[India] Government embracing the rage of the age

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  • Subject: [India] Government embracing the rage of the age
  • From: "Irfan Khan" <KhanIA@super.net.pk>
  • Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2000 15:20:05 +0500
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    • Dec 28 2000  
      Government embracing the rage of the age
      Madanmohan Rao 
      GIVEN the number of cyberspace initiatives recently announced by the 
      central and state governments, it almost seems as if 'e-government' will be 
      as important a mantra in India as 'e-commerce' in the coming year. 
      Five sets of recent developments reflect the complex roles governments 
      around the world will need to take on in cyberspace: 
      * Growing concerns over the digital divide between and within countries 
      (especially in developing nations). 
      * The spread of Freedom of Information legislation in many countries, the 
      presidential elections controversy in the US (leading to calls for online 
      ballot box solutions for accurate counting). 
      * The complexities of issuing new domain names (eg. ICANN's selection of 
      new top level domains, the Chinese government's independent administering 
      of Chinese language domain names). 
      * Cyberlaw issues revolving around hate speech (eg. the French government ban on Nazi memorabilia sales on the Net) and pornography (eg. recent accusations against Rediff). 
      A distinction needs to be made here between the terms 'e-government' (governments offering their services to citizens via the internet, eg. land records, filing of taxes) and 'e-governance' (collectively formulating laws 
      and regulations to govern cyberspace, eg. domain names, e-commerce taxation, content censorship). 
      Governments naturally play a key role in both activities, as a result of which these two terms tend to get used interchangeably. 
      According to recent Nasscom-McKinsey report, the e-government infrastructure and services sector in India is a billion dollar market for IT vendors, software and training companies. 
      True e-government will involve activities like design of a user-friendly citizen interface in local languages, back-end database integration, multiple channels of communication (email, wireless, satellite), security of tr
      ansactions, cyberlaw infrastructure, participatory policymaking processes, transparency of government activity, and willingness among government agencies to embrace open styles of functioning. 
      Close to a hundred delegates gathered in Chennai recently for a conference titled 'Electronic Governance and Democracy in the New Millennium', hosted by the India chapter of the Asian Media Information and Communication C
      entre in Singapore. 
      "As a large provider of services and a leading employer, it is a good sign that the Indian government has decided to allot at least 2-3 per cent of its budget for information technology expenditures," said Rajeshwar Dayal
      , head of the Delhi office of the German foundation Friedrich Eberhardt Stiftung. 
      Despite all the country's progress in the IT sector, India still lags considerably in global indices of human development and information society parameters, cautioned M Anandakrishnan, IT advisor to the Tamil Nadu chief 
      Today, most state governments in India have some degree of departmental computerisation under way; many have basic informational Web sites, and some even have IT Secretaries and IT Parks. 
      Tamil Nadu is making notable progress in online citizen services in Tamil and English, especially Web-based information about land records, birth/death certificates, subsidy schemes, GIS systems, college admission forms, 
      and examination results. 
      "One must not underestimate the cultural problems involved in creating such team spirit and open sharing of knowledge," warned Anandakrishnan. 
      Companies active in e-government services in other parts of the world -- such as IBM, EDS and NCR -- are stepping up operations in India as well. 
      "Our kiosk solutions offer e-government services like payment of traffic fines, utility bills, land and income taxes, and provident fund payments in Singapore," said Srinivasa Rao, business head for self-service solutions
       at NCR India. 
      In addition to "pushing" information from government to citizens, the Internet can also open up a channel for citizens to communicate their grievances directly to government, said P Subramaniam, a World Bank consultant on
      Such public grievances can be aired online for electricity cuts, water supply, phone connections, ration cards, sanitation facilities, and transport services. 
      Online government services provided by the National Informatics Centre via its state government offices include passport application, registration procedures, school examination results, trade guidelines, telemedicine, cu
      stoms EDI, and land records computerisation in taluks. 
      E-government also has a role for the private sector, academic institutes, the news media, and NGOs. 
