Between 10.30 am and 12.30 pm every day, government-run elementary school headmasters in Uttar Pradesh receive an automated phone call from state headquarters asking them to report on the number of mid-day meals served to school children. In response, school headmasters punch in the appropriate number. This data is uploaded into a software program that generates daily monitoring reports, allowing senior officers to monitor the program, in real time, across the state.
This is Uttar Pradeshs effort at introducing a tech-savvy method to infuse accountability in the mid-day meal programme. Uttar Pradesh is not alone in this endeavour to use technology to improve government monitoring and strengthen accountability for delivering public services. Governments across India have been experimenting with ways to use technology to increase transparency and ensure that programmes for the poor actually help the poor. This meme has become so successful that in many ways technology has become synonymous with transparency and accountability in India. It is, to borrow a phrase coined by my colleague Salimah Samji, the era of E-Raj.
The E-Raj is everywhere. To increase accountability in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Bihar has experimented with creating a cadre of mobile inspectors. These inspectors are supplied with smartphones and are expected to upload data and photographs of work-sites on their monitoring visits. This allows the district magistrate to track progress of government programmes across the district and, at the same time, ensure that inspectors are doing their job. Andhra Pradesh has introduced a similar system. Chhattisgarh has been using global positioning system to monitor the movement of vehicles delivering subsidised foodgrain under the public distribution system, to ensure that wheat and rice are not diverted to the black market along the way. Once a vehicle starts moving from the warehouse, an SMS alert is sent to the designated store-owner. Another set of messages are sent to a randomly selected group of 10 local beneficiaries announcing the arrival of the grain at the store. Another celebrated example of E-Raj is the Bhoomi project in Karnataka that sought to computerise land records. More recently, the government of India launched the Open Government Platform or www.india.gov.in, a software platform aimed at placing government data and documents online. And, of course, the most widely publicised instance of E-Raj, Aadhar, that is being viewed by many as a tool that can be used for monitoring public services.
E-Raj has many obvious virtues. For one, it enhances transparency by creating real-time information databases that allow officials, at the click of a button, to identify glitchesleakages, delays, inefficienciesin delivery of services. Where these data-bases are public, citizens can use them to scrutinise government and pressure the system to perform better.
Virtues apart, often E-Raj is also the only available option for reformists within the government. Technology solutions are difficult to oppose. They do not openly challenge vested interests. Importantly, they are markers of modernisation and tie in neatly with the India shining narrative.
But this emphasis on E-Raj raises an important question: has technology become a crutch, that has obscured the real issuethe need for fundamentally reforming day-to-day government functioning That we even need to use technology to monitor the day-to-day movements of staff who deliver basic services is a sign of deep structural problems in the organisation of the Indian bureaucracy today. It is a sign of a broken bureaucratic system riddled with perverse incentives that de-motivates staff, encourages corruption and even rewards under-performance. While more data through E-Raj solutions can certainly help improve scrutiny, it seems unlikely that scrutiny alone will address these structural failures. Resolving these failures requires an administrative re-haul where staff capability is built through a system of training and professional development; where performance is incentivised through a system of rewards and sanctions; and where accountability is ensured through greater local government and community involvement and not merely through increased scrutiny.
In fact, anecdotes from the front line suggest that in some cases the emphasis on scrutiny through E-Raj obscures and exacerbates the structural problems. The headmasters of Uttar Pradesh are a good example. Last year, an Accountability Initiative researcher set out to interview school principals in one district about the text message system. They were quick to point out that while the automated calls held them accountable for delivering mid-day meals, often there was no meal to serve because food supplies or money to buy them took too long to arrive, something over which they had no control. This problem could be better resolved by improving coordination across line departments than merely scrutinising headmasters.
Even increased citizen scrutiny in the absence of reforms has its limitations. We are beginning to see this in places like Andhra Pradesh where social audits have been conducted regularly on the MGNREGA. These audits have successfully increased citizen scrutiny and highlighted corruption and implementation failures. But when it comes to redressal, they have been less successful precisely because redressal requires line departments to talk to each other, changing incentives at the front line and addressing structural problems related to hiring and firing officials.
Of course, there is a counter-argument: collecting information through technology increases transparency, which is the first step to addressing these implementation failures and can, in fact, facilitate administrative reforms. We see this happening in some parts of India. Chhattisgarh, for instance, introduced its technology interventions alongside an administrative revamp that included measures to change the incentive system for running PDS stores by changing ownership patterns and handing over control to local governments and community institutions. But these efforts are few and far between. Much of the E-Raj solutions that proliferate in India today are limited to introducing the technology intervention without any focus on the need for larger structural reforms. If this gap is not addressed soon, we will lose the opportunity that E-Raj offers us.
The author is director, Accountability Initiative, and senior research fellow, Centre for Policy Research