that while 86% of the people have some kind of identification card, 14% do not have any ID and about 21% have Aadhaar cards. We also tried to find the percentage of people availing government entitlements: while on average about 70% were found to have benefited from one or more entitlements, Guna recorded 100% of its surveyed people availing entitlements. However, among West Champaran villagers, only 25% people availed any kind of entitlement schemes.
So what’s their major source of information? Newspapers serve 9%, radio and television serve about 17%, word-of-mouth reaches 34%, gram panchayat and other local government offices reach 33% and local haats and exhibitions reach about 6% of the population at the village level. As far as the quality of information available to the villagers at the panchayat office is concerned, only 14% claimed that they got accurate information whereas 86% said they either got incorrect or vague information.
The survey clearly indicates that no matter how big our plans to serve the people in the backward districts, more than 40% of the population does not have a medium with which to reach them. And among those who do have mobiles, only a meagre 1-2% use smartphones or data services. The priority, therefore, is that the country primarily needs robust, seamless information infrastructure that will automatically ensure success of all government programmes.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan awards. He is also a member of the working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication and information technology. Tweet him @osamamanzar