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Our work in governance continued to focus on how current e- governance policies in India are contributing to privatisation and centralisation of governance, in the process bypassing some very important Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)-based possibilities to empower people and communities to participate in governance. This year was important in terms of two large development agencies – (UNDP) and ActionAid, approaching us to advise them on their organisational e-governance and Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) strategy. We also expanded our network with grassroots organisations, who are eager to understand the role and implications of ICTs in their work. We have now emerged as a key resource centre for organisations seeking inputs into their thinking about new ICTs and social change.

Researching privatisation through e-governance in India

Corporate entities running citizen-government interface

"In an atmosphere of technocratic domination information technology is far too often and conveniently projected as a magic bullet solution for problems in governance and delivery. In such a scenario, IT for Change offers a much needed bottom up approach that puts people and society first, and attempts to shape technology solutions if, when and how they are needed. IT for Change has demonstrated the need to take into account power relationships and political dynamics and helped point out that technology need not be neutral to these relationships. It is an institution that therefore takes into account not just politics, and technology, but also the politics of technology. They have helped create a much needed space for groups working for the poor and marginalis ed where the technology choices can be determined and controlled by people rather than technocrats."
- Nikhil Dey, Indian social activist, Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangthan

This year we conducted further case studies of the Government of India's Common Service Centres (CSC) programme, which is building an ICTs-enabled state-citizen interface to be mediated by private corporations. Field visits were made to the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Kerala, which included visiting villages where such Centres are situated and interacting with the community. We also met key officials engaged with the programme. The information and insights thus collected will inform the research report that we are preparing on the CSC programme.

ITfC researcher Nandini at an Akshaya Centre in Kerala

The three states that we visited during this period to study the CSC programme, employ different models of ICTs-enabled service delivery points. Uttar Pradesh has the regular CSC model promoted by Government of India, with private companies organising the service delivery centres through franchisees. In Kerala, a government agency provides the support structure for centres that are owned and run by village level entrepreneurs. In Gujarat, the centre is substantially owned by the village panchayat, while an entrepreneur who runs the centre is allowed to collect fees for some services. Only in the latter two states, where public agencies have a strong role in running the centres, did we find the possibility of this new form of ICTs-enabled government's point-of-presence in the community growing into a viable new institution for more effective governance. In UP, which employs the dominant CSC model, we found that the overtly commercial environment at the centres was not conducive to delivery of most public services, expect perhaps the very simple transactional ones, like payment of utility bills and procurement of government certificates. Even in UP we found that there was a move to strengthen the role of district administration, as the model of state capital directly working through companies that covered 2-3 districts was not found to be viable. All in all, we found enough evidence on the ground to conclude that the standard CSC model was not working, and that it should undergo major design changes. The role of a community level entrepreneur was found useful for delivering just a few kinds of public services. However these services need to be supported directly by a government agency specially set up for this purpose. Mediating such support through private companies does not seem to work, and is likely to lead to major problems as more and more public services are sought to be delivered through the CSCs. We have been communicating our findings informally with the concerned government officials, both at central and state levels.

E gram centre operator in Panchayat office with Panchayat officials

Our study was focused on the privatisation of the state-citizen interface through CSC kind of schemes. However, as we met various government officials in states and the centre, we came across a much deeper form of systemic privatisation that extended to the highest level of governance, and not just the peripheries, wherein direct interaction with citizens takes place. Two layers of such 'higher level' privatisation were found to be most significant. One was the privatisation of policy implementation and monitoring mechanisms. The most significant instance of this was the set up of an apex CSC body called CSC e-governance services Ltd. CSC-owning private companies hold major shares in this company. Apparently, the implementors at the lower levels are to be supervised by a body that is substantially owned by the implementing agencies themselves. Various other bodies, which are privately owned (MahaOnline in Maharashtra) or composed entirely of private consultants, are also being created by state governments to undertake e-governance implementation work. Many of these companies openly espouse the aim of making these agencies run as independent profit centres, collecting fees for the services they provide to front-end service delivery points.

Deep privatisation of the Indian governance system

Another significant layer of privatisation is the proposal to have governance software and applications run as services by private companies, which gives private companies enormous control over core governance processes. This also tends towards homogenisation and centralisation of such processes, and thus of bureaucratic and political power. Even more pernicious is a further proposal to set up private companies who will control all data related to governance, and share it with different government agencies against fee for services. It seems that governance data gathered by government agencies will also somehow be passed on to these private companies to generate private profit. In addition, we also found that the CSCs and their corporate owners are slowly but surely consolidating their role in our governance system. From merely facilitating service delivery to also collecting governance data, their strategic maneuvers can be regarded as quite problematic, as it is basically data that drives policy-making processes. CSCs were also mixing some governance services with private services to make composite product and service offers, a rather questionable practice.

