By Prajwala Hegde for Youth Ki Awaaz:
A new breed of tech-friendly IAS officers is at the forefront of mobile governance in Uttar Pradesh, using smartphones to converse with stakeholders and bring about change.
Initiatives involving the use of technology in governance couldn’t have come at a better time, as it has been gaining momentum since the launch of the ‘Digital India’ campaign last year, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet projects. The campaign aims to make India ‘digitally empowered’, by making all government services available to citizens electronically, connecting rural areas with high-speed Internet networks and providing Wi-Fi hotspots in public places, among others.
In October last year, India added 6.83 million new mobile subscribers, hence crossing a mobile subscriber base of 1 billion.
According to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), a total of nearly 60 million mobile subscribers have been added since the start of year 2015 – which means at an average 6 million subscribers have been added every month.
With more handset manufacturers focusing on affordable handsets supporting vernacular content, the cost of internet-enabled devices/smartphones has plummeted significantly.
The mobile internet user-base in rural India has gone up by 93% from December 2014, to reach 87 million in December 2015, says a report titled ‘Mobile Internet in India 2015’, released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
Vijay Karan Anand, a 2009-batch IAS officer, who has worked with multinational Silicon Valley companies such as AMD and Net Apps in Bangalore for more than 7 years, is one such IAS officer.
Now posted in Shahjahanpur, Anand had, during his stint as the District Magistrate (DM) of Firozabad, famous for its bangles, built a mobile app that had helped improve sanitation, education and the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the district.
A Chartered Accountant, Anand is a bureaucrat who believes mobile governance can improve standards of living if people start using android phones.
In August 2014, he kick-started the ‘Clean and Green Firozabad Campaign.’ This, much before the Prime Minister launched the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’. Anand’s campaign uses a waste management module to hold the Safai Karamchari accountable for waste clearance.
“We have a control room, an integrated waste monitoring system and 1,319 identification points for surveillance of waste collection, street sweeping and cleaning of toilets. The system also monitors movement of Nagar Nigam vehicles with the GPS,” says Anand.
The Google play store description of the app says it is “for connecting the residents of Firozabad to the Nagar Nigam and seeking citizen participation in keeping Firozabad clean under ‘Clean, Green and Healthy UP’ programme”.
The technology enables mobile governance. It gives citizens the option to upload photographs of piling garbage, highlight issues regarding water supply, streetlights, unclaimed vehicles and stray animals in their localities.
Key to the success of this app is accountability and quick action on complaints, says Tanveer Hussain, a resident of Firozabad.
“There was some resistance from Nagar Nigam employees about incorporating technology but once they realised how simple it was, they accepted it and we’re happy with the results,” says Anand, two years on since its launch.
“The supervisors update us about cleanliness at 1,800 geo-location points on a daily basis. There is pictorial evidence which gets updated in real-time at the control room and also reflects on an LED screen in the Municipal Commissioner’s office that displays the overall picture.”
Sanitation inspectors handle supervisors, who in turn inspect areas assigned to them and ensure that the Safai Karamcharis clear the garbage and perform their other duties.
“The app is very easy to use and all our supervisors are trained personnel. It took us about 2-3 days to teach them how to use it,” says sanitation inspector Mahesh Kumar. In all, 15 supervisors are assigned to a sanitation Inspector. If a supervisor is on leave, the sanitation inspector fills in for him.
“The biggest advantage of this mobile app is the transparency it provides. We work from 7 am to 2 pm. Before the app, once our shift got over, anybody could litter the street and a resident could lodge a complaint against us. Now, we’ve got photo evidence of clean streets along with the time stamp to prove them wrong,” says 28-year-old Majeed Khan, a supervisor.
Anand claims there has been a dramatic behavioural change in supervisors, inspectors and Safai Karamcharis with the introduction of the app. To add, the system has helped bring down consumption of diesel from 2000 litres per day to 800 litres by reducing the number of rounds a clean-up truck would have to make.
“Even though the number of smartphone users in Firozabad is lower than the national average, the acceptance of the technology by people is startling,” says Anand. On last count at the time of writing this story, the app had 1000 plus downloads in Google Play Store.
Besides helping keep the city clean, Anand also started a project called Shikshagarh which uses technology to fix accountability of teachers, to track student performance and measure results.
Anand conducted a baseline study test in May 2015 for students of classes 1 to 8. They were graded on a scale of A, B, C and D based on marks scored. Those marks were uploaded onto a platform created with Cloud Computing, which, says Anand, is a “robust reporting system”.
“We told teachers that quarterly unit tests will be held and if the grades did not improve, penal action would be taken as per a given formula. The action could range from demotion to withholding salary increments and suspension,” he says. To ensure that no one cheats the system, the tests are conducted and results are uploaded in the presence of an independent examiner.
