Fast-forwarding panchayat digitization
The Digitization of Gram Panchayats is a key pillar of Digital India
The Digitization of Gram Panchayats is a key pillar of Digital India, the flagship programme of the Central Government to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy through leveraging of digital technologies. The programme implemented by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj envisages the setting up of at least one self-sustaining Common Service Centre (CSC) in each of the 2.55 lakh Gram Panchayats (GP) in the country delivering e-services to citizens. Co-location of the CSC in the GP office is critical for easy access to the e-services by citizens, but with most CSCs operating from private premises, the digitization programme in panchayats cannot be expected to achieve the desired goals. The fact that the Ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the CSC e-Governance Services Limited to enable/empower the States to co-locate the CSC in panchayat offices with objectives such as maintaining GP records in digital form, imparting digital literacy to elected representatives, creating digital automation in 2019, the objectives remaining unachieved in most GPs have slowed the pace of Digital India programme. The Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (RGSA) scheme which aims at enabling panchayats to function effectively to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals has provisions incentives up to Rs 5 lakh to states for setting up CSCs in GP offices. The funding pattern of this centrally-sponsored scheme is 90:10 for the Northeast and hilly states and 60:40 for other states, timely release of state share is crucial for availing the incentive. Till July, altogether 1.78 lakh GPs have been made service ready under the BharatNet project. The project, implemented in a phased manner, is expected to provide broadband connectivity to all GPs of the country by August 2023 which indicates the pace of availability of internet connectivity at the panchayat level. The CSCs functioning from GP offices will ensure optimal utilization of broadband connectivity in a panchayat for faster and more transparent government, and government to citizens' services. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Panchayati Raj has made a critical observation on the slow pace of co-locating the CSCs in GPs and has pointed out the MoU required the appointment of a Nodal Officer for monitoring the digitization programme, but CSCs were left "unmonitored by any central agency to a large extent." The parliamentary panel also notes in its report that the non-appointment of Nodal officers is a major lapse on the part of the Ministry that cannot shift this responsibility to the States. The panchayat being local self-government and a state subject, the principle of cooperative federalism plays a crucial role in the successful and smooth implementation of the central sector and centrally-sponsored programmes and schemes. Under the programme, the state governments are required to enter into MoU with the CSC authorities for using their e-services toward smart governance. Apart from the RGSA fund, States can also utilize funds Fifteenth Finance Commission component of Operation and Maintenance (10%) grants which are available with the GPs for computerization and deployment of technical human resources. States extending full cooperation by acknowledging the importance of the digitization programme and providing inclusive governance at all levels can make the task easier for the Ministry to adopt a persuasive approach to fast-track the programme even within the limitations of its advisory role. The report reveals that not even one-fourth of CSCs are co-located in GP offices which calculates to less than 50,000 throughout India and most of the CSCs are functioning from the private centres in the market. Data provided by the Ministry to the parliamentary panel shows that against the approved amount of Rs 3,213 crore for 2019-20, Rs 3,337 crore for 2020-21 and Rs 4,480 crore for 2021-21 only Rs 432 crore, Rs 499 crore and Rs 518 crore respectively were released to States under RGSA which reveals poor utilization. The Ministry attributing such underutilization to non-release of state shares and quantum of subsequent allocations depending on unspent balances with the State Government also speaks volumes about co-location of CSCs in GP offices among other initiatives not being a priority for the states. Awareness among elected representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions on the importance of digitization in local self-governance and sensitising the rural population about e-delivery of services ensuring transparency can help the clamour for Digital Panchayat offices grow louder. Women constituting 50% of elected representatives of the panchayats in states like Assam can play a crucial role in bringing about a faster change if they are empowered to become digital literate in various aspects of e-governance. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan which seeks to cover six crore rural households by making at least one person in each of this household, digital literate can be converged with the Digitization of GPs across the country. As India embarks on an ambitious mission of graduating into a developed nation in the next 25 years, innovative approaches are needed to fast forward the digitization of panchayats.