When the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women (TNCDW) announced its paper-less office in summer of 2002, many citizens in the state waited with bated breath for the full rollout of e-governance. The idea of files moving from desk-to-desk at the speed of thought got the babudom great press. But three years down the line, e-governance has been a late starter, operational in around 15 of the 108 urban local bodies in the state under the three-year-old World Bank funded scheme or failing to sustain where it had earlier been implemented.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts believe the e-governance experiment in Tamilnadu has been slow because the policy makers are busy re-inventing the wheel, moving into investment-centric modes and implementing projects that are top-driven with little public participation.

The Information Technology Act does not empower the public to insist that documents be accepted in electronic form by any government department. This has become an excuse for the slow roll-out.
-- N Vijayashankar, cyber law expert
Take the example of Tambaram Municipality, near Chennai. It was one of the first urban local bodies in the state to introduce online payment of property tax and water tax and issue birth and death certificates in July 2003. The turnaround time for files came down to not exceeding 5 days from weeks. But after the yearlong mentoring by an ICT NGO stopped, the system has gone to the dogs.

"Now the touch screen that they used to collect the taxes is stored in a dusty room in the Tambaram Tahsildar's office away from the public. The records are not updated and residents often are asked to bring back old receipts for the municipal officials to cross check the details of the property. If e-governance is to bring down turnaround time for mundane work like tax collection and issue of documents, then Tambaram Municipality is an example of how not to run it," says K Mahadevan, a resident of Goriwakkam in East Tambaram.

Santosh Narayanan of Foundation of Occupational Development, the NGO which mentored the project till July 2004, says the municipal staff was originally so enthused that the next day they had turned up nattily dressed in ties and their attitudes toward work changed. Then the Municipal commissioner was transferred and the project lost steam. The online grievance redressal system on the web address www.snegham.com is defunct with the site becoming a victim of cyber squatting.

"Information and Communication Technology projects take commitment from the top, the participants should be receptive to the idea, and the political set up should concur. Vendors or NGOs can only give logistical back up from outside, but cannot drive the projects themselves. If the end-user is not involved, e-governance is bound to fail," says Narayanan.

This could be the template into which most of the failed ICT projects – be it on the e-administration, e-government services or e-governance – fit. The Sivaganga district collectorate returned to paper-centric office after a brief dalliance with e-governance, the project scrapped after the district collector who had introduced it was transferred. The weekly web durbar of Thiruvallur collectorate – grievance redressal mechanism through which the collector simultaneously connects to 50 villages – is floundering after a change in head.

Legally also, India’s Information Technology Act does not have a provision to prevent the return to non-computerised workflow. Information Technology expert and author of Cyber Laws: I T Act 2000 and beyond, N Vijayashankar, says permanence of e-governance should be worked into the Information Technology Act. He says: "Section 9 of the Act does not empower the public to insist that documents be accepted in electronic form by any Ministry Department of the Central Government or of the State Government. This has become an excuse for the slow roll-out." Vijayashankar is also an advisor to the Karnataka Government for its e-governance policies.

But it is not as if Tamilnadu does not have examples of how things could work. Using software from Andhra Pradesh Technology Services, bought at a ridiculously low cost of Rs. 10,000, TNCDW Chairperson Qudsia Gandhi and Executive Director Dr Santhosh Babu cut redtape to size in their office.

The tapals/petitions were scanned, coded and sent to relevant officials, establishing a workflow process that could be managed and monitored at any point by the head of departments. This reduced paperwork, which was used only in the final stages to take printouts of file summaries once the files were closed. Also, it made tracking a file’s progress simple. This workflow process and document management format has become the most popular one for e-administration tools.

"But the most valuable part of the exercise was learning about change management. When the idea was floated around, it became evident that many among the staff had reservations. Questions like ‘would jobs be lost? Will there be a re-allocation of responsibilities if one were not to be familiar with computers?’ were repeated. We had to speak to each staff individually to enlist their support," says Dr Babu. And in this case, the system is functional even after both Qudsia Gandhi and Dr Babu were transferred to other departments.

Where the government-owned corporation seems to score over government departments is that there is greater autonomy of functioning, both funds-wise and in administration. For the 40-seater office, neither change management nor funds was an obstacle as most state-government-owned corporations have budgetary allocations for computerisation/e-administration processes. On the other hand, in huge government departments such person-to-person contact for implementation or raising funds - through annual budgetary allocations – is more time-consuming.

To cut costs, an expert committee on e-governance headed by the vice chancellor of Anna University – central technical university – recommended the use of open source software. One such open source vendor is Lifeline to Business.com Pvt Ltd, an ICT company that has entered into a market agreement with the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT). But before marketing it, ELCOT decided to implement e-administration in its own offices.