After conducting extensive training sessions for teachers on teaching practices, maintenance of Teacher Diary, class discipline and so on, the first review test was conducted on August 17, 2015. The results of the test were entered real-time into the tracking system to see if the grades of the students had moved upwards.
“The results were encouraging… The technology was later implemented for intermediate schools as well,” says Anand.
Corruption in the Public Distribution System (PDS) directly impacts the poorest of poor, says Anand.
The existing system is ‘leaky’, with large amounts of food grains (40 to 50 percent) pilfered and diverted to the open market, said a January 2015 report of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
To address this issue, Anand, in September 2015 launched an E-ration Seva project which aims to automate the process of distribution and recording of ration in Fair Price Shops (FPS). The project aims to eliminate fake beneficiaries by authenticating users through their Aadhaar numbers and fingerprints.
The system also generates invoices for beneficiaries and updates their database on real-time basis. Cardholders also receive an SMS once the allotment has been made to the ration dealer, informing them of the distribution date. Ration dealers get the stock report, distribution report, statement of account and other required information using a Tablet (wireless, touchscreen personal computer) which is provided to them by the administration.
This process is bound to plug supply chains and retail distribution leakages, claims Anand.
32-year-old IAS officer Suhas L.Y. hails from Shimoga, Karnataka. Suhas worked as a software engineer with SAP Labs in Bangalore and passed out of NIT Suratkal before getting selected into the IAS in 2007.
The Azamgarh collector is a book lover and tech enthusiast who is using technology to address malnutrition, one of the biggest challenges Uttar Pradesh faces.
As per government data, 36% of under-five children in India are malnourished. At nearly 40%, the figure for Uttar Pradesh is higher than the national average.
U.P. already had a ‘State Nutrition Mission’ when Suhas took charge in January 2015. With that as base, he came up with the ‘Weight at a Glance’ app.
“With Weight at a Glance (Kuposhan Ka Darpan), an Anganwadi worker (community health worker) can track the physical and mental growth of a child and determine if a child is malnourished or not, based on World Health Organisation guidelines,” says Suhas. The app also suggests tips and methods to fight malnourishment.
Before the app, an Anganwadi worker had to go through a lengthy and tedious process, a 100-page growth chart, to determine nourishment levels.
Seraj Ahmed, an official with ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services), assisted and came up with a growth chart that is in a calendar form. The growth chart was digitally converted into a mobile application called ‘Kuposhan Ka Darpan’ in March 2015, to make it available at the push of a button.
Even though the app currently has roughly 500 plus downloads, Suhas says that with time, more and more people will start using it.
“All that a user has to do is to enter the gender and age of a child to get information regarding vaccinations and food to be given at different age levels. Also, behavioural red flags,” says Suhas.
Downloaded to a smartphone, the app works offline. It is available in Hindi, and, encouraged by the success of the app, the ICDS recently proposed that all 5,588 Anganwadi workers in Azamgarh should be provided with smartphones.
Innovation of apps like this one in the public health system helps to travel miles with one single step, says Dr Ravi Pandey, superintendent of Palhani government health center in Azamgarh.
And while Suhas is doing his bit for Azamgarh’s children, his wife Ritu, who is Deputy Director (Consolidation), also introduced a mobile app in April 2015, ‘Pregnancy Ka Darpan’, to keep the partnership going.
“Many a time, because of lack of awareness, important decisions to be made during pregnancy are ignored leading to complications during delivery. A simple app like this can be of great help,” says Satish Kumar Yadav, a resident of Azamgarh.
“PKD (Pregnancy Ka Darpan),” says Ritu, “provides psychological support to women who live in remote areas and face social inhibitions, such as consulting a doctor. It provides an array of information including the length of the foetus, tests to be conducted to prevent genetic disorders, supplements needed, locally available alternatives, and signs that indicate the start of labour.”
Dr Abhishek Pandey, who runs a clinic in Lalganj, Azamgarh, says, “Even a person who has studied up to the 4th or 5th grade can use it, as long as he or she has the very basic reading skills. The app guides the user through every stage of pregnancy in a simple step-by-step manner. It tells you what to do on entering symptoms, and tells you when to approach a doctor.”
“The app is for free and is available in 2-3 languages. It also provides the contact numbers of doctors in the vicinity and saves the user consultation fee and visits to the doctor during the initial stages of pregnancy,” adds Pandey.
It may be too early to call these initiatives a success, but the move appears to be in the right direction. And only time will tell if a digital India is a more empowered India.
About the author: Prajwala Hegde is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist and a senior member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Her reporting reflects issues of society at large and human rights in particular.