Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras as village information and knowledge centres enhancing transparency and accountability in governance (as part of NREGA scheme)
Context: Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras are being set up in all gram panchayats, as a part of the MNREGA scheme, with the twin objectives, to;
1) provide space and ICT support to facilitate the functioning of the NREGA office at gram panchayat and block levels;
2) function as a resource centre for citizen's access to information on NREGA and other rural development programmes, and access to online transactions related to development processes1.
While the two can be considered as complementary sets of functions, there may arise some degree of tension between the proposed inward focus (servicing the needs of NREGA officials) and an outward, citizen-oriented, focus of these centres. The nomenclature 'Sewa Kendras' makes it clear that a citizen orientation is primary for these centres. These Kendras have been developed in order to address the “need to provide greater and more transparent interactions with the citizens”, providing “space for citizens to exercise their rights under NREGA” including submitting application for job cards and for work, scrutinising job cards and submitting complaints. Social audit is listed as one of the activities that these centres will facilitate. Citizens may use “ICT facilities to scrutinies their rights and entitlements under NREGA”.
However, it is important to consciously develop an appropriate model for these centres for them to focus on this primary role of providing resource support for the community. Otherwise, they run the risk of just becoming the local NREGA office, provided with some ICT facilities. If a viable working working model can be demonstrated for these Kendras, they can greatly help enhance accountability and transparency of NREGA at the panchayat level itself, and also that of other development programs.
The proposed project: Once the context and opportunity is understood, the proposed pilot project is relatively straight-forward. It will seek to work with the Department of Rural Development to develop a citizen-focused model for on-the-ground working of Rajiv Seva Kendras. A very ambitious range of citizen focused functions are listed for these Kendras. It is important to work out the implementation details through a pilot project. Chiefly, the project objective is to make sure that these Kendras actually become providers of (information and knowledge) resource support to the citizens, and do not become just another office. Relevant community level processes will have to innovated for this purpose, through on-the-ground experimentation. It will require addressing the many expected tensions about whether ICTs are there primarily to help the panchayat officials in their work, or to provide resource support to the citizens. These officials have to be helped to understand the real context and role of these Kendras.
In fact, the intended role and design of these Kendras represent a very new approach to governance, whereby citizens are actually being enabled to directly connect to governance activity on a regular and sustained manner, both to avail benefits and to exercise democratic control. The pilot project will help operationalise this new approach. While, de jure, the community is the most empowered tier of the PRI system, it has few resources and avenues to exercise its 'power'. The proposed vehicle of Sewa Kendras can help provide the informational and technology resources that are needed by the community to exercise this role in the gram sabha, and also through development process innovations like community monitoring and social audits. This is apart from the informational and technical resources being put in hand of the individual citizen, for instance, to enable her to access her rights and entitlement.
It should be obvious that the Sewa Kendra approach is quite ambitious and even path breaking. However, it yet has only some central government guidelines, in form of a circular, to speak for this significant innovation. It becomes very urgent and important in this early formative period, as Seva Kendras are being built, to come up with a working model that operationalises the visionary intent of setting them up.
The pilot project will, inter alia, work towards;
1) Setting up a fully ICT-enabled, complete process loop for all MNERGA activities, at the gram panchayat level itself; it will enable citizens/ community to apply for job cards, seek work and get payments, and also to examine muster roles and the submitted work budgets as a part of community monitoring or social audit activity;
2) Making the whole ICT-enabled process loop visible 'online' in the public domain;
3) Ensuring that citizens are able to access all the online information from the Kendras through a process that cannot be physically or otherwise interfered with (the allocation of roles for the Kendra Sevak - taking from the 'Sewa Kendra' terminology - and the physical design of the Kendra has to be appropriately designed for this purpose);
4) Exploring how an online and offline space can be created at the Kendras that is easily accessible by citizens as their own, and not a constrained 'official' space;
5) Making all information and other resources from the Kendra available to help community monitoring and social audit processes;
6) Making ICTs at the Kendras available to the community for various community empowerment processes, like community knowledge management, GIS based micro-planning, etc.
The pilot project will put in place the necessary project staff that can help enough community level informational and ICT processes, that can animate the community to sufficiently own up the project. Apart from putting in a lot of effort to get over the initial system inertia, and investing considerable resources to prime-up basic informational and ICT based processes, the outputs and outcomes must be of sufficient value for making the new model an attractive proposition to all. It will require a good amount of software development aimed at automating processes with an online 'lock-in' (so that all physical processes and simultaneously mirrored on the online system). All relevant local information will need to be collected and organised on online platforms. Appropriate innovations in social processes that can enable citizens/ community to easily access information, including active outreach by the Seva Kendra staff, will be required. However, all this effort and its output is highly scalable, making the relatively high resource intensity experiment very much worth the effort, and quite cost-effective in its upscaled form.
1) Citizens are able to access all the relevant information about NREGA and other development programmes, and also have online and automated access to its key processes, for accountability and transparency;
2) All the needed information to ensure community monitoring and social audit of NREGA and other development schemes is made available;
3) ICT-based community knowledge management systems are developed, and ICTs are used for micro-planning.
Project outcome: A working model of Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras is developed, that (1) fulfills the vision of these Kendras as facilitators of a new kind and level of interaction between panchayat raj institutions and the community, ensuring 360 degree transparency and accountability, and (2) is implementable and cost effective enough to be scaled up across the country.
Partner organisations:The pilot project should be carried in partnership with the department of rural development at the national and state levels, The project can be led by some NGOs most active with community based governance reform processes. It is not necessary that these organisations should have worked with ICTs, but, indeed, they must be very eager to do so, if the overall project idea appeals to them.
Estimated cost of proposed project activity: It depends on the number of Kendras that are covered. Working in 10 contiguous panchayats, in an intensive manner, a budget of around 1.5 crore rupees over three years may be required.
Scaling up: Once a workable model is developed and demonstrated, it will be scaled up as a part of NREGA and other rural development activities. Of course, the cost per Kendra will be a fraction of what is proposed in the pilot project that requires a great degree of intensive experimentation, employing expensive human and other resources. NREGA allows 6 percent of its budget to be spent on administrative aspects, which can easily take care of scaling up costs of the model that will be developed and demonstrated through the proposed pilot project.
1 Selectively paraphrased from the concerned government circular.