BHOOMI: Closing the digital divide through innovative reforms and partnership

Subhash Bhatnagar, 11th IACC, Workshop contribution, Civil Society

11th International Anti-Corruption Conference

BHOOMI: Closing the digital divide through innovative reforms and partnership

Subhash Bhatnagar

Indian Institute of Management , Ahmedabad

Abstract

Many rural tele-centre pilots (by private sector, Government, NGOs and through public private partnerships) have been implemented in the last 2-3 years in India  to bridge the digital divide. Documentation of these projects and recent evaluations indicate that the pilots have been partially successful.  None of the pilots have been replicated on a larger scale. The paper discusses the reasons for the partial success and identifies the necessary components of a strategy that can truly bridge the digital divide. Bhoomi, implemented in  Karnataka ( one of the 26  states of India)  has been an outstanding success in achieving its limited objective of on-line delivery of land titles without bribery and corruption.  Bhoomi is now being seen as the killer application that will make rural kiosks in Karnataka viable. It will allow privately owned rural kiosks to access its data base so that they can operate like a Bhoomi kiosk. The paper discusses the manner in which Bhoomi  is evolving to play that role.

1.         Introduction

The potential of ICT in impacting the lives of rural poor in a variety of ways is now being widely recognized.  Recognition of the potential comes from a few successful tele-center pilots in some developed and developing countries. These pilots demonstrate that access to useful information can benefit the poor in improving the quality of their produce or services, obtaining a better price and enabling them to market their products/services beyond the confines of their immediate neighborhood. Other pilots indicate the ability of ICTs in connecting communities together and in providing a two-way communication channel between the communities and government bodies at local and national levels. Such communication can also bring more accountability in the functioning of the government.

Many e-government applications demonstrate the efficiency with which services can be delivered to the rural poor. Often, poor citizens incur significant costs in availing government services even though the service is made available free of charge. These costs include traveling to visit several government offices, loss in wages, payment of bribes, and the cost of delay. E Government applications that deliver services have cut the processing time from several days to a few minutes. Cost of bribes, wage loss, and several visits to government offices are minimized. The reduction in real costs for the poor in acquiring services online make e-government an attractive delivery model.  A number of surveys have shown that the poor perceive e-government to provide such significant added value that they are willing to pay a modest fee for the service.  In the case of Bhoomi, users do not mind paying an explicit service fee for the delivery of land titles in Karnataka, India.

2.         Telecenter Pilots in Rural India

Several projects in India have experimented with rural tele-center pilots. The table below indicates a large number of pilots implemented in different parts of India.  Although most of these pilots have not been rigorously evaluated, anecdotal evidence and some evaluation studies indicate that many of these pilots can be considered either partially successful or failures.   As a result, these models have not been replicated in other places.

 

Name of the Project

Number of

Kiosks

Implementing

Agency

Years of

Operation

Services and Information delivered

Gyandoot

39

District

n-Logue

2-3

On-line applications for certificates, land title filing

complaints, commodity prices

MahitiShakti

80

PanchMahal

District

1

Government Forms, information about development plans

Warna

72

NIC

3

Cane factory schedule

LokMitra

25

Haryana

1

Government  Forms

Melur, Nellikuppam,

Baramati

200

n-Logue

1

Internet kiosk, email, training

TaraHaat

18

Development Alternative

1

e-training

market information

Drishtee

90

in 5 states

Digital

Partners

1

Market prices, on-line application forland titles

CIC (NE)

30

NIC, MIT

1-2

Internet access

Bhoomi

Evolution

30

n-Logue

Mandya District

1

Bhoomi RTC, on-line applications and inquiry

The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) pilots of on-line processing of milk procurement in village level cooperatives is the only example that has been replicated to a significant scale.  It demonstrates that when the application delivers concrete solutions (measurable benefits) to farmers in an activity which is their primary source of livelihood, the uptake can be rapid. Citizens have benefited from a reduction of transaction  time, increased transparency and immediate payment for milk collected from farmers. the simplicity of the technology used has also facilitated rapid uptake.  NDDB used an electronic weighbridge, a semi automatic fat tester linked to a PC is simple and appropriate.

