E-administration efforts are lame ducks without internet
AMIT KUMAR, SAT SINGH
Fatehabad: It took Mahender Kumar a week to brush up his DJ-ing skills and understand what songs to play for crowds at different events. It wasn’t done out of some special love for music.
When he had to stop operations of his Common Service Centre in Fatehabad district’s Badopal village for the third time in 18 months because of an internet shutdown caused by violence in his state, Mahender had to revisit his teenage hobby. He was more cautious about running a centre that depended on the internet. After all, the 31-year-old had to do something to feed a family of five. “Kuch to kaam karna tha. Parivar ko bhukhe to rakh nahi sakte.“
Launched in 2015 as part of the central government’s ambitious Digital India programme, Common Service Centers or Atal Sewa Kendras (ASKs) are the “access points for delivery of various e-governance and business services to citizens in rural and remote areas of the country”. Sikander Kumar, in-charge of the Fatehabad District Informatics Center, informs that there are 14 such centers in urban areas and a whopping 223 in rural areas in his district alone.
These Kendras deal with banking, insurance, pension, health, and even railway ticketing, Aadhaar services, and electricity bill payment. The Haryana government claims to have integrated “around 170+ state government services of varied departments” with this scheme. More are in the pipeline.
Mahender, who undertook operations of the Kendra in December 2015, earns commissions ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 100 from his customers. A Rs 10 for paying electricity bills, another Rs 10 for correcting every mistake in Aadhar cards. He even fills up job applications and pension forms using the internet. His daily earning ranges from Rs 1000 to Rs 1200, and he provides food and pays Rs 1500 each to the two persons who assist him occasionally.
“Things were running in perfect order until February 2016. I had to incur losses after losses due to multiple internet bans since then,” says Mahender. The Jat reservation stir of February 2016 had led to an internet ban when protests turned violent in various parts of Haryana. Internet service were suspended as a preventive measure a year later in March when the protests were brewing again. When Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted for rape in August 2017, Fatehabad faced internet shutdown for a week.
Mahender lost his bread and butter on these occasions, and being a part-time DJ was his way of minimising the risk. He continues to run the center though.
Rajesh Kumar too makes a living by running an ASK in Dhangar in Fatehabad. A graduate in arts from the National College in Sirsa, he started the Kendra in October 2015. Though he has reservations about the crawling pace of internet in his village, it doesn’t stop him from fulfilling the needs of customers who can be found “flooding the Kendra on any working day”.
He places great importance on the role of the center he runs. After the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes in November 2016, Rajesh says his Kendra “reduced the inconveniences caused to common people by the move”. When the cash lying around became of no use, the e-banking services his centre offered came to the rescue. This is why he doesn’t approve of the internet shutdowns. “Rural areas suffer the most. My friends in cities do not have to go through this.”
Even updating panchayat records on time is a hassle during shutdowns. Rajesh Koth, Fatehabad district development and panchayat officer, does not directly face the brunt of internet shutdowns since his office functions out of the mini-secretariat, which continues using internet through a lease line meant for such situations. But shutdowns do affect his department’s work as the 200 something panchayats with which emails are to be exchanged do not have the same luxury. “Village panchayats have been equipped with a computer and an internet connection, which are used to update the department on development works passed by the panchayat,” Rajesh says.
With villages losing access to whatever internet they had, panchayats have to send physical records to the Fatehabad district headquarters, thereby increasing the office’s burden.
Internet lost, grains lost
The impact of internet shutdowns on the administration’s e-governance schemes was felt even by fair price shops. Subhash Singh has been running a ration depot in the same village as Mahender’s, Badopal, for a decade now. It wasn’t just Subhash’s loss when he couldn’t disburse ration because of the internet shutdown in August 2017.
He says he was bound by authorities to not distribute ration without an Aadhar-enabled authentication using a thumbprint. “Several people came, but they had to return empty-handed due to failing biometric verification. I must’ve lost about Rs 2500 in that time.”
Fatehabad district food and supply controller Ashok Bansal confirmed that his department had indeed “issued clear instructions as mandated by the government to distribute ration only after Aadhar-enabled verification”. Strict action is taken on complaints for not complying this order, he says.
Being his only source of income, Subhash eventually “spent a lot of time and energy to persuade people to return” to his shop again. But he clearly remembers how he was accused of finding an excuse to not give people their lot of ration.
[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]