A UNDP-Rajasthan government ICT partnership in backward and chronically underserved Jhalawar is providing teeth to the state's commitment to the right to information
It is well past nine at night in Bhawani Mandi, a nondescript border town in Rajasthan. All the shops have downed their shutters. All except the IT-enabled information kiosk, which shuts after 10 pm. Most of the town is asleep too, but 30-year-old Raju Mali, making his weary way home after work, is drawn by the sign in the kiosk window that lists the gamut of government and public services accessible at the kiosk. The one that is of instant relevance to him concerns the issuing of land title certificates.
"My father died a year ago and I have not managed so far to have the property transferred in accordance with his will," Mali tells the kiosk owner Ritesh Pandey. "You know how it is at the district office. We go all the way and find ourselves at the mercy of the clerk who seldom helps, and almost never without a 'consideration'," says Mali. "I am a lowly electrician in a textile mill and am hired on a daily wage arrangement. I cannot afford to waste a full day being sent back and forth between sundry government offices, without much hope that my job will be done."
Mali is incredulous when Pandey, a local youth who runs the franchise, shows him the online application form and says the transfer certificate will be issued to him within a week. All for Rs 10. Not surprisingly, Mali is sold on the idea.
Pandey's take for the day is a decent Rs 150, just for helping regular people access government services and public utilities that were, till recently, beyond their reach.
Thanks to Jan Mitra, a United Nations Development Project (UNDP) and state government-supported pilot initiative, people in villages across Jhalawar, a remote and backward border district, are using information technology to exercise their right to information and access government services.
The main objective of the Jan Mitra project is to provide a single-window facility to citizens to access government work, simplify various government procedures through computerisation and use information and communications technology (ICT) to establish direct communications between the administration and the people.
The Rajasthan government says it wants to use Jan Mitra to ensure transparent, accountable and responsive governance and to make the right to information an effective tool in the hands of the rural masses. Most villagers reckon that, for the first time in their lives, the kiosks have brought them closer to their government and vice versa.
Jan Mitra or 'people's friend' has truly been a friend in need. Registration of births, deaths and land records, grievance redressal, submission of online applications for a clutch of government schemes and services, even getting examination results, all are just a click of a mouse away. And while each service comes with a price-tag, the villagers pay up happily, actually counting their savings in terms of time and effort spared.
Another big draw of the Jan Mitra initiative has been the speedy grievance redressal mechanism. Pravin Soni, another kiosk owner in Bhawani Mandi, cites the example of Trilok Chand Partani. Manager of a local cooperative bank, Partani made an online complaint against the electricity board to clear the loose high-tension wires over his house that posed an imminent risk to his family's safety. He had petitioned the officials on a number of occasions, without success. But once he registered an online complaint, the wires were fixed within three days.
Reaching out to women is the one thing that Jan Mitra has failed to accomplish so far. Soni can't remember the last time a woman walked into his kiosk for help, or when a complaint concerning women's issues was made using Jan Mitra.
So far, 28 info-kiosks are in place and the number is expected to go up to 40 early this year. Unemployed local youth have been selected and trained to man these 'village information shops', providing them gainful employment. Nearly 34 departmental offices have been linked with the Jan Mitra server and over a dozen offices linked to the local area network.
The government has developed its own information management system to exercise vigilance over the disposal of problems through Jan Mitra. It provides detailed information on action taken for the disposal of public grievances. Given the positive response the project has elicited, the Jhalawar model will soon be replicated in other districts of Rajasthan.
Jan Mitra has heralded the arrival of the knowledge economy in an area with high poverty levels, abysmal infrastructure and chronic shortages of drinking water and power.
(InfoChange News and Features, January 2004)