The Gyandoot project in which 39 kiosk were expected to deliver two dozen services to rural population in a backward  district in Madhya Pradesh in central India has begun to falter after a period of initial success. Recent studies indicate that unreliable infrastructure and citizen perception of inadequate service quality have resulted in the reduction of activity level at the 39 kiosks.  This  threatens the  economic viability of the kiosks. Filing an application for a service from the Gyandoot centres does cut down one visit to the Government office but because of the lack of automation at the back end, the actual delivery of service takes an unacceptably long time, is prone to delay and bribery. This negates any advantage of electronic communication.

The Village Knowledge Centers at Pondicherry has been able to generate a fair level of community participation and has lead to some empowerment. The Pondicherry model is resource intensive and has not been replicated on any significant scale. Its limited success is attributed to the role of intermediaries and the innovative combination of ICT with existing and proven community media, such as public address system, newspapers, radio and word-of-mouth. Some other experiments have also indicated that the value delivered by  tele-centres depends on the role of intermediaries in repackaging information down loaded from Internet sources to meet specific needs of the communities. Intermediaries need to play a variety of roles for the success of ICT use for development. There are two kinds of intermediaries – sponsors, who often promote ICT projects from a long distance, and infomediaries who are in direct contact with citizens in delivering information and services.

The Drishtee experience of promoting rural kiosks as  profit making private enterprises has also not met with significant success. E-Choupal, which is also a private initiative focussed on procurement of agricultural produce by a large private company seems to be expanding more rapidly. It is however more narrowly focussed and the economic viability is as a result of the gains made by the private company. Farmers too have gained and that is why they have switched to selling at the e-choupals where transactions are processed on-line.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the successes and failures among the pilot rural tele-center projects:

  • Rural populations are willing to pay a fee for systems that have very clear business or personal uses
  • Villagers are not enamoured of electronic delivery. The uptake depends on whether significant value is being delivered in comparison with the existing ways of receiving information and services.
  • Intermediaries are often needed to respond to the specific information needs of rural citizens and to interpret and disseminate the knowledge from public documents. 
  • Poor telecom and power infrastructure in rural areas can affect the economic viability of rural kiosks.

The framework below consolidates this learning. It illustrates that there are four necessary conditions that need to be fulfilled for effective service delivery and bridging of the digital divide.

Most of the experiments documented so far do not embody the four elements outlined above. An experiment in Karnataka to open Internet kiosks in rural areas of Mandya, one of Karnataka’s 29 districts, promises to fulfil at least three of the conditions. The experiment involves the following partners: BHOOMI-an egovernment application for delivery of land titles, district administration of Mandya, and n-Logue a private company interested in promoting low cost rural telephony and Internet access.

The next section discusses the  role of Bhoomi in this experiment, as it evolves from being an on-line delivery platform for land tiles, to a rural kiosk project that is able to bridge the digital divide in Karnataka.

3.         BHOOMI: The potential back bone of a 1000 rural tele-centers in Karnataka

The Department of Revenue in Karnataka has computerized 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers. In the manual system, land records were maintained by 9,000 Village Accountants, each serving a cluster of 3-4 villages. Farmers had to pay bribes and make several visits to the accountant (took 3-30 days) to get a copy of the RTC-- a document needed primarily for obtaining bank loans. Land records in the custody of Village Accountants were not open for public scrutiny.  Mutation requests to alter land records (upon sale or inheritance of a land parcel) had to be filed with the Village Accountant. A Revenue Inspector was authorized to update the record after a process of enquiry spanning  30 days. In practice, however, it could take 1-2 years for the records to be updated.

