Wednesday, 20 June 2012

E-Governance and Corruption in States

Extract from: Jennifer Bushell, "E-Governance and Corruption in the States",  EPW, Jun 23 2012, Vol. XLVII, No.25

Bushell undertakes a comparative evaluation of one-stop computerised citizen service centres in various Indian states, during the period 1999-2009, to assess their efficacy. She found that the outcomes of policies related to e-governance in India are not correlated to conventional variables such as economic development. Instead the extent to which political parties in power expect such policies to affect their current and future electoral statuses affects  implementation.

Some computerized citizen service centres are: eSeva in Andhra Pradesh; Nemmadi in Karnataka;  Friends in Kerala; e-Mitra in Rajasthan; Civic Centres in Gujarat; and Sugam in Himachal Pradesh.

This analysis offers two important findings. 

1. First, while nearly all major Indian states implemented some type of computerised service centre programme during this period, the programmes themselves differed significantly  in  terms  of  the  number  and  type  of  services  made available to citizens.

2. To understand this variation in policy design and implementation it is necessary to understand the expected effect of these policies on the economic resources of incumbent politicians and in particular politicians’ expectations about the threat of more transparent service delivery to established sources of corrupt income. 

This means that:

  • where bribes are available in public service delivery – for example, when citizens find it necessary to pay “speed money” to access services – politicians  are  less  likely  to be  supportive of   policies to increase transparency in administration. Corruption in the day-to-day activities of the state in interaction with the public amounts to a Rs 21,000 crore market in petty corruption, that directly affects Indian citizens(Transparency International India and CMS 2005) .
  • Politicians in areas with lower preexisting  levels  of  petty  corruption  should  anticipate  that  reforms will only minimally affect their access to income, as the availability of bribes is low from the outset. 
  • However, where there are higher levels of petty corruption, the opposite is the case. Political incumbents who are more dependent on corruption to run their re-election campaigns will perceive improved service delivery as a threat to their illicit income. 
  • Politicians accustomed to higher levels of petty corruption, if they do implement reforms, should be less willing to implement a wide range of technology-enabled public services, so as to minimise the overall threat to incoming bribes. In particular, leaders should resist inclusion in computerised service centres of those services that offer the greatest potential for bribes, either due to their high demand by citizens, their typical value in terms of bribes, or both. These politicians are also more likely than their peers to resist the comprehensive automation of the service-delivery process, so as to retain non-computerised steps of service delivery that may offer opportunities for extraction of bribes

The state implemented one of the most comprehensive service centre reforms in India. The first step was taken during the Congress government in 2001-02 and titled Choice (Chhattisgarh online information for citizen empowerment). The goal of the project was to reduce the burden on citizens of accessing services. 
Shortly after implementation, however, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in the state. The BJP continued support to Choice because the chief minister (Raman Singh) believed that the overall electoral benefits were greater than any potential electoral costs from transparency in service delivery. This support from the chief minister contributed to the state’s ability to offer more services in its Choice centres than nearly any other state. This includes high corruption potential and highcbribe services such as ration cards and land records. 
At the same time, citizen service centres provided the ruling government with an opportunity to improve services for specific portions of the population. The services made available under the Congress government reflected a strong preference for poorer constituencies, such as caste and income certificates. Whereas the services made available by the BJP targeted its core constituencies of urban and middle- and upper-classes (including building plan approval, passport applications, and driving licences) 
While the state is now implementing the national government’s common service centre programme in  rural areas, and so should eventually have government service centres in all parts of the state, there was no plan for rural centres prior to the initiation of the national government initiative .

Tamil Nadu
Similar to the above example, when the AIADMK began a citizen service centres, RASI (Rural Access to Services in India), it concentrated on the rural areas as it formed the party's voter-base. The services included tele-medicine and veterinary services. However the RASI centres failed as they were not adequately supported by the bureaucracy and the politicians. “The setting up of RASI Centres…virtually eliminated harassment and corruption in government offices as it avoided the people-staff interface” (Mani kandan 2008). As a result, “the e-Governance project became a hit among people, much to the annoyance of government staff, elected representatives and political bigwigs” (ibid). Government officials failed to support continued operation of the centres, leading to a reduced number of applications from citizens, forcing most centres to shut down.

The services offered in Kerala’s two main service centre initiatives, FRIENDS (Fast, Reliable, Instant, Effi cient, Network for Disbursement of Services) and Akshaya, pale in comparison to their counterparts in many other states. Through FRIENDS centres, only 10 government  services  have  been  offered,  and  just  three  were available in Akshaya centres.
The limited introduction of computerised services in Kerala is initially surprising, given low levels of petty corruption relative to other states. However, the explanation for Kerala’s policy outcomes lies in the relationship between corruption and the  dynamics of coalition politics. As one analyst argues, the difficulty associated with negotiations between departments over provision of services through service centres “was particularly evident in Kerala, which is ruled by a coalition government, with different political parties in charge of different departments” (Kiran 2002). The importance of coalition politics implies that the allocation of ministerial posts should be related to the selection of services provided in technology-enabled centres. 
Between 1996-2001, the CPI(M) led the LDF coalition with its partner the Communist Party of India (CPI) holding the next largest number of seats in the state assembly. When FRIENDS was launched, the centres offered six main services. Of these services, two of the controlling departments were headed by coalition partners (who had no power to destabilise the government), and the rest by the lead party of CPI(M). No services controlled by the CPI – the only party with enough assembly seats to threaten coalition stability – were made available. This is despite the fact that the CPI controlled 15 services that have been offered in other states.
Coalition politics, then, played an important role in shaping technology-enabled service provision in Kerala. The characteristics of the centres themselves reveal the power, and interest, of supporting coalition members to retain direct control over the services in their domain.

This discussion has highlighted the risks associated with promoting technology-based reforms without due attention to the threats and benefits these policies may present to established interests in the political system. If politicians depend on access to corrupt income to support their re-election campaigns, then we should expect them to resist any policies that threaten this economic resource. Even where politicians promote reforms, they are likely to do so in a way that primarily benefits their preferred constituents. Efforts to improve the quality of service delivery to all citizens must take the broader causes of problems in service delivery, and in particular the underlying causes of demands for bribes, into consideration in order to achieve significant and long-term improvements in the quality of public services. 

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