Recent public discourse on development has seen the phrase 'failing delivery system' increasingly mentioned. But away from the massive public attention given to national budgets and speeches of leaders, a civil society-government partnership has gotten down to addressing some of the very problems that are bottlenecking governance in our cities and towns. In New Delhi, a revamp of municipal property tax collection and financial accounting systems is soon to take off. Driven by a Bangalore-based technology NGO, such partnershipsare already at work in over 50 municipalities in Karnataka.
Founded by Srikanth Nadhamuni, a former Silicon Valley (California) IT professional with experience spanning 14 years, and Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys, Egovernments Foundation is a non-profit with a stated mission to "provide Municipal IT Software Systems for use in Cities/Towns all across India - for free." The tech-NGO works with governments to improve local governance through effective use of technologies and re-engineering government processes.
India Together caught up with Nadhamuni in early August.
Srikanth Nadhamuni is on a US tour between Aug 6-31 to attract NRIs to work
for better governance in India.
The Delhi municipality is reported to be among the largest in the world. It has around 150,000 employees. eGovernments signed an MoU with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for implementing a property tax system integrated with a GIS (geographical information systems) database. Second, the financial accounting system used by the municipal corporation will be modernized to a funds based accounting system, like the system in use at Bangalore. Third, a public grievance tracking and redressal system will be built with a simple web-based interface. In general, all these systems will be available over the internet so that citizens and communities can get involved in governance of MCD.
Since many citizens may not have access to the Internet, physical forms and phone numbers will be available for filing grievances, and this will be connected to the same PGS system. When implemented, the MCD's PGS will allow internet based status checking of grievances. eGovernments will also conduct training for MCD staff.
e-Governance hype and computerisation projects have come and gone in the past. These ideas themselves are not new. What differentiates your approach to improving municipal systems?
We emphasize the building of robust systems; computerization is secondary. Let's take an example. We have inherited a 100-year old system of property taxes based on the DCB approach - (Demand, Collection and Balance). Due to poor maintenance of records in most cities, this system is badly broken. A major problem in achieving the goal of higher compliance in property taxes comes from not being able to uniquely identify properties in the city. A huge number of city streets are not named, the property tax assessment registers do not contain even property/door numbers, let alone details such as the plot size and built-up area. We need to set our house in order. We need to name every street and number every property. We need to gather information on plot size and built-up area so that we can estimate the value of the property and hence assess the tax. This can be done by citizens own self-assessment data or through ground surveys. We have devised a rigorous system that is being implemented all across 56 cities in Karnataka.
Our approach is process and technology driven. We partner with both municipal authorities as well as other central government bodies like the Survey of India and the Registrar General of India, to develop comprehensive databases for every municipality that we cover. One is the MIS database (management information systems) that has all the information about the properties themselves. The other is the GIS database that captures spatial and locational information for all properties in a municipality in a graphical format. The MIS and GIS databases are connected at a per-property level within the system.
With this re-engineered system, questions like 'how many residents on a street have water connections', or 'show me the commercial properties on this street that are tax defaulters', can answered in a visual manner both accurately and at the click of a button -- something that might otherwise take far more time and involve needless replication of work each time a different query has to be handled.
And yet post-offices seem to manage with the same legacy addressing system.
This is partly because the Indian Postal system uses their staff to literally provide a personalised service. Postal delivery is done by human beings who continuously adapt to the inherent lack of systematic identifiability. But this system doesn't scale; There are more than 30 cities in India with a population of a million or more. For these cities, ad-hoc strategies will not work, you need accurate addressing of properties for taxation, mail delivery and many other municipal administration and planning needs.
Tell us a little bit more about why you think your new systems are going to be more accurate and effective.
The process we have adopted pays attention to a significant amount of detail. Every street is surveyed and data is collected, validated and entered into the system through a three-stage process involving bill collectors, engineers, revenue inspectors, data entry operators, senior programmers, project coordinators, all the way upto the municipal commissioner.
Guide to street naming and property numbering, 2.0, (PDF)
Srikanth Nadhamuni and Shinu Singh, 2004.
Our monitoring of deployment progress is quite rigorous; status reports from all 56 cities flows into the eGovernments project management cell in Mysore, by 10:00 AM each Monday; we have a system that then crunches these status reports for each city and rates the cities by percentage of work completion for each of the 22 stages that have to be completed. The Director of Municipal Administration looks into cities that are lagging behind and tries to help them with their difficulties.
An example of the efficiency gains is the time taken to produce a katha extract (tax payer certification) for citizens. What may otherwise take 3 weeks to generate from the current process at the municipalities, with the new systems, will take 3 minutes. The Bangalore Mahanagara Palike is currently issuing free Katha extracts when citizens have paid their property tax.
You claim that the eGovernments system will allow local governments to make disclosures about properly tax filings effectively and that there are gains for citizens from this.
A recent example is that in Vishakapatnam, property tax collection more than doubled after municipal officials took a simple decision. They made public the filings of taxes by various citizens along with the defaulters. In effect this led to peer pressure on the defaulters. So, community regulating itself can be effective in raising the level of compliance from where it is today.
But this alone will not get you to 100% compliance. People are not going start paying taxes simply because there is a new computer system in place, they will pay when the service levels from the municipalities goes up. This translates to better ward works implementation and spending. At the ward level, residents welfare associations need to be invited to participate in not only improving property tax collection but also in the prioritization and monitoring of ward works projects - the major expenditure of the city.
By closing the loop between taxation and services delivery with community involvement you can improve property tax compliance as well as service delivery to citizens.
But is the Delhi municipality prepared to go in for disclosures about collections and defaulters?
We are developing the property tax system so that ward level property tax filings will be easily publishable, once the system implementation is complete and decisions are taken by the local government. The Delhi authorities have promised complete support to eGovernments Foundation.
Coming back to Karnataka, give us where the property tax system development work in the state is headed and recent advances.
6 million forms are being used by the state's municipalities for the re-engineered data collection process. eGovernments has trained over 1200 municipal revenue officials, as well as 435 engineering staff. The creation of the new property databases for more than 50 municipalities in Karnataka is being tracked on a weekly basis, as I pointed out earlier.
eGovernments has also setup a common e-group (a Yahoo group) for the Karnataka Urban Development Department's Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA). The group has for its members DMA officials, municipal IT staff from all over Karnataka who are involved in this project, as well as domain experts from eGovernments.
Prior to the creation of this electronic channel, much of the internal communications between officials and other staff was bottlenecked in print. The instant communication has now made clarification of doubts, queries, and status reports easier. Logistical issues with data collection and related process is now posted on the e-group. Since many of the data collection and deployment issues at 56 cities are similar, resolutions are shared.
All of the systems, tools and expertise gained as the Karnataka deployment goes forward is now being offered to the Delhi municipality as well.
What are your most critical challenges today?
Earlier interview, Dec 2003
Karnataka's new property map
Often, these are people who have succeeded in the IT industry and have developed formidable skill sets over their professional careers. Many times, these are NRIs looking to return to India, and use their idealism in a highly challenging non-profit environment to contribute to development.
These are very ambitious projects. Even though your organization is offering the software itself free of cost the governments, the cities themselves will be spending money on IT systems as well as training and new hires. Thousands of manhours are needed to get the systems working. What if these changes are undone by vested interests?
I believe that we can and must fix the information and system bottlenecks in governments and make our governments more transparent & accountable to citizens. We can create information sharing by use of Internet and other technologies, but eventually it is the citizens who will need to bring accountability in municipalities through the information access that these systems provide. When citizens develop trust in the system, they will ensure its survival.