Dear Govt, Why Aren’t Welfare Schemes Reaching Conflict Zones?

In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said, “For every rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reached the intended beneficiary,” during his political visit to Odisha. (Recently, this statement was quoted by justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan in the Aadhar verdict).

To ensure transparency and accountability, Rajiv Gandhi favoured information technology, and heralded India’s computer era. The main objective behind this was to reduce the gap between the citizen and the State, with the effective delivery of welfare schemes.

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Poor Internet Penetration In India: How Can E-Governance Deliver?

The history of e-governance (electronic governance) in India is quite old. In the 1970s, the Government of India introduced a new department called the Department of Electronics. E-governance was ensured with the help of Information and Communication Technology. The main objectives of e-governance were to “build an informed society, increase citizen participation, develop good interactions between the state and citizen, reduce the cost of governance, and enhance the accountability and transparency of the state.”

In the past few years, both the levels of government — centre and state — listed their delivery of various welfare schemes through e-governance. This included documentation procedures, meeting of the eligibility criteria, application writing, and the receiving of benefits.

Cabinet Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a press conference in 2018, highlighted the achievements of e-governance measures, in which he mentioned the direct benefit transfers of Rs 2.43 lakh crore of various government schemes, and also the savings of Rs 57 thousand crore in the last 3 years of the NDA government. The ‘my-governance’ portal also saw the rise of 14 lakh users over the past one year. Digital transactions have increased by 300 percent.

Indubitably, the cost of governance will reduce and the effectiveness of welfare schemes will increase, with e-governance-based intervention.

I would argue however that if the government generalises the delivery mechanism across India, the benefits may not be received by the supposed beneficiaries. A survey done by Pew Research Centre in 2017 shows that one in four Indian adults either owns a smart phone, or uses the Internet occasionally. This makes India a poor performer in terms of internet penetration.

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Problems Of Connectivity & Access

In India, districts in Chhattisgarh like Bastar, Sukma, and Dantewada, and Kalahandi in Odisha, are serious conflict zones due to the surviving discrepancies between the state and the Maoists. Some areas inthese districts are still beyond the state’s control. The connectivity in terms of transportation, mobile network, and accessibility to the so-called mainstream society, is too poor. According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census Data 2011, Chhattisgarh has the lowest mobile phone penetration. In that case, how is the state delivering justice to them by routing the state-sponsored welfare schemes through the e-governance mechanism?

During a research on the Chhattisgarh State School Scholarship Scheme (2017-2018), I found that Dantewada was one of poorest performing districts that distributed only 33 percent of the total budget allocated for the district.

This poor performance of the district was possibly because of the state government’s decision to deliver the amount directly to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. No doubt, the decision led to the effective implementation of the scheme across the state, except in Dantewada.

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Why One Of Dantewada’s Best Schools Didn’t Receive Full Benefits

This decision also led to the poor distribution of the educational scholarship scheme in Dantewada, mainly because the area has poor internet penetration, and the application process of the scheme happened to be online. So, one of the best schools of Dantewada, situated near the district head office, received only half the benefits. The head of the school told me that over 40 percent of the students had not received the benefits of the scheme because they had not completed their online application process.

Most of the schemes required the bank account numbers, Aadhar cards, and other government documents, but the population and houses were spread over dense forest areas, where no such facilities were available to ensure that they were able to complete the application procedure.

All these documents required internet facilities, and most of the area was untouched by the internet. Because of this, even though most of the people are eligible, they are not able to finish the application procedures. They have to walk around 40-60 km to reach the nearest market where there is a bank and the Government Suvidha Kendra. So, in most of the cases, only the villages nearest to the main highway receive the benefits.

People In Remote Parts Like Sukma & Bastar Need Greater State Support

In 2018, NITI Aayog published a report and ranked all districts across the country on the basis of parameters such as education, health, agriculture, etc. The districts such as Dantewada, Sukma and Bastar were listed in the 101 poor performing districts of India. This shows the extent to which these districts require the support of the state to fulfil their basic needs. But the generalisation of the delivery mechanism is the biggest hurdle in receiving the benefits from the state. Sociologist Nandini Sundar, in her book The Burning Forest, mentions the heavy dependency of the citizens on state welfare schemes.

There is also the need to develop infrastructure, bring in place enough connectivity to improve internet penetration, and provide training to the locals about internet usage and application.

Organisations like Tata Trust have launched a program with Google called INTERNET SAATHI, to empower local communities and teach them how to use the internet.

Why Some Areas Aren’t Ready For E-Governance

The government needs to empower and motivate local institutions to offer better access and mobility into densely forested areas like Sukma in Chhattisgarh, during the peak season of online registration of welfare schemes. This will lead to effective implementation of the e-governance mechanisms to deliver welfare and other services.

Currently, these areas are not ready for e-governance due to the social disadvantages they bear, and the political instability of the region. Thus, the dream of e-governance is still far away from becoming a reality for these people.

(The author is working with Piramal Foundation in State Transformation Program, Gujarat and holds a Masters Degree in Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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