ELCOT is a government-owned corporation overseen by the state government's IT department. It has been appointed to monitor the state's e-Governance mission and is the implementor of policy decisions taken by the IT department.

Since April 2004, after evaluating other software, ELCOT has switched to a web-based, platform-independent e-administration software of LL2B that uses a Linux-based application. (Linux is renowned for becoming the global open source community’s rebuttal to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system.) LL2B’s president V D G Krishnan said the open source route more than halved the costs, which could then be used to train users. This advantage has enthused the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the Treasuries Department to go the paperless office way.

Concerns of transparency and accountability have also been the moving force behind e-governance and Krishnan believes tools such as his will open up the system to public scrutiny. Other ICT experts however, differ radically from this point of view and fear that e-governance could fail if the implementers internalised the inherent faults of the prevalent system into e-governance. "Technology by itself cannot be the cure for what ails the system. The person manning the computers could still demand speed money; it would require a change in value system of the society," says Santosh Narayanan.

During a recent collections drive, suburban water tax collectors for Tambaram and Alandur found defaulters in their paper-based records among those who had already paid through kiosks. Many were forced to pay up a second time rather than face disconnection of drinking water, reports one resident.
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In Tambaram and neighbouring Alandur Municipalities, the computerisation of tax collection has neither resulted in an increase in payments nor transparency, nor effectiveness. Residents repeat stories of how computer-unsavvy the local body officials were, unable to retrieve duplicates of lost receipts.

"A part of the public-partnered underground drainage scheme in Alandur Municpality pre-dates e-governance. The receipts for deposit payment have not all been digitised and there is some confusion about who has paid and who has not. Those who have misplaced the deposit receipts find it difficult to get duplicates because of this duality." says an Alandur-based flat promoter.

In both these muncipalities the back-end operations for property and water tax collections are yet to be completely and coherently digitised. "The tax collectors during a recent a door-to-door collection drive found defaulters in their paper-based records among those who had receipts from payments in the kiosks. Many were forced to pay up a second time rather than face disconnection of drinking water," says Mahadevan of East Tambaram.

Change would also be required in the government’s approach to e-governance, say experts. Though the need for a central e-governance directorate has been identified, it is yet to be set up. Tamilnadu’s e-governance mission lacks a clear policy guideline and the private participation has been poor with inappropriate tendering processes, especially among small and medium enterprises with innovative ideas.

Vivek Harinarain is the top bureaucrat for Information Technology in Tamilnadu. He confirms that Tamilnadu is in the process of establishing the e-gov directorate, which will take stock of existing e-governance processes. "With the metrics from the national e-governance action plan, the ELCOT has already started business process re-engineering to weed out the mistakes from existing projects", says Harinarain.

Vijayshankar throws light on tendering practices in government that cause outcomes to go wrong. "For example, the government should seek those who will be able deliver birth and death certificates at the cost of Rs.5 per document that measures up to certain criteria instead of floating a lowest-bidder tender describing the processes that might not be cost-effective", he says. If the government were to seek vendors who could deliver a service at minimal cost instead of describing the processes through which the services should be rendered, private participation would be greater, argues Vijayshankar.

Other issues about intellectual property rights violation are raising their heads with competing, sometimes even collaborating vendors, infringing on copyrights. With the government willing to give only an in-principle sanction for most projects, vendors are fearful if the 'Antares vs. CommerceOne' situation would not be repeated, he says.

(In July 2003, Antares Systems Ltd had sought CommerceOne and Andhra Pradesh Government be restrained from infringing its copyright in its e-tendering software product Tenderwizard. In its complaint, Antares alleged CommerceOne, along with Microsoft and Compaq, bidding jointly for the e-procurement initiative and thereafter, copied and reverse engineered the e-tendering software of Antares and deployed the software.)

Despite these difficulties, Tamilnadu's IT department is going ahead with its e-governance initiatives. The statewide, wide area network to provide data, voice and video connectivity project was undertaken in the last financial year. Though late, ELCOT has started a standardization project to evaluate e-governance tools and enter into marketing agreements with vendors, as part of its e-government mission. "The less-paper initiative (LL2B’s e-governance tool) has won awards from the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances. It was an economical decision to market this e-administration tool. There will be revenue sharing between the ELCOT and LL2B", says Vivek Harinarain.

In Chennai itself, the state's capital, pilot projects have only meant online payment of bills for customers of Metrowater and the electricity utility, Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). IT officials are now scaling up this project to cover other public utilities and other services such as payment of old-age and widows' pensions.