“It is in my interactions with IT for Change that I learned how key questions of ownership of data, confidentiality, terms and conditions etc to be borne in mind to ensure that governments do not fully lose control and ownership of the data and software. This knowledge comes in handy in the work i currently do, where dealing with private companies for various IT requirements is a daily affair. IT for Change helped me understand what to expect from technology and how to deal with it, making me more aware of what needs to be borne in mind while engaging with it.”
- Sowmya Kidambi (Director, Social Audit Government of Andhra Pradesh, India)

All these far-reaching structural changes in India's governance systems is taking place - without any parliamentary or wider socio-political scrutiny - merely in the name of e-governance, which is passed off as an implementation rather than a policy or political issue. Interestingly, there has never been an e-governance policy in India. IT for Change is writing a paper on how e-governance is being used to systematically privatise and centralise governance. We will also hold a workshop on this subject in the next reporting year.

Advising development agencies on e-governance

UNDP 's consultation for preparing its next programming cycle

“IT for Change's work on e-governance has helped clarify the kinds of models that are being used in this area, and how this is systematically being used to privatise and centralise governance activities. There work in this area has helped us and other civil society groups understand the immediate need for advocacy and action in this area. It is necessary that civil society works out alternate models of e-governance and data gathering/usage that are more people oriented and community centric. This is not an easy challenge as how such models can be people-centric and yet scalable is a formidable challenge. I look forward to IT for Change pioneering concepts in this area that can be useful to the larger societal needs.”
- Prabir Purkayastha (Knowledge Commons and All India Peoples Science Network, India)

UNDP contracted IT for Change for assistance in developing the e-governance part of their programming period of 2013-18. This required writing a detailed document assessing the e-governance scenario in India, connecting it to the stated priorities of UNDP and coming up with general recommendations about the directions that UNDP must take over the next 5 years as well as some specific ideas about the kind of projects that it may support. In addition, IT for Change facilitated the e-governance track of a consultation workshop thatUNDP held in New Delhi on July, 12th-13th. The final document 'E-governance in India: Existing context and possible scope for programing over 2013-18' was submitted in October, 2012, after a responding to the comments on the early drafts by UNDP staff.

The document first provides a brief overview of how e-governance has evolved in India. Then it goes on to describe the trends in the thinking of the global donor community in the area of e-governance and ICTs for development. Subsequently, the document addresses the common conundrum of whether to take a mainstream or a specialised approach to e-governance and ICTD. We proposed that major focus should be on developing an appropriate ICT -based community infrastructure, which can really help build a bottom-up governance architecture.

The document proposes three 'innovative ideas' for possible project support by UNDP. These are:
(1)Moving beyond capacity building mode to ICT-based resource support system for elected representatives
(2)Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras as village information and knowledge centres enhancing transparency and accountability in governance (as part of NREGA scheme)
(3)ICTs for Community Empowerment and Action by Youth

It also presents brief case studies of a few existing e-governance projects that can serve as guideposts for UNDP to develop their thinking in this area. These case studies are:
(1) ICT-enabled decentralisation: The Ente Gramam and e-krishi projects of the Kerala State IT Mission
(2) Digital systems for effective grievance redressal: The case of Lokvani
(3)Ensuring right to food through process computerisation: The case of Chhattisgarh's Public Distribution System
(4)Information and networks for community-based strategies towards empowerment: The case of Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan

Engaging with ActionAid on ICTD

The global NGO ActionAid asked us to develop short think pieces on various issues involving progressive engagements with respect to the role of ICTs in development. Our initial proposal to undertake this work involved developing such think pieces on various implicated issues.

IT for Change conducted an online discussion for a period of 4 weeks on the subject of progressive engagement with ICTD, which involved some outside experts and ActionAid staff. We submitted an early draft of our overall paper on 'ICTs for Empowerment and Social Transformation' for comments from ActionAid. There has been further discussion regarding the development of two more papers – one on 'ICTs and democratic governance' and another on 'Internet governance and progressive social change'.

In our paper on 'ICTs for empowerment and social transformation' we analysed the micro-level and macro-level structural impacts of ICTs on our societies, in detail. We then listed out a few generic areas that hold the most promise for progressive social change in community development space. This was followed by a few guidelines on how progressive NGOs and donors should develop their ICTD and e-governance strategies. We proposed that a lot of focus should be put on strengthening new ICT-enabled meso-structures that have increasingly become, the key locus of determining directions of social change. We also highlighted the necessity for concerned agencies to adopt what we call a 'network approach' across their different areas of work, for which a major internal re-look at organisational working, priorities and partnerships will be necessary.

IT for Change participated in the 'Open Up' event organised by the UK Department for International Development, Omidyar Network and the Wired Magazine in November, 2013. This event looked at the area of transparency and open government, especially the role of new digital technologies. The day after this event, we also participated in a brain-storming session at DFIF office about the strategies that DFID should adopt in the area of ICTs and governance.

Going Forward

Our relationships with various grassroots organisations also expanded. Over the year, we worked with many of them on many progressive issues. This includes organisations working in the area of gender, governance, education, right to information and so on.

Next year, the major task ahead of us is to strengthen our analysis and critique of higher level privatisation layers with regard to India's governance structures, especially as related to software/ application processes, and data structures and ownerships. We will also seek to develop alternative models, as big data driven governance will increasingly become the norm. We will hold a workshop on these issues, and assume the task of developing larger principles that should inform e-governance in India and also, perhaps, begin drafting e-governance policy. We plan to develop a large network of civil society actors for this purpose. The outcome documents emerging from this process will be used for advocacy with central and state governments.