e-Governance – times with a collective for progress

ImageThe inherence of pay-it-back in the human heart has always been a reassuring factor. Tap into the conscience of any bloke you happen to talk to and you’ll learn that he would like to do something for the society in any way possible. We are discounting chronic ingrates and the utterly spiteful and factoring in the inhabitants of your regular republican societies. However most of us are inert in altruism as it happens and ever ready to ascribe the said state of being to lack of opportunities or worse, financial stringency.  There will be a good number of exceptions of course but I’m certainly not one of them. It was however my first brush with eGovernance that actually got me thinking about India’s potential to be a truly inclusive and techno-enabled system that delivers, and gave me an opportunity to redeem myself.

So, did I get to tour the country’s hinterland, set up communication towers and demonstrate to suspicious villagers how cool it is to use computers to pay their utility bills or update land records? No sir. Did I build some software that saves the Government thousands of man-hours and a lot of cash? Wish I did. So what has got me all gung ho about e-Governance?  My role per se is very miniscule. My employer in his renowned prescience and foresight, realized more than a decade ago that information and communications technology (ICT) was no greater a reality than e-Governance would be in the years to come. With such conviction to back, he decided to sponsor a very high profile awards program initiated by the Computer Society of India (CSI). Into its twelfth year, the CSI Nihilent eGov Awards (CNEA) is now regarded as the gold standard for evaluating Government or quasi-Government projects that leverage ICT. Back to my role, I am tasked with ensuring some people tell a lot more people that the awards were given away to certain projects, and more importantly, arranging for the winners to carry home a testament to their victory.

It is the whole process running up to the awards ceremony that left me humbled. Right from getting introduced to the convener, who parted with his family and financial consulting outfit at Singapore for a greater part of the year, to the final distribution of the certificates and plaques, to receive which the winners had traveled from the farthest corners of the country at their own expense, the entire exercise could have only been seen through by the singular dint of passion.  To put things in perspective, there were more than two hundred entries from across the country, all of which had to be evaluated against several parameters. The evaluation included field visits to all the centers where the projects were implemented, several of them not so well connected to the base. I was fortunate to be part of one such visit, but I’ll come to that in a bit. The team that evaluated the projects comprised distinguished individuals from the Government as well as private corporations, with several decades of experience in IT implementation of public projects. At the same time, there were scores of people who did a lot more physically daunting work to make things move in clockwork precision. It was heartening to work with Sekhar, an individual who has remained with the CNEA cause for the last 10 years, even if it means doing PR and other outreach activities, while his education and prior experience are aligned to software design. He has incidentally co-authored the annual compendium of selected case studies this year. Also meet Rao, a short, bespectacled, soft-spoken gentleman in his mid-fifties, coordinating logistics, typically emerging out of nowhere whenever needed. But does he do this because he has to? He says it’s because he wants to, because he believes in eGovernance, even without understanding a single strain of technology associated with it. It is with such people working at the grassroots level that the story of concerted efforts for promoting better governance strikes a chord.

The winners of the awards may please take a bow! If not for their conviction in their initiatives, their projects would likely have not seen the light of the day. Some of the projects mean business – no, not profit-making – but have singular straightforward objectives like integrated customer services in a portal, or process automation, while some have ostensibly loftier ones like inclusivity, as in the case of the official website for Dudu Basantgarh, a remote subdivision in J&K, or transparency and visibility, as in the case of the State Excise Department of Maharashtra.  I was invited be part of the field visit of a whisky manufactory on the outskirts of Pune followed by a meeting with the commissioner of the state excise. Their efforts to bring effect a comprehensive transformation of the department is the first of its kind in the country. Right from procuring molasses to bottling, the excise department will now have greater visibility into all the stages of the manufacturing processes and the accounts thereof. State excise by nature is notorious for courting controversies, and a portal based system is definitely a vigilant measure to control any kind of skullduggery.  Similarly MeeSeva and Karnataka One (modeled on the super successful Bangalore One) from AP and Karnataka, Missing Child Tracking System Gujarat, Professional colleges entrance counseling metrics software by National Informatics Center (NIC)  are some of the other leading lights in the latest edition of the awards.

 

When you bear witness to a lot of such endeavors for progress in the country, you can’t help but take heart to the thought that the doomsday is still some time away. And trust me, there’s every chance that you’ll go home inspired. I take up extra curricular white papers and case studies for e-Governance consulting projects, though a larger propaganda mechanism would be in order today.

What’s your cause then? Or do you think an apocalypse is awaiting you round the corner?

City its people maketh

Where in India do you think you would do well and feel good about it?

One of this year’s urban thrillers, Powerplay by Parinda Joshi has its key protagonist, a high flying investment banker mulling over his ill luck in getting a companion for himself, having been on the lookout in all the cities he’s travelled to. However he deals with cognitive dissonance by attributing his failure to a variety of reasons.  His usual grouse against women from Bengaluru is that they are pretentious. Now, one would want to say it’s just a figment of our man’s imagination. I’d say, wish to.