      "We are involved in major state government initiatives for massive skill-building at the school level," said L Balasubramaniam, senior vice-president at NIIT. 
      NIIT has won annual multi-crore contracts for IT-training 48,000 school students and 30,000 college students in Tamil Nadu as well as 20,000 school students in Karnataka. 
      One of NIITís more innovative schemes in this regards is its 'Hole in the Wall' experiment to expose slum children to the Internet. This initiative of IT training via 'technical emergence' of Net browsing skills has recei
      ved $1.3 million in funding from the World Bank. 
      Digital democracy must also include online participation by socio-cultural complexes like arts clubs, libraries, youth associations, gender groups, cooperatives, tribal organisations, human rights activists, disaster reli
      ef agencies, and advocacy groups for disabled citizens, according to a paper submitted by Damodaran Sivakumar of the University of Kerala. 
      Kiosks and community centre solutions will play a key in bringing Ś-government services to a wider user citizen base, especially since an estimated 60 per cent of Indian internet users access the Net via cybercafes. 
      The Department of Telecommunications reportedly earns 30 per cent of its revenues from public STD/ISD booths, which can thus open up new revenue streams if internet-enabled. 
      The key solution to bringing the Net to a wider citizen base will reside in innovative approaches like installing cybercafes along railway stations outside cities, using solar power for computers, developing low-cost PCs,
       and leveraging new access techniques like DSL (digital subscriber loop) and WLL (wireless in the local loop), said professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the electrical engineering department at IIT Madras. 
      Low-cost internet access technology called CorDECT, developed at the IITís Telecommunication and Networks Group ( www.tenet.res.in), has been used in France, Brazil and China, and in Indian districts like Kuppam (in Andhr
      a Pradesh) and Madurai (in Tamil Nadu); other trials have been launched in Hyderabad, Patiala and Delhi (Connaught Place). 
      "While Internet backbone costs are coming down, last mile costs are still high in India, thus leading to low penetration of phones and Internet," Jhunjhunwala said. By way of comparison, India with a population of over a 
      billion has only 25 million phone connections -- as compared to China which has 150 million phone connections today increasing at the rate of almost 30 million new phone connections each year. 
      "The internet is more than telecommunications -- it is power. But the internet can create a strong digital divide if you donít do anything about it," he warned. 
      Citizen confidence in e-government can also increase with appropriate cyberlaw infrastructure, said N Vijayashankar, cyberlaw consultant and author of Cyberlaws for Netizens. 
      "We need to create a cyberlaw literacy movement among bureaucrats, policymakers, police officials, judiciary and Netizens," he said. 
      A growing trend in counties around the world is the move to enact a Freedom of Information Act, which should foster more open e-government. 
      "Governments should be under an obligation to promote a culture of openness. Access to information should be as unrestricted as possible," urged Venkat Iyer of the Commonwealth Lawyers Associa-tion at the University of Ul
      ster, UK. 
      Good case studies and success stories of e-government must be documented, urged writer Arul Aram; for instance, the Gujarat Road Transport Departmentís computerised check-post project has eliminated corruption at 10 octro
      i posts on the state's borders, and increased revenue from Rs. 60 crore in 1998-99 to Rs 250 crore in 1999-2000. 
      "IT is the rage of the age. But while many politicians are jumping on the bandwagon and announcing e-government plans, the challenge will be for them to live up to these plans," said TH Chowdary, IT advisor to the Andhra 
      Pradesh government. 
      "Internet access charges need to come down from phenomenal to nominal," he urged. The Andhra Pradesh state plans to add 'e-government outlet' facilities to the public STD/ISD booths in 400,000 villages out of a total 600,
      "It is a tragedy that India, which was one of the first countries in Asia to shake free of Western colonial rule, today has one of the lowest levels of development and literacy in Asia," Chowdary said. 
      Computerisation, Intranets, FM radio, e-townhalls, and televised 
      state assembly meetings must all be collectively harnessed to bring 
      in true e-government, Chowdary concluded.