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In an interview with Ritu Srivastava of the i4d team, R N Dash talks about the ePanchayat initiatives of the Orissa Panchayati Raj Department
What is the current status of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in Orissa?
Orissa has more than 50,000 villages and each village has a Palli Sabha (Gram Sabha) that is the basic unit of Panchayati Raj. Palli Sabha is a permanent body of the Panchayati Raj and voters (above 18 years of age) residing in that village are members of the Palli Sabha. It plans all programmes and schemes to be implemented in the village. They also decide who will execute the programmes and projects among themselves. Palli Sabha is headed by Ward Members elected from that Palli Sabha. The Palli Sabha also decides Land Rights to be given to forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Orissa has 6,234 Gram Panchayats, which means on an average 10 villages comprise of one Gram Panchayat which is headed by a Sarpanch, who is directly elected by all the voters of the panchayat. Orissa has 314 Panchayat Samitis, around 20 Gram Panchayats in each panchayat, 30 Zila Parishads in each district and total number of elected representatives 1,00,864. Election is conducted by the State Election Commission.
The state also has Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Area (PESA), under which there are 1,913 Gram Panchayats and 118 Blocks. All the Chief Executives, Directors, Presidents belong to the scheduled caste. Panchayati Raj Department allocates the fund through the Gram Panchayat and then Gram Panchayat indicates to that village the amount of fund to be utilised by that village and that is done by Village Level Leader (VLL). This is a direct involvement of people in government and for themselves.
Could you inform us about the e-Governance initiatives by Orissa Panchayati Raj Department? How will the government create more transparency within the Department?
The Department believes that poverty is directly proportional to the distance from the panchayat. People do not know how to access the benefits provided by the government, so the department wants to make sure that the masses are aware of these benefits and schemes. In this regard, the department has put all information about all the projects available to the villages on the website. Panchayati Raj Department is using several software to update data and information on a daily basis. The amount that Gram Panchayat receives from the Panchayati Raj Department reflects in the website through RuralSoft software that is developed by NIC, New Delhi. It also reflects the physical and financial progress of poverty alleviation schemes on the website. With the implementation of PriaSoft software, the website reflects funds flow monitoring as per the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) guidelines. Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the NREGA software, developed by NIC, New Delhi manages the database part and it gives online information about job card holders, their project details, their project expenditures, the payment due to them, etc., on a daily basis. Another software called Project Accounting and Monitoring Information System (PAMIS) developed by NIC, Orissa in association with Xavier Institution of Management, Bhubaneshwar that monitors daily accounts in 30 Districts/314 Blocks as per the CAG guidelines. Orissa Panchayat Raj Department has connected all Panchayat Samitis to the district network and state headquarter. The Department has its own connectivity through VSAT and the department has also partnered with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) for 2 Mbps Virtual Private Network (VPN). The department also has LAN connectivity at 314 Panchayat Samities and each Gram Panchayat. Local computer engineers have been appointed to maintain the database. They maintain the service as well as provide training to their junior engineers and other officers of Panchayat Samitis.
In order to maintain transparency within the department, the department provides all the information at Panchayat Samiti level and by 2010, the department will provide information at Gram Panchayat level. The department has not only put the information on website but has also set up an Integrated Grievance Redressal System (IGRS), people can lodge any complaints through its toll-free helpline number. The state headquarter has a call centre where people can raise queries and login any complain. The department has developed a software, through which complaints or query directly go to concerned Panchayat Samiti.
We have set up specialised squads comprising of about 2 dozen state level monitors, they are sent to see that the grievances are attended to. Secondly, all the letters that we issue are digitised through a software called, ‘e-Despatch’. It goes to the webspace allocated to the concerned Panchayat Samiti or whichever office it is addressed to. And all the letters that we receive are also digitised. Our website is bilingual and all the information is presented in English and Oriya
How has e-Despatch revolutionised communication system in governance? What made you take up e-Despatch for official communications within the Government?
We have 314 Block Development Officers (BDOs) and these are host of other officers a additionally, we have more than 6000 Gram Panchayats and 30 Zila Parishads. Whenever letters are dispatched to these field officers it takes a long time for the letters to reach them by post. Often the letters do not reach them and we have to dispatch these letters again. All this leads to a lot of avoidable delays which hinders programme implementation. This is the reason why we decided to move to a system where the delays are minimised. Letters sent now, reach the webspace allotted to the respective Field Officers/Offices. They all have their access codes through which they can check the mails. To ensure efficiency, the system has a feature which informs us when the officers downloaded the letters marked to them. All our Computer Engineers have been instructed to check the webspace everyday. To ensure transparency, these letters are also uploaded to our website from where the general public can access them, they can search for them by the subject, date of dispatch and the letter number.
This initiative was started by our department and has now been taken up by four other departments . All the other departments in Orissa are planning to deploy e-Despatch in about a year’s time. Another step that we have taken in this direction is the adoption of e-Receipt. All letters that we receive are digitised and put online. The sender can login to the system and find out the status of the letters/instructions sent to a certain Officer. The said Officer’s mobile number is available on the system which enables the sender to follow up with the respective Officers directly. In case, the sender is not satisfied with the development on the field, s/he can always lodge a complaint through the IGRS in which case, these complaints will come to my office and will also be directed to the person against whom the complaint has been lodged. Then it is upto the concerned Officer/s to complete the task assigned to them and send a report to me. This system works both ways and we are also accountable to the Field Officers and our citizens to complete the tasks assigned to us. This is the first time it has been done in the country.
What is the aim and vision of Dakshyata project in capacity building of PRIs in Orissa?
The Dakshyata project improves the quality or efficiency of work in Panchayat elected representatives from Gram Panchayats, Zila Parishads, functionaries and other department officials to perform their roles efficiently in local governance through capacity building across the state of Orissa. The Dakshyata project functions through a network of trainers. whom we call State Level Trainers. We have about 80 State Level Trainers and 400 District Level Trainers with about 80 partner NGOs in the state, who have their own set up that includes accommodation, training halls and other infrastructure. With support from UNDP, five modules have been developed with audio-visual training materials. Each Block Office has a training hall which is connected to the Gram Panchayats through GramSAT to enable training through a two way audio and one way video conferencing. Our trainers also visit the training centres set up by the 80 partner NGOs and impart training to the target audience. We intend to train all the one lakh elected Panchayat representatives every year atleast once a year. With support from UNDP and through the use of ICTs we have trained the State-level Trainers who in turn have conducted training of District-level Trainers. This has created a network of 500 trainers who are based throughout the State of Orissa who can go and train villagers.
How does the Government plan to increase real representation of women in local governance? How will you eradicate gender inequality and empower women through institutional reforms?
To maintain gender equality, where ever the Panchayat Department has a female head, the Vice Chairperson is male and vice versa, so a ratio of 1:1 is maintained in local governance. In a population of one lakh there is a 33 per cent reservation for women. When we talk about real representation, it means that woman should represent themselves and not be a proxy representative of their husband. In these cases, our strategy is to inform women about their rights, that they should not allow anybody to interfere in their decisions and should know how to utilise the power given to them by the people who elected them. In Dakshyata, we have started a module for gender in which we train them not to allow their husband to dictate them. We are also trying to give them more economic freedom and have formed Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to empower women representative to exercise their rights and to receive the right kind of information. We have also made sure that we have women trainers who are better able to understand the conditions on the ground and train the women representatives accordingly.
Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), what are the programmes undertaken by Orissa Panchayat Raj Department? How will the Department reduce unemployment, underemployment and disguised unemployment in rural areas by modernising agriculture and setting-up agro-based industries?
Orissa has a fairly large number of farmers who have small and/or marginal landholdings. Due to this, optimal utilisation of land resources has not been possible because it requires lot of land development work. Activities like land development, development of irrigation canals, etc., are permissible under NREGA apart from development of individual land whereby SC/ST and BPL (Below Poverty Line) farmers can be benefitted. Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK), Agricultural Universities also provide support by way of demonstration of new technologies related to agriculture to villagers. We have also set up government farms in order to impart training about modern agricultural practices/technologies and to provide employment at the same time under the umbrella of the NREGA. People from the selected villages work in these government farms and are paid wages vide NREGA. The farmers learn from these practices and eventually follow them in their own fields. About 40 percent of the funds from NREGA are intended to be spent on development of land owned by individuals from the next financial year. The aim is to make sure that farmers can develop their own land with technical guidance from KVKs and Agriculture Department so that agriculture becomes profitable. We also provide appropriate inputs and market linkages.
Recently, KVKs and Agricultural Universities have started to advise farmers with information customised to their respective agro-climatic zones.
Apart from the current bouquet of services as laid down in the objectives, what other services are in the pipeline that are to be provided through the ePanchayats?
Citizens require easier access to a lot of services, not only from the Panchayati Raj Department but from other Departments of the Government too. Most of the time, they have to travel great distances to get information and access to various services. Now they can get information and apply for various services through the nearby ePanchayats, we have about 8000 Common Service Centres (CSCs), it means that there’s one in each panchayat. We have digitised some of the services, like pension application, making application to college and schools, e-Procurement and other e-Governance services. These are services not only by the Panchayati Raj Department but also other departments like NREGA and also from Rural Development Department. The aim is to provide a basket of services to our citizens at their doorstep. People can go to their local kiosks where they can make applications and also lodge complaints if needed through the Sanjog Helpline which is used by Water Supply and Sanitation Department, Health Department, Department of Women and Child Development apart from the Panchayati Raj Department. Through the Sanjog Helpline we also impart information about various services/schemes available to citizens. The manpower required for operationalising the call centre is outsourced. We have partnered with CSM Technologies to train the practitioners.
Considering the fact that uplinking costs of VSAT are very high, are you looking at alternative ways of providing Internet connectivity among the DRDAs, Block Headquarters and Gram Panchayats?
We also use Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Broadband apart from VSATs. The plan is to extend connectivity to all Gram Panchayat levels through whichever method . We also haveWLL connectivity at the block headquarters. We are trying to connect 100 Gram Panchayats now and the plan is to connect 1000 Gram Panchayats by the next financial year for which we have already asked BSNL to provide connectivity.