Now a signed copy of the RTC can be obtained online by providing the name of the owner or plot number at computerized Bhoomi kiosks in 187 taluk offices, for a fee of Rs.15. A second computer screen faces the clients to enable them to see the transaction being performed.  A farmer  can  file a mutation request at the kiosk and check the status on a Touch Screen provided on a pilot basis in some kiosks. If the revenue inspector does not complete the mutation within 45 days, a farmer can now approach a second person in the district who has been designated to authorize a mutation. Now, mutation requests are to be handled strictly on a first-come-first-served basis. These measures limit opportunities for collecting bribes. Operators of the computerized system are made accountable for their decisions and actions by using a bio-login system that authenticates every log-in through a thumb print. In the last one year nearly 90,000 mutation requests have been made and the monthly collection of fee has varied from Rs 7.9 million to Rs 14.4 million.

Data on crop survey is currently collected manually and updated in the taluka database in a batch mode three times a year. In a pilot experiment, a locally designed handheld computer (Simputer) has been provided to 200 village accountants for capturing the crop data live in the field. Village Accountants have found it easy to learn the operations of the Simputer.

Bhoomi demonstrates the benefits of making government records more open so that citizens are empowered to challenge arbitrary action. It also illustrates how automation can be used to take discretion away from civil servants at operating levels. Independent evaluation studies have shown that Bhoomi has significantly reduced corruption and improved service delivery.

The following new initiatives taken by BHOOMI are designed to bridge the digital divide in Karnataka.

The BHOOMI database from all the 187 kiosks will be uploaded on a central database every evening using a VSAT network of another application. Rural Internet kiosks will be able to access the data. Their password, machine ID and the phone ID will be verified. In a pilot experiment 20 telecentres are being established in Mandya district by N-logue using the corDECT technology developed by IIT, Madras. These will become as the first few telecentres to provide RTC titles. These telecentres will be able to connect to the Mandya taluk Bhoomi database through the n-Logue network. The rural tele-centres will charge a fee of Rs 25/- instead of Rs 15/- enabling them to retain Rs 10/-  per RTC to cover their operational costs and provide a small return on the investment. Other services such as down load of 100 important forms for services and beneficiary oriented schemes could be added to the content. Departments such as forestry, animal husbandry, sericulture, cottage industries may create content in their own domains for delivery to rural areas.

A  fee of Rs 10/-  per RTC collected by the owner will make a 1000 rural kiosks viable in rural Karnataka. User fee being collected by Bhoomi are approximately Rs. 100 million in a year. If 50% of the RTCs are issued from one thousand rural kiosks that are proposed to be set up, each kiosk will earn an average annual revenue of Rs. 50,000. Accounting for variability across kiosks, the floor earning could be in the range of Rs. 30,000. At this level of earning a kiosk can be viable.

The RTCs issued at the Bhoomi kiosk carry a signature by a Government functionary. The issue of signature on the RTC that will be issued by a kiosk is still to be resolved.  A possible solution to the signature problem is to authorize more than one functionary (based in the village) to sign an RTC issued by a rural kiosk. By creating a competition between two persons who are authorized to sign, the chances of corruption can be minimized. Other possibilities include an option of the RTC entrepreneur being made responsible for getting the signatures from the village accountant/revenue inspector in return for Rs 10/- additional charge being paid by each farmer.

Since the existing BHOOMI kiosks will continue to be operational, a farmer could always obtain a copy from such centers in case the service levels at rural centers do not turn out to be efficient. This competition will ensure that corruption is minimized.

Bhoomi  is able to serve as a killer application because its design is robust and it has found complete acceptance within the farming community. Implementation of land record computerization has been difficult in India. Bhoomi succeeded because it targeted a critical need for farmers and delivered significant benefits by re-engineering land record processes. The project is completely owned by the department, and has an internal champion. Minimizing resistance from staff by harnessing political support was an important contributory factor. Extensive training coupled with a participatory style also helped to diminish resistance.

4.         Conclusion

The Bhoomi experiment with kiosks will need to be  systematically evaluated to establish the gains made from the use of ICTs in rural areas. These gains need to be assessed from the perspective of the intended beneficiaries.

Success of Bhoomi’s foray into rural areas based on its partnerships with several public and private agencies could show a way in which India can bridge its digital divide. First a Bhoomi like land record application will need to be replicated in each state. After ensuring a successful roll out, the application will begin to support a large number of rural kiosks by providing them with a regular source of income. That will take care of the first necessary condition (see figure). The other conditions of an inexpensive technology and creation of access points is beginning to happen. Hopefully other players who have already set up kiosks will be motivated with the demonstration of the viability of kiosks connected to Bhoomi in Karnataka. They too will seek such connectivity. NGOs may then be able to jump in to provide the glue that can bind it all together to get the community involved.

Although Bhoomi provides an ideal platform for India, other countries can similarly identify their own killer application for rural areas. There is of course a danger in overemphasizing the potential. The issue of digital divide has gained prominence. There is significant concern within multilateral organizations and the developed world as to how this divide can be bridged. This concern is getting translated into action programs, which are likely to pour large amount funds in creating infrastructure so that more people have access to ICTs in the developing countries. However, if we fail to recognize the fact that access is a necessary and not a sufficient condition for creating impact then much of this funding will be wasted. This paper attempted to lay out other conditions that must be prevalent for ICTs to be fully exploited in rural areas.

Yoshimura, Teruhiko, Where Virtual and Real Worlds Meet: Japan’s Use of ICTs in Community developmentregional development dialogue, vol. 24 (autumn 2002)

See following example: Mandals online in Andhra Pradesh < www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/apmandalscs.htm>; Village information kiosks for the Warna cooperatives in India < www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/warna.htm> ; Empowering dairy farmers through  dairy information and services kiosks< www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/diskcs.htm>

see the case study titled Bhoomi: online delivery of land titles in Karnataka, India< www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/Bhoomi_cs.htm>

Bhatnagar S.C., Empwering dairy farmers through a dairy information and services kiosk,

http://www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/diskcs.htm

Bhatnagar S and Vyas Nitesh, Gyandoot: community owned rural Internet kiosk,

http://www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/egov/gyandootcs.htm

See the report on Gyandoot evaluation –Quantifying costs and benefits of egovernment applications < www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/bnpp/gksp1.htm>

Senthilkumaran, S. and Arunachalam, Subbiah, Expanding the Village Knowledge Centres in Pondicherry, Regional Development Dialog, Autumn 2002.

Etta, Florence, Thioune, Ramata Aw., with Adera, Edith, Case Study of Acacia Telecentres: Senegal and Uganda, regional Development Dialog, Autumn 2002.

Malik, Shenaz. Drishtee: Connecting India Village by Village

http://www.digitalopportunity.org/fulltext/shenaz20020715.shtml

Bhatnagar S and Dewan A., E-choupal: ITC's Rural Networking Project, a case study prepared for the Empowerment web site of the World Bank.

Reprt card on service of Bhoomi kiosks, www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/bnpp/Bhoomi.pdf

Microsoft Corporation is developing prototype architecture for a centralized data center. This will provide a robust authentication procedure on the basis of which a rural telecentre will be charged a fee for each transaction.

N-Logue Communications Pvt. Ltd. Is a private company promoted by the Telecommunications and Computer Networking Group of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Most of the users spend Rs 25-50/- in travelling to a taluka kiosk. Some of the users when questioned about the additional fee, indicated that an additional charge of Rs 10/- would be totally acceptable to the farmer community if the RTC could be delivered through a rural telecenter. To make sure that farmers are not overcharged, the stationery used by the telecentres to print RTC would be stamped with the maximum price that can be charged for a RTC just like the Maximum Retail Price stamp