Ravi Shankar Prasad’s reappointment as the Union minister of law & justice comes at a time when the use of technology in all major governance sectors is being re-imagined, under the government’s Digital India initiative. As Prasad and his ministry evaluate potential avenues for reform and development in the law and justice sector, they must urgently prioritise completion of the decade-old eCourts project for modernising justice delivery through the use of information and communications technologies.
In June, Prasad’s predecessor DV Sadananda Gowda reprimanded some states for not releasing funds for the purchase of hardware infrastructure under the eCourts project, despite R202.23 crore being allocated to states for this specific purpose. This, however, is not the first instance of the eCourts project finding itself embroiled in budgeting issues.
Conceptualised in 2005, the eCourts project was initiated to computerise India’s subordinate judiciary, automate a wide range of judicial functions to provide designated services, and coordinate web-based interlinking of all courts. Over the years, judicial functioning has seen incremental improvements as a result of computerisation. However, budgeting and allocation for the project, actual disbursement of funds, and budgetary reporting have been a huge cause for concern.
Barely three years into its implementation, the approved budget for the first part of the three-phased eCourts project was increased from R442 crore in 2007 to R935 crore in 2010. This doubling of original estimates showcases gross miscalculations in estimates and projections for the project, and is a problem that continues to persist. For instance, in 2015, a budget of R1,670 crore was approved for the second phase, which is nearly double the 2007 estimate of R854 crore for the entire project across three phases.
These frequent and drastic cost estimate revisions suggest that the project planners, notably the Supreme Court E-Committee, have been unable to accurately account for delays, inflation and other expenses.
A study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy—entitled ‘eCourts in India: From policy formulation to implementation’—found that reporting of estimates, revisions and particularly allocation and spending, by different ministries, was inconsistent, irregular and lacking in uniformity. It is appalling, to say the least, that the ministries of both law & justice and finance are unable to coordinate on the financial particulars of a critical pan-national project.
Underspending leading to reduction in allocation
Inconsistent budgetary reporting is a relatively minor issue when compared with the larger problem of uneven expenditure patterns and non-utilisation of funds by the Department of Justice. Actual allocation for the project increased substantially over the years, but actual spending has been much lower than what was sanctioned. The Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) also expressed concern over non-utilisation of funds by the Department of Justice, which falls under the ministry of law & justice.
This inability or reluctance to spend sanctioned funds appropriately has far-reaching consequences, most critically on the completion of the project. Disturbingly, if continued non-utilisation of funds remains a feature of eCourts, the funds allocated for the project may reduce further.
In an attempt to reinforce notions of cooperative federalism, the current government has been spearheading decentralisation of governance, devolving powers and resources to local governments. Incidentally, before the initiation of the eCourts project, the EFC had strongly pressed for the responsibility of post-operational maintenance to be vested with state governments. According to this, state governments were to administrate and fund permanent technical manpower, annual maintenance contracts for hardware upkeep and software upgrade, and continued training to judges and court staff. Further, the 14th Finance Commission had urged states to use the additional fiscal space provided by tax devolution to fund ICT support in the justice sector.
Pursuant to this, the implementation of the second phase of eCourts was decentralised and individual high courts were designated as implementing agencies. Now, the Department of Justice must monitor state allocation to ensure sufficient funding is available for the successful completion, scaling and post-operational maintenance of the project.
The eCourts project is not the first attempt at computerising the judiciary. Previous attempts failed miserably, and in comparison the eCourts project has met with relative success. But inaccurate cost projections, repeated budgetary revisions, and unsatisfactory use of allocated funds have been a consistent feature of all such computerisation attempts, past and present.
Moving forward, the Department of Justice must ensure optimum and timely utilisation of funds, compel state governments to release allocated funds to their respective high courts for further disbursement to vendors, and carefully monitor the expenditure of the funds vested directly with high courts.
The future of one of the largest justice delivery mechanisms in the world rides on the success of the eCourts project. It cannot be deferred any longer.
The author is research fellow, Judicial Reform Initiative, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi