The district office complex of Sirsa is no different from most others in the country - dusty, disorderly, crowded and unclean. What is different today is the awed hush over the assembled crowd as it witnesses an amazing technological marvel: A land record copy being spewed out by an inkjet printer. Complete with Bhoop Singh's name neatly printed in Hindi and within 30 minutes of him requesting for one - almost before he could settle down with his hookah (hubble-bubble).
Only 255 km from New Delhi, Sirsa is the richest district of Haryana; it is also one of the richest in the country due to its high quality double crop yield of rice, wheat and cotton. "Although predominantly agrarian", observes District Commissioner A Suresh, "the people here are not technologically shy."
It is on this premise that Suresh implemented the laying of fibre optic cables for information technology (IT) and television penetration in the district. While cable television has a commercial potential - an expected turnover of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 per village - making IT cost-effective requires both a viable business model and an attitudinal change.
In Sirsa, all this is being addressed with missionary zeal. Citizen delivery services are a focus area - tax and bill payments, civic functions, land records, delivery of government information, lease deeds, sale deeds, wills, occupation, adoption, domicile certificate, income certificate, caste and backward class certificates and so on. This is being achieved through a private- public partnership. The private operator provides the services, hardware and software and in turn, gets to keep a certain percentage on the sale of application forms.
The sale of forms could, at an estimate, generate Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per month (US$1=Rs 46) at the district level. However, at the village level, the effort at this stage is to make it financially viable as well as to build skills. Therefore, computer literacy courses are being conducted for the rural youth. For instance, Piyush and Virendra Bhatia, both in their early 20s, are employed as computer operators with the tehsil (district) office at Rs 6,000 per month. They acquired computer skills at a local training institute and received a certificate as well.
"The road blocks here are not just technology related, as we had imagined, but also attitudinal," comments Roshan Lal, Sirsa's Sub-Divisional Magistrate. His reference was to the unresponsiveness of some government officers who view this entire process as an additional burden. Over the past three months however, the state administration has been issuing computerised driving licences, vehicle registration certificates and various documents related to vehicle loans.
"Middlemen are the hardest hit since it has liberated the common man from the clutches of corruption. The government's role now is only as a facilitator," claims Lal. Earlier, a driving licence was procured at a fee of Rs 760 and an additional Rs 500 to Rs 750 was claimed by middlemen who provided the service, usually without getting the driving and medical tests fulfilled. Now, the laminated licence includes a photograph, necessitating the presence of the applicant, and can be had at a total cost of Rs 860.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in terms of applying information technology is in the health sector. "Rural India faces a dual health problem," says Dr Uma Nambiar, who has initiated and is implementing, the EHI or the 'electronic health initiative' in Sirsa. Nambiar is a senior neuro-surgeon at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre, Delhi. Through the NGO she has set up recently, Nambiar is working on the EHI project in collaboration with the district authorities.
According to Nambiar, the health problems in rural India are "due to infectious and communicable diseases on one end and increasing lifestyle disorders and chronic diseases on the other. Further, government-run facilities are generally not preferred because of the callous attitude of the medical and auxiliary staff, shortage of drugs and other supplies, unsanitary conditions and the indifference of the government to improve the situation. There is also a deficit in all categories of manpower, equipment, supplies and finances for recurring costs."
In theory at least, the EHI is simple enough. It is being piloted in three villages of the district. Comprehensive health information of individual villagers is recorded in the database at the health kiosks. These kiosks are connected to the central health information centre at the Primary Health Centre (PHC), which maintains the updated health records. Villagers are issued laminated health cards which carry identification numbers besides specific health information for emergencies.
Madho Rani, 50, visits the e-kiosk to get her record updated. She took an appointment through the kiosk in her village in Dabwali to visit the surgeon at the PHC. This is the first time she made use of this service and is all smiles as she talks about it. "I was very apprehensive initially since I did not want to pay Rs 100 to get myself registered. But now I feel it is a worthwhile one-time expenditure. Even before he saw me, the doctor knew my medical history and also my medication so far."
Although India has established itself as a global IT power and an IT destination for major corporate companies around the world, it has only just begun harnessing the benefits of IT as a support tool for efficient governance as well as health care delivery. In fact, the interim budget of 2004 has allocated Rs 2.5 billion to popularise e-governance down to the block level. Besides this, there is a separate allocation of Rs 800 million to bridge the IT gap between rural and urban areas.
Some of the issues being addressed now are: Equitable access to health care, a much wider role for the private sector and the NGOs, public participation in health care, disease surveillance, and strengthening the primary health care delivery.
After the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh pioneered the digitization of the workings of the vast government machinery, other states are venturing into the field by creating their own localized models to suit specific geographical and cultural needs.
Sirsa holds the record of reflecting one of the worst sex ratios in the country - 880 women per 1000 men. The day-to-day social reality here is heavily gender-prejudiced. The effort of this e-governance project is to make the e-kiosks more gender friendly - approachable, efficient and corruption-free - by employing only women as data entry operators.
E-governance seems to be the new mantra for development but its real potential can only be realized when it is effectively employed to benefit all the stakeholders. Whether the realization of its utility and the attempts at focused action will yield the desired results, still remains to be seen.