By Dr D Dhanuraj and Deepthi Mary Mathew
As expected, there is a long queue of people standing outside taluk supply offices for commissions and omissions in the new batch of ration cards getting ready for distribution in Kerala. Taking into account the huge turnout in taluk offices, the Minister for Food and Civil Supplies has issued a statement directing the village and panchayat offices to accept complaints regarding corrections. Already late in issuing ration cards for a whopping 7.8 million households, this exercise has made a mockery of the so-called ‘digitally literate state’ of Kerala. Thanks to the obdurate philosophy of governance nurtured by the major political parties that have been in power successively.
Peeping Into The Present
Various government agencies carry out the data entry work for the renewal of ration cards. These are Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (CDIT), Akshaya, and Kudumbashree. Kudumbshree works under the Department of Local Self Government, Akshaya under the IT Department, and CDIT under the Department of Information and Public Relations. These agencies charge the government for their work, thus incurring a heavy cost to the state exchequer. For instance, Kudumbshree charges Rs 30 per entry. Despite the high spending, the efficiency of the agencies involved is under scrutiny. These mistakes and neglect are, thus, part of the exercise from the beginning. This leaves zero chance for blame game for any political party.
The Fault in Our Governance
There is a reason why non-competent entities are chosen for the operation and implementation of the ration card scheme. The government believes in mass welfare by creating jobs through the state machinery by any means. This leads to the cost of loss of man-hours and inefficient service delivery systems to the public. The refusal to outsource the data entry work clearly shows the not-so-ready attitude of downsizing the government. It is not the first time that Kerala is suffering because of inefficient government agencies involved in delivering services to the people. A year ago, the Kerala Book and Publishing Society (KBPS) failed in printing and distributing textbooks to school students in time. The state discussed and debated the said issue. In both cases, government agencies had the monopoly in delivering services. Quite evidently, they failed miserably in meeting the needs of the people.
A Tale of Contradictions?
The present situation also reflects the lack of urge for modernisation. Despite the inefficacy of the governance system, it is still being debated whether a private or public company should implement the software upgradations. Remember, this is a country where more than a billion Aadhar cards were issued without any hassle. A world class Indian IT firm is responsible for processing passport applications within a set time limit. There are more than 37 passport offices and 90 Passport Seva Kendras in the country. Around one crore passports were issued without delay in 2014-15. Kerala occupies the top spot with more than 11 lakh passports issued in 2015 alone.
With more than 60 SUPPLYCO offices across the state, Kerala is finding it difficult to make the necessary corrections and issue the ration cards within the time limit. It clearly shows that the digitally literate state lags behind in upgrading software. This move could have made the lives of millions of Keralites easy. Governments and banks across the globe are making use of the services of various IT companies in India. Yet, Kerala is not ready to accommodate private IT companies, as it believes that private companies work only for profits.
Zero Value Credentials
Kerala owns the credential of the first digital state in India with the highest mobile and internet penetration. However, e-governance remains a nurtured dream. The successive Governments have not taken any strong measures to strengthen e-governance in the state. They concentrate on creating more departments, as it can help generate employment opportunities. It is an accepted belief in Kerala that the government is the major employer. Hence, all the political parties of the state follow the same ideology.
A Problem with Government-led Solutions
Despite its small population, Kerela is the state with the highest number of government departments and government employees. Strengthening e-governance would call into question the relevance of most of these departments. Hence, the political parties are not enthusiastic about strengthening e-governance in Kerala. They want to sustain all the government departments by adding more numbers to their account. During the 2016 Assembly Elections campaign, the United Democratic Front projected the declaration of Kerala as the first digital state in the country as one its achievements. But the events that are happening in Kerala would not happen in a digital state.
The present scenario is a classic example of how ration cards could be digitised and applied, sitting at home.
As many of the cooperative banks are still debating the issuance of debit cards to stay afloat in the business, there is no wonder that the government of Kerala is still relying on obsolete service delivery models.
Dr D Dhanuraj holds the position of Chairman at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). Deepthi Mary Mathew is a Research Associate at CPPR-Centre for Comparative Studies.
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