Turn on the info tap

The importance of making technology and digital systems integral to India’s social development efforts has never been greater

Poornima Dore
is an economist; she heads the ‘data-driven governance’ portfolio at the Tata Trusts

These are interesting and challenging times. Never before has it been more vital to identify the vulnerable, understand patterns, provide support to those in dire straits, and take preventive and curative action as it has been since the onset of Covid-19. For instance, do we know if our programme is reaching, say, Ramu Kaka, and is it in sync with his social development needs? Do we even know where he resides and in what conditions?

What stands out in the India of today is the fact that our public systems are so poorly informed. Beyond the requirement for far more investments in our public health system, there is another important aspect: the country’s public information systems. We have to examine how government, industry, philanthropic institutions and NGOs can help catalyse an ecosystem where information platforms are considered a public good.

Businesses worldwide have moved quickly in the post-pandemic period to enhance the ‘digital transformation’ story. They have worked overtime to understand and target customers while using the power of data and analytics and introducing efficiency and transparency in operations. The public sector, however, has been a late entrant in the sphere of technology- enabled digital innovations and is, consequently, grappling with the challenge of not having requisite information and systems that can enable better governance.

We have to double our efforts as a nation to get where we have to on this front. We do not currently have a database on, for example, testing centres, the movements of migrants, or any assessments of the skills required by a particular industry in a region. Neither do we have date-defined means to identify the pathways and capabilities needed to make telemedicine, digital classrooms, etc available in the hinterland. It is like going to sea without a compass.

Last-mile hurdles

For a country as diverse, complex and huge as India, technology adoption in governance has always had the potential to resolve critical challenges in the delivery of public services and to improve interactions between government and industry, not to mention empowering citizens through greater participation in everyday governance.

With 29 states, 8 union territories, 736 districts and more than 4,000 towns and cities, India is a country where planning is, clearly, neither easy nor straightforward. Add to this the vibrant mix of language, religion and other dimensions that account for differences in how development projects need to be designed and received. Our planning and budgeting have to factor in the realities of marginalised and disadvantaged groups and the challenges of last-mile delivery.

The Tata Trusts have, through their ‘data-driven governance' portfolio, been working with rural and urban communities and decision makers across 90 districts and 1,000-plus towns. That translates into the application of data and technology in development plans for villages and gram panchayats (village councils), community-led multi-thematic information mapping, better delivery of municipal services, and targeted urban planning. The core objective has been to strengthen last-mile access, while building capacities within the community as well as with administrators to maximise the use of information as a resource.

These principles apply to decision making even in normal times, but a crisis like Covid-19 underscores their importance. Such systems are a necessity simply because they enable quick and ready responses and action in a set up where district authorities, municipal commissioners and even philanthropies can get on the front foot instead of being reactive.

The silver lining in all of this is that people are, gradually but definitely, realising the criticality of, and working towards, finding solutions that can be scaled up and customised to capture regional requirements in health, education, livelihoods, etc.

It would be illustrative, in the context, to examine two specific platforms that the Tata Trusts have, through their ‘data-driven governance’ portfolio, been using to help contain the Covid-19 outbreak. Employing data and technology, these platforms facilitate quick, scalable and localised responses in rural as well as urban settings.

E-lockdown passes (using DIGIT)

Streamlined delivery of municipal services is essential to make Indian cities more liveable. The Trusts and a consortium of partners have, over the last two years, enabled the development of a unique platform known as DIGIT for municipal service delivery through the e-Governments Foundation.

The idea is that any urban centre with access can utilise the full suite of municipal services, bringing down development costs for multiple cities and also improving the comparability of processes. This has now been taken up by some 1,600 urban local bodies in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and some states in the Northeast, and it has involved systemic capacity building in the administrative machinery.

DIGIT has been used to develop an e-lockdown pass facility to smoothen the movement of people within and across city, district and state boundaries. This modular platform has enabled scalability and quick responses. Citizens can easily apply for an e-lockdown pass after submitting details of travel needs and the concerned authority can quickly approve (or reject) the application.

In excess of 500,000 passes have been issued in eight states through this system and it has been adapted by the Indian government’s National Informatics Centre as well. The system is also being employed to transport essential commodities.

Rapid assessment in aspirational districts (using DELTA)

The Trusts have in partnership with NITI Aayog, the policy think tank of the Indian government, developed and trained a pool of village volunteers in 85 districts in India and executed large-scale data validation exercises across key development parameters for district performance benchmarking and competitive ranking as part of the countrywide ‘aspirational districts' programme since April 2018.

This has involved a massive grassroots-level capacity building exercise, with teams spread over 27 states, as well as the rolling out of a technology application named DELTA to generate district planning information. This platform involving people and technology was further utilised during the lockdown period to carry out a rapid Covid-19 assessment survey covering 855 village councils and 18,000-plus respondents. Completed over two weeks and executed through a telephonic app, it has been the largest pan-India survey on Covid-19 thus far.

The Trusts provided the government with timely and valuable household-level feedback on Covid-19 assessment, preparedness and impact, and also enabled the smooth movement of people. The fact that we already had the systems in place to do a survey and issue passes at scale made it possible for us to readily move to action while being responsive to local requirements.

The Trusts have, over time, developed these processes to enhance regional development outcomes and enable localisation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. They are based on two crucial premises: one, facilitating convergence across departments for better planning and targeting of programmes, and improving scheme-linked service delivery to citizens; and two, operationalising technology, community-owned data management processes, and intensive capacity building of communities and administrations to further the twin mandates of e-governance and citizen-centric planning.

If we, as a country, had right now an information and budgeting architecture in districts and cities that rolled up to the national level and helped track different development parameters — along with stakeholders who understood and used this information smartly — where would we be?

It is still not too late. The realisation that digital is important for development is now hitting home. We need to ride this wave and ensure that not only does Ramu Kaka get to know about the schemes and efforts announced for his benefit, but that state institutions, industry, charitable foundations and others involved in social development also understand the context of Ramu Kaka’s existence, and work together to help him out of poverty.

The DIGIT platform supported by the Trusts was used to issue e-passes during the lockdown