Bangalore: In Hyderabad, eSeva has become a mundane part of retired government official P. V. Subbarao’s life. For the 70-year-old, a lack of tech-savviness doesn’t come in the way of using a Web-based service because the eSeva kiosks are manned by operators.

Sometime he deputes his watchman to pay his electricity and water bills for him via the kiosks. The kiosks can also be used to make yearly payments like property tax.

Tech upgrade: Villagers queue up to register under a pilot for the automation of Madhya Pradesh’s public delivery system.

In 2009, when eSeva introduced passport services, Subbarao immediately used it to have his wife’s passport renewal application processed.

“For any passport application earlier, I had to stand in a long queue for hours at the regional passport office and fill the form in there. Now, the form can simply be downloaded from the website and filled in before submission at the kiosk."

Andhra Pradesh’s nine-year-old eSeva project—through 46 centres with 400 service counters across the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad and the Rangareddy district—allows citizens to access about 135 services of the government and public utilities.

The list of services is growing steadily. This year saw the additions of a ration card correction service, PAN card application service and mobile phone payments of utility bills.

The project is one of the first examples of technology replacing antiquated public services delivery systems in the country that are plagued by corruption and hefty leakages. India’s adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) comes with a 20-year lag to the industrialized world. The first instances in the 1980s were purely for monitoring, with actual service-delivery on ICT taking off only in the 21st century.

In the meantime, countries with a headstart such as the US, Canada and Singapore have raced to an integrated portal model. An example is the Singapore government’s eCitizen portal. This brings together information in every space imaginable—from culture and community development to health and defence. With a few clicks, a user can drill down to a travel page that will help her decide on a hotel, transport and budget for a weekend getaway to the nearby Kuku Island.

While it may be the future of ICT in services in India, we currently follow a different model, and for good reasons.

Assisted delivery

The model India follows is one of assisted delivery, as opposed to integrated self-use portals, says Subhash Bhatnagar. He leads a team at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), that is studying the impact of e-governance programmes for the Department of Information Technology (DIT).

Assisted delivery refers to a combination of a kiosk and a trained operator who will help users with complex jobs.

“This is sensible for India because only 5% of population has access to the Internet. A self-use model won’t work because neither is the citizen literate, nor does he have Internet access."

Projects based on this model include Kaveri, the computerization of the sub-registrar’s office in Karnataka; Bhoomi, the computerization of Karnataka’s land record system; the Passport Seva Project, the computerization of the regional passport office in Bangalore; and computerization of inter-state checkposts in Gujarat.

A 2007 study by the Centre for eGovernance, IIM-A, measured the impact on the agencies providing the services as well as on society. The numbers are revealing.

Gujarat’s check-post automation saw 21% growth in revenue from fines that could be attributed to computerization.

For users, there were reductions in the number of trips to agencies, waiting times and payments of bribes and fees.

The Gujarat project resulted in a reduction in bribes and other fees paid to intermediaries of 27 crore over an year.

eSeva saw a travel saving of 27.4 crore for users. These numbers were calculated based on estimates of respondents in the survey.

The Karnataka government’s ambitious Bhoomi project is another case in point. It computerized 20 million land records of 6.7 million farmers, doing away with corruption in their registration and mutation, or the recording of change in ownership of land.

First-in first-out

These are essential services required by farmers for farm loans, crop insurance and settling of land disputes.

“Just by enforcing the simple system of FIFO (first-in first-out), Bhoomi ensures that an official cannot favour any applicant in processing his request," says Kalpana Gopalan, special secretary, Bhoomi.

A World Bank study in 2003 found that within two years of Bhoomi, there was a near doubling of mutation requests to an average of 1 million a year.

Up ahead on India’s e-governance agenda is a tech upgrade of Madhya Pradesh’s public delivery system (PDS).

The project, launched this year, aims to cover at least 20,000 fair-price shops in 50 districts across the state.

Under this, about 35 million poor people will be issued food coupons to collect their rations. The issue of coupons will be based on biometric authentication by the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) Aadhaar system, for which the PDS is a registrar. The Aadhaar project aims to give every citizen a unique digital identity.

To carry out these registrations, HCL Infosystems has designed the Finmate machine, a laptop with an integrated biometric scanner.

After a shopkeeper collects the coupons and issues rations, the coupons are read with high-speed machines and fed into an information system. Unless a coupon completes a full circle and comes back into the system, a transaction is not considered complete.

“The computerization begins from the moment goods are issued from Food Corporation of India’s godown. They are tracked to the state godown, and then down to the individual," explains Ajit Kesari, commissioner and secretary, department of food, civil supplies and consumer protection.