Tech-led Reforms Can Play Vital Role in Govt's Fight against COVID-19 Pandemic

The unexpected yet devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a complete relook at all traditional programmes and processes in governance. The immediate shock can lead to an acceleration of technology-facilitated reform modules across the country.

The framework for rapid adoption of technology and cutting-edge innovation in governance is already in place. In fact, most of the groundwork has already been done across India for ensuring paperless, faceless and cashless modules of governance. Once scaled, technology-led reforms will cause a metamorphosis in pan-India governance frontiers.

Already digital governance is vital to the response to the pandemic. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced a ₹1.70-lakh-crore package under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana.

The scheme entails an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and one kg of preferred pulses every month for the next three months to 80 crore beneficiaries. When this is coupled and scaled with the interoperability of ‘one nation one ration card’ scheme, it will surely benefit migrant workers across India.

A significant aspect of the scheme relates to Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) facilitated by the JAM tech trinity that has been enhanced over the last few years. Through DBT to the intended beneficiaries, the expedience and reliability of the entire process is greatly increased. Beneficiaries include farmers, MGNREGA workers, economically vulnerable categories, especially women, elderly, and organised-sector workers.

There are 382.6 million Jan Dhan accounts where DBT can be directly facilitated through the Public Finance Management System (PFMS).

Several states, including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have already announced major relief measures using DBT for expedient transmission. Not to forget, times like these will also bring forth the importance of state-led innovations like UPI, easing the payment transaction ecosystem in the country.

For India, the key focus has been on ensuring service delivery that is qualitatively optimum and quantitatively both accessible and affordable. An imminent and critical framework for this is inclusive of adapting to a techno-socio-economic future, bolstering internal capability, enhancing collaboration between the states and the citizen, and designing innovative service delivery interfaces using technology-augmented advantages.

Other Government Initiatives and Combating Novel Coronavirus

The Government of India had already taken the initiative of adapting and augmenting resource allocation to this facet. The Union Budget 2020 explicitly set out the ability to disrupt through innovations that include artificial intelligence, IoT and drones, to name a few.

The overall allocation for the major science-related ministries and departments saw an 8% hike in the 2020–21 budget, collectively receiving Rs 64,467.28 crore.

The pandemic has highlighted how information dissemination, which promotes accuracy and credibility while preventing the spread of misinformation, is the next level of collaboration in governance.

Efficacious practices, in order to be disseminated across the nation, require widescale collaboration. For this, the Union Government has approved a webinar series by AIIMS doctors for information augmentation of healthcare workers across the country. This would be hosted across platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Whatsapp.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had last week also tweeted about initiatives that tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have taken to ensure authentic dissemination of COVID-19-related information.

WhatsApp has partnered with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Ministry of Health to launch a chatbot along the lines of WHO.

The MyGov Corona helpdesk works with an interactive voice-response interface and gives people information as desired. All that is required is to add the number 9013151515 and text ‘hi’ on WhatsApp.

This could be a critical line of information that is sought by concerned citizens. Further, the Medical Council of India and NITI Aayog have come out with telemedicine guidelines to enable registered medical professionals to provide healthcare advice remotely.

Similarly, at the state level, Kerala has launched a mobile application called GoK direct. This app ensures that people have access to the do’s and don’ts for self-isolation, monitoring symptoms and interacting with healthcare functionaries. Without seamless technology integration through collaboration, the widespread messaging would have been an arduous task.

Domestic Initiatives for Innovation in Governance

Innovations in technology are helping design, scale and roll out government schemes. Union and state governments have been launching hackathons in order to facilitate the design of innovative service-delivery modules.

For instance, the Department of Telecom has recently launched a Hackathon based on 5G technology where participants can develop 5G solutions from across 10 relevant categories.

It is critical that we build on indigenous technological capacity, and there are encouraging developments. For blockchain, the National Informatics Centre is setting up the Centre of Excellence in Blockchain Technology in Bengaluru.

It aims to provide blockchain as a wide-ranging service possibility. NITI Aayog has launched a Blockchain India Strategy discussion paper to popularise the adaptation of this technology in suitable processes. Blockchain has already facilitated several governance pilots across the country with the promise of being transformative game-changers.

Innovation by States

Major innovations have been led by the states. The Delhi government has innovatively allowed for e-passes to essential service providers, which can be issued through WhatsApp this week.

Tamil Nadu is piloting predictive government service backed by blockchain, which enables citizens eligible for a particular service to be supported in ensuring that specific government department is commissioned for service delivery, predictively.

Andhra Pradesh has piloted Blockchain-based projects on managing land records and streamlining vehicle registrations. West Bengal has implemented Blockchain-based issuance of birth certificates.

In Odisha, the Mo Sarkaar initiative is the perfect example of this neo-collaboration for accountable and transparent governance. As part of the initiative, when a citizen goes to any government office, his/her phone number will be registered. This will be followed up with randomly selected numbers being chosen and calls being made to take feedback that would then be acted upon.

In the near future, platforms that use blockchain for an interactive engagement between hospitals, insurance companies and patients could be contemplated by Indian states for seamless information exchange and efficient service delivery.

Telangana has become a model for merging technology within governance processes to segment service delivery. Police and transport departments are using AI and machine learning (ML) to manage traffic and law and order. The agriculture and mining departments are using drones to improve farming and monitoring of mining areas.

Disruption in a Time of Uncertainty

A pandemic of this nature can create a shock whose tremors could impact basic delivery of services. Technology could be the bridge allowing uninterrupted delivery merely by broad-basing already existing initiatives.

It could be the disruption that allows us to reach the ideal of ensuring accountable, responsible and responsive governance interfaces for the ease of living for each and every citizen.

Yogesh Suri is Senior Adviser (Governance and Research); Desh Gaurav Sekhri is Officer on Special Duty (Law); and Satwik Mishra is Young Professional, NITI Aayog. Views are personal.