Pop quiz. Quickly list out the three most famous epithets earned by Bengaluru.  Garden city, pub-city, hi-tech city? The latter two seem to be quite an inviting proposition for the uninitiated.  But then, who really is? The city has indeed witnessed a gold rush of sorts, with IT and BPO jobs opening up by the day. And so you have millions of ‘tech’ jobs, with millions of takers and a few more millions at the brink of landing that job. Bengaluru is no California, though the techies would have us believe that the comparison can’t be more appropriate. More on this in a bit. Revisiting the epithets, what’s the idea that you conjure up? A city with countless watering holes, which lets you party hard (but not so hard either), without a care in the world? And going by similar logic, a city that offers a varied choice of dope and women? The October arrest of the gang of six that included internationals , indicates a steady market for stuff. While flesh trade is not institutionalized unlike some other metros, that women are baited and more shockingly, harassed and assaulted is for everyone to feel. Yes, this is the Bengaluru that much of humanity is making a beeline for.

The reaction of the average Bangalore woman to accusations of pretentiousness would surely be militant and defensive.  ‘What the f*c* does he know about Bangalore?’ ‘We make the silicon valley of the east’ ‘We are the most cosmopolitan’  ‘Dude, get a life’ and so on. Mind you, the aforesaid reactions would most likely be in English and not in the vernacular. She’s a fraud analyst for a Canadian outfit, and has seen all of the country but on a map. She’s a mind counsellor who’s at wits end for having to contend with three other counsellors down the same lane she lives in. She’s a fashion designer and crafts clothing for the slim and sickly while praying for some magic cure to her obesity.  She’s a wedding planner, and insists that sangeet and mehndi are the way forward, even for the most conservative South Indian families.  Single and confident, she struts out of her flat that would be happier with some natural light, flags a rickshaw and lands up at the nearest mall. Levi’s jeans, tops from Marks and Spencers, Sketchers sneakers, you get the idea. She talks English, a very beautiful Indian one customized for the woman on the move. ‘He’s so cool and you know he’s a bike freak?’ ‘There’s this guy who comes up and says “you seem to be lost, can i drop you somewhere?” He’s sooo faake you know!’ Quiz them  on news and books, and pat comes ‘ooo, you’re the stud types haan?’

The men are those of substance. Yes, they do consume a lot of it. For the less adventurous, pub hopping with double bellies of suppressed barley water as in a cannon,  wading their fancy motorcycles through the sea of traffic, taking off on ‘long rides’ to Nandi hills, and screaming all over the social network may be the extent of living up the urban life. I used to think of it as a factor of age, but there appears to be this sense of vanity and supposedly urban character across generations.

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One may wonder if all this is indeed peculiar to Bengaluru or a matter of urban Indian preferences today. Yes and no. As the city has progressed from the sleepy old town of yore to a bustling metropolis, there definitely has remained a residue of the classic past. Bangalore has been trying  valiantly to stand its own against the bigger metros like Delhi, Bombay and Chennai with its distinct scientific temperament, and a culture of moderation. Other than the Indian Institute of Science, you have the National Centre for Biological Sciences, the University of Agricultural Sciences and the very popular IIM and IIIT-B. With a truly cosmopolitan DNA, the city is a perennial favourite for international pop and rock acts, and has a vibrant literary circuit. So much of coolth associated with Bengaluru is a derivative of just these things, complemented by a pleasant weather. But a diehard Bangalorean would see that, this is in many ways the very undoing of a beautiful city. IT and ITeS opened the floodgates of employment to scores of hopefuls from across the country. For many of the millions who have now made the city their home, this breeziness attracted them from far. Once in, they mostly found it difficult to blend in with the suave and global outlook and started a subconscious movement of asserting their cultural identity. Here’s how you can see that the average Bangalorean of today wants to be associated with the western urban identity of the city but refuses to acknowledge the real ethos which Bengaluru stood for. And here’s how you  have people who appear more knowledgeable than they are, people who have heard about more music than they have heard to, and who speak English neither for love of the language nor life, but as an adhesive that holds their facilities from coming apart.

As the city has thus metamorphosed, there is little now that sets the city apart from its counterparts across the country. Trade and employment takes people to the farthest reaches of the world. Urban life is now pretty much indistinguishable from city to another. What was said of Bangalore may well be the case with Bombay or Delhi or Pune. It’s an India thing then. This is a veritable indicator of lifestyle priorities of the generation Y. As lifestyle takes precedence over living, there will be a lot more clamour to land a job that pays, be it brain-dead or morally compromising. Shallowness will prevail in the guise of depth, love will continue to go on sale, and many such seemingly unwelcome developments will take centre stage. Funnily enough, my neighbour will probably be ruing the state of the nation, as would his neighbour be too. But then, it is self above nation today. One can only spare time for a thought.