E-Pay: Improving Government – Citizen Interaction I

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By Rathan U Kelkar, IAS & Rema Sundar

Background

The birth of the Internet has ushered in a new paradigm of development. By revolutionising the means of information and service delivery, the Internet has created an effective and efficient means of developing underdeveloped regions and people. In the words of the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, “The great democratizing power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty can be reversed”.

The all-encompassing power of the Internet has been recognized with cognizance by countries and Governments which are trying to fight the scourge of poverty and usher in prosperity. The undeniable growth of Internet is supported by the fact that it “took 75 years for telephone to reach 50 million users when it was invented, it has taken the World Wide Web (WWW) only 4 years to reach the same number of users”. Attempts at furthering development initiatives through the medium of the Internet have given rise to concept of e-governance. Springing mostly as a “copy of e-commerce into public sector” in the beginning of the 21st century, e-governance is the use of “technology to accomplish reform by fostering transparency, eliminating distance and other divides, and empowering people to participate in the political processes that affect their lives”. Since its evolution, e-governance has flourished to become a major arena of thought with four distinct models, based on the participants engaged in e-government activities. The models are Government to Citizens (G2C), Government to Business (G2B), Government to Employees (G2E) and finally Government to Government (G2G). Of all the models of e-governance, the G2C interface is perhaps the most discussed and thought of, owing to its ability to change the life of citizens.

The State of Kerala woke up to the power of e-governance and G2C quite ahead of the other regions of India. Recognised for its pioneering ICT-based countries in the country and the world, the administrators and other key stakeholders in Kerala realised that implementation of e-governance cannot be an overnight venture. Rather it would take coherent strategising and eons of effort.

The E-Government Handbook for Developing Countries [v]has identified e-literacy as one of the 17 challenges and opportunities for implementation of e-governance initiatives. E-literacy or IT literacy becomes a challenge because e-governance cannot succeed if the citizens are not IT literate. Interestingly it also emerges as a simultaneous opportunity, for e-literacy can be achieved through e-governance.

Envisioning e-literacy both as a challenge and an opportunity, the Government of Kerala launched the project of Akshaya (the word meaning ‘perpetuating prosperity) on 18th November 2002. Piloted in one of the most backward districts of Malappuram in Kerala, the purpose of this project was multi-fold. These include imparting basic IT literacy to at least one member in each of the 6.5 million families in Kerala, generating and distributing locally relevant content, improving public delivery of services and creating employment opportunities. Through this e-literacy programme, the Government wanted to address and redress three issues, viz., low Internet penetration, low e-literacy rate and high costs of availing services. With e-literacy taken care of, the Akshaya project was to emerge as a platform for implementing many e-governance programmes.

Developed as a public-private partnership based project, the Akshaya centres or Akshaya e-kendras were favourably received by the people of Malappuram. Since June 2003, around six hundred thousand people have been made IT and Internet savvy, earning Malappuram the epithet of being India’s first 100 per cent e-literate district. The project also created over 620 kiosks and generated employment to over 2500 people in the area. Enthused with the response, the Government decided to launch the project across the State and equip the e-kendras to deliver additional services.

E-Pay – The Purpose Behind

In a democratic set-up like India, many exchanges between the citizens and the Government are mandated. Some of them include payment of income tax, property tax and other utility bills. Owing to the fact that these essential services are provided by various Government departments and wings, the citizens are forced to visit multiple offices to fulfil their obligations. This results in wastage of precious time, thus impinging on the productivity of the nation as a whole.

To help the citizens of Kerala make all their obligatory payments under one roof, the Government of Kerala initiated the pioneering venture of Fast Reliable Instant Effective Network for Distribution of Services (FRIENDS) as a pilot in Trivandrum Corporation in 2000. This facility was positively welcomed by the citizens, prompting the Government to roll-out the project to the other districts as well. The success of the pilot and the subsequent district-level ventures clearly brought the need and efficacy for such services.

With Akshaya e-kendras expanding the e-literate base of Kerala, the Government, in line with its original strategy, felt that additional services can be provided through these centres.  The E-pay facility was born as part of the second phase of expansion of the Akshaya centres to extend the availability of integrated services, enjoyed by urban Kerala to rural Kerala as well. The extension of single window services to the rural population has helped to rectify any digital exclusion that might have unintentionally crept in during in the initial stages of the FRIENDS project.

Objectives

The main aim of the E-pay project is to create an integrated electronic payment facility for rural Kerala and to save the citizens the hassle of visiting multiple offices to make mandatory payments. The sub-objectives of the project include:
§ Digital inclusion of the rural population
§ Creation of local employment

E-Pay -Project

A project of the Kerala State IT Mission (KSITM); the IT implementation wing of the Kerala Government, with the technical support from Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT), the E-pay project facilitates payment electronically/digitally. The project hinges on the Akshaya centres set up by the Government across the State.

Extending the scope of Akshaya from centres of e-literacy to centres for multiple services delivery called for technological additions, particularly the building of a wireless network. The Akshaya project, which has the distinction of being the largest rural wireless network in India, deploys hybrid wireless technology Wireless IP in Local Loop (WipLL) and Versatile Intelligent Network (VINE). The WipLL is a high capacity point-to-multipoint wireless wide area networking system that utilizes IP technology and has an operating range in excess of 10 km Line of Sight (LOS) and several kilometres Non Line of Sight (NLOS). This technology carries voice, video, and data services on a single platform over the metropolitan area. It supports Quality of Service (QoS) and Bandwidth on Demand (BoD). VINE is a new networking technology that overcomes the non line-of-sight obstacles and minimizes initial up-front costs of developing networks. Hard-to-reach locations that are obstructed can easily be reached once the VINE spreads into that neighbourhood. The Akshaya centres were thus enabled to emerge as self-sustaining units with five computers and other infrastructure worth up to Rs.400,000 per centre. To ensure access and ease of use of the services, the Government is striving to ensure the presence of an Akshaya centre within a radius of 3 km from every household.

With infrastructural requirements catered to, the E-pay project was launched in 98 Akshaya centres in Malappuram district in August 2004 as an online single-window facility for collecting various utility bills from the citizens. It was further rolled out to seven more districts in the beginning of 2008. Currently, one-stop bill-payment Akshaya centres have come up in all the 14 districts of the State.

This was made possible through the help of Kerala’s computerized bill payment facility (e-kendra.org). Citizens of Kerala have paid more than 100,000 bills at ‘Akshaya Centres’, one-stop bill payment shops spread across all 14 districts of the state. Starting from March 2009 and up to December 2009, the Akshaya e-kendras have collected e-payments over Rs.920 million in over 2.6 million transactions.

Contd. Part II

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