Gyandoot: E-Governance Project in India

On January 1, 2000 in Dhar district of central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a unique low cost and self-sustainable e-governance project named Gyandoot (Messenger of Knowledge) was launched with 21 telecenters situated in different village councils of 5 blocks of the district. The project gradually reached more than 600 villages, covering 9 out of 13 development blocks in the district of Dhar. Gyandoot was an innovative, unique and creative e-governance idea to deliver the citizens’ services from the computers perhaps never tried before in India. Before this, villagers would have to travel long distances to try to reach someone that may or may not have been there. Additionally, villagers faced discomfort and corruption from public officials. Thus, Gyandoot was created computerizing the front end of government services in across the region.

However, despite winning the Stockholm Challenge Award in Best Public Service (IT) category 2000, Gyandoot didn’t achieve its intended impact. Lack of electricity was replaced by solar powered cells which offered telecenters a backup for only 8–10 hours which raised operational costs. The telecom infrastructure in the district was poor and most of them used dial up connections which proved to be slow and unreliable. The WLL system(CorDECT) for faster connections was installed only in 20% of the total kiosks and only the CorDECT company could fix the technical issues, if any. Also, one of the biggest problems was that hardly anyone was using the services. Around 30% of people didn’t know about Gyandoot’s existence. The very rural poor, women and population from underprivileged caste groups didn’t participate due to socio-economic reasons and also because of discomfort with technology. In my view, the Gyandoot program failed due to following top three reasons:

1. E>Governance in E-Governance: Government simplistically assumed Gyandoot to be a technology program. But e-government is not about technology, it is about reform. In a country with a huge digital divide, no culture of participatory governance and high rates of digital illiteracy, it’d be too optimistic to design programs without these considerations and expect a positive response. Moreover, poor work culture and lax supervision made sure that the Web sites weren’t regularly updated; online queries and clarifications weren’t replied to promptly; and online transactions were plagued by delays and errors, thereby causing further disenchantment in the public. For example, more than 6,000 e-mail complaints pertaining to income and caste certificates, pending pension amounts, and drinking water shortages were lodged through these kiosks. However, on an average only 10% of these applications were actually being resolved. Thus, government, simply because web based technologies could enable them, suddenly became open and begin engaging with their constituents in a big way without actually taking a look at other aspects in the value chain.

2. The Silo Effect: By merely putting up a Web-enabled front office to existing back-offices without re-engineering their internal functions and networking of the back-offices can be a recipe for disaster. In Gyandoot’s case, while citizens could come to a center and apply online for a pension or cast certificate, the back-office operations in these departments were still paper based and processing of an application takes the same amount of time as before. This severely affected the quality and speed of service delivery, two primary objectives of Gyandoot in the first place.

3. Vendor Driven e-Governance: The project consultants hired promised moon to the department. For instance, multiple copies of Voice to Text software were bought by the government as an e-governance application and to bridge the digital divide. These copies were bought on the premise that this will ease the workload of tele center owners. However, these copies never reached the tele center level. In another example, IIT Madras and Midas Communications at Chennai were given the contract to install CorDect, a wireless local loop standard developed in India, to enable speedier connections at telecenters. Firstly, given their limited capacity, they could reach out to only 20% of the total number of kiosks. Secondly, in case of any technical difficulties, government was contract bound to approach assigned vendors only. With their limited reach, vendors took a lot of time to fix the errors in the telecentres which kept telecenter out of work for days, resulting in losses and further disenchantment.

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