Wednesday, May 14, 2008

E Governance at the Grassroots

When I engaged the services of a smart, suave lawyer to draft the Trust Deed that I had to register, I thought that I was being smart. Getting good legal advice to have the paper work sewn up well seemed to be a good move. Drafting the deed well was the main half of the story; registering the deed itself would be child’s play afterwards; or so I thought. I was wrong.

Whereas the lawyer had drafted any number of Trust Deeds and drafted mine too in a jiffy, registering the deed turned out to be a nightmare. A visit to the sub-registrar’s office to register a document – any document at all is the best possible proof that if any job at can be performed by machines and computers, they should be asked to do so without any further ado and interaction with human beings is best kept at the irreducible minimum.

The first sight to greet you as you approach the sub registrar’s office is a slew of soft drink and bottled water sellers. That sight ought to make any one’s heart quiver; for if such sellers abound like vultures, it only means that there is a market for their wares in the form of indeterminable delays.

Once you alight, you are in the midst of what can best be called a maze with all sorts of people milling around – clients, petty shopkeepers, hangers on and tough looking people in tight T Shirts. Although there are enough signage; the one most prominent is one advising the client to “beware of touts”. And yet with no clear reception counter or window or help desk, and a swarming crowd trying to find its way through the chaos, the only one who knows the drill to get the job done with as little delay as possible is the tout. Getting your job done without a tout’s help in that run down office where the babu sits behind shuttered windows under a fan and the client lines up under the blazing sun without the pretense of even a canopy is like trying to cross the Sahara desert without map or compass.

I remember the times before e-ticketing in the railways became common when the bookings were all manual. Whenever we went on summer breaks, the first job to do was to make a trip to the railway station to book the return ticket. The process took effectively the whole day and was fraught with uncertainty as the bookings were made manually on a giant ledger and with the queue moving at a snail’s pace, there was no assurance that by the time, one reached the head of the queue, the ticket one sought would still be available.

If there is one area where e-governance has made a difference to a whole lot of people, it is in the area of railway bookings. Another may be banking, especially the adoption of core banking by many of the public sector banks. Several embassies have reduced human contact and give online appointments for visa interviews and other related formalities which too are of help. But what is surprising is that despite a few proven successes in improved governance; the government has not demonstrated the political will to extend IT solutions to other government offices that the public have to visit.

The sight of unsightly and ill manned offices with unhelpful clerks in the National Capital and confused clients roaming around under the raging noon day sun surrounded by touts and other unidentifiable characters who seemingly can “fix” any thing is enough to undermine any good that the government might have done in other areas. If e-governance is the panacea of the future, it is much more so at the places where the public congregates to interface with the government and is met with uncouth, sour faced clerks than in the Prime Minister’s office and other such high profile establishments. E-governance needs to expand at the grassroots and do so quickly.

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