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Studying The State In A Digital Epoch: How Has ‘Digital India’ Fared So Far?

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Since the launch of the Digital India campaign in 2015, the role of Information Technology (IT) within the government has grown from a tool to improve the efficiency and accuracy of existing processes to an all-encompassing program. It envisions not just the transformation of public services but also the creation of a “digitally empowered society”.

With regard to e-governance, in particular, the Digital India campaign’s ultimate objective is to improve governance overall by adhering to the mantra of “Less government, more governance”. In this blog, I explore what ‘less government’ means for the use of IT in the government, and will discuss the need to study its implementation.

The Digital India campaign brings together a variety of services under its umbrella, including government-to-citizen (G2C), government-to-business (G2B), government-to-government (G2G), government-to-employee (G2E), as well as systems that integrate and/or work across these categories (such as the UMANG application).

While G2C e-governance initiatives like the Common Service Centres (CSCs) scheme and their impact on service delivery and citizen experience have been studied, G2G e-governance initiatives such as fund transfer systems and Management Information Systems (MIS) that track key inputs and outputs for various schemes remain understudied.

As per one estimate, there are more than 400 government MIS portals just for Direct Benefit Transfers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg – almost every government program is now linked to a unique MIS portal through which progress is recorded and tracked. What do we know about these G2G systems? How do they impact governance? Do they improve service delivery? One can begin to formulate and answer these questions by examining the objective under which such G2G systems have been created.

As per the Digital India webpage on e-governance, IT is critical for the simplification and transformation of government processes in order to make them more efficient and effective. This assumes a relationship between the use of IT to simplify and transform government processes, and their increased efficiency and effectiveness. With that in mind, we need to understand what this ‘transformation’ entails and what efficiency and effectiveness mean in this context.

Unlike private sector organisations, the perception of ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ within government is not tied to maximising profit but rather, is tied to delivering on the contract between the state and citizen and creating some public value. The expectation that e-governance initiatives will facilitate accurate, durable and impartial records is in-built.

The Digital India campaign aims to deliver this through “less government“–cutting down paperwork and virtually removing the human interface between the citizen and the state (see image below). Yet, despite these visions of automation and increased transparency, in practice, computers in government offices are often “nothing more than modern typewriters”.

                    Source: e-Mitra, Digital India website, last accessed on 26 September 2019. Available here.  

The cogs of the state machinery, especially at the district and sub-district levels, still rely on paperwork, files, and note sheets to turn. So, how is this reliance on paper affected as we move towards a ‘Digital India’? Are digital technologies helpless against the entrenched systems? Too many examples have already shown that G2G e-governance initiatives such as MIS portals are “not magic”.

In an article in The Indian Express, Yamini Aiyar, Shrayana Bhattarcharya, and Lant Pritchett, suggest that systems that aim to do away with the human element may actually be counterproductive altogether. “Less government” discounts the very functionaries who implement existing government processes and are critical to their success.

While working within a Zila Parishad office to monitor and support the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM -G), I became familiar with SBM-G’s MIS portal. A critical element of the program, the portal hosts all of the data and metrics used for implementation as well as monitoring by successive levels of administration.

For representation only. Source: Flickr

Observing the socio-political and organisational context under which the information on the MIS portal is collected, recorded, and disseminated revealed a diverse set of challenges. It underscored the dependence on and the relevance of functionaries associated with e-governance systems. Who enters household details in the SBM MIS?  Who documents the toilets that are built and how? Who are the clerks who approve or verify the paperwork involved? Who enters the data into the digital system and how? How does the state itself engage with the data that it collects?  The search for these answers emphasised that government data cannot be understood without seeing ‘behind-the-screen’, without examining the objectives that prompt the design of the MIS portal, and the processes  of data collection itself.

Despite visions of automation and increased transparency, in practice, computers in government offices are often “nothing more than modern typewriters”.

An output-focused approach to studying MIS portals and their usage ignores the processes that are critical to achieving the goals of e-governance in their totality. Further, studying the state from the outside limits the understanding of how the state comes to be. Regardless of the impact of these everyday processes, recording these experiences and vignettes of life within the state can help untangle the peculiar-seeming practices that govern bureaucracies.

If there is one thing I have learned while working within government offices it is that the state is far from static. Despite being ‘rule-bound’, bureaucratic processes are constantly evolving in ways that even those within the state may not immediately perceive. In his research on digital monitoring systems for MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh, Rajesh Veeraraghavan found that the “weapon” that the senior bureaucrats used as a system of control were subverted by field-level functionaries to further their own interests. For example, when Veeraraghavan looked into MGNREGA workers’ complaints about not being assigned work by the computer system, he found that there was no such systemic glitch. Rather, MGNREGA field assistants were using technology failure as a shield to hide their conflict with the workers that had prevented them from uploading their information in the first place.

There may even be multiple levels of such subversion at play within the same system. In my experience, a major opportunity for subversion is the continued entrenchment of paper-based records in the government system. The simultaneous use of paper-based and digital systems is often intentional but misunderstood as a lack of capacity, and can be exploited by functionaries to slip decisions through the cracks and disguise gaps in service delivery much like the MGNREGA example shared here.

Research efforts that look into the usage of digital systems, including such subversions, can feed into the design process for subsequent iterations or new MIS platforms. Additionally, this can contribute toward the literature on the seemingly mundane practices that are integral to conceptualising how the Indian state builds its own legitimacy, authority, and power in the age of the internet. By combining process evaluations with ethnographic research as a participant-observer, one can draw attention to the processes through which the state fails, is made opaque, or, in the best case, effective, against the backdrop of ‘Digital India’.

In a blog post reflecting on the implementation of e-governance, former senior bureaucrat T.R. Raghunandan observed: “The champions of e-Governance have already moved on, even before the systems they develop are entrenched in government processes.” We stand to learn from studying such phenomenons. Regardless of which direction the ‘entrenchment’ goes, the mere use of a digital system creates the image of a modern and technologically advanced state–the ‘Digital India’ we have been promised. But to what extent has it been achieved? I, for one, will be heading back into government offices to find out.

Sanjana Malhotra is a Research Associate at Accountability Initiative. This article was originally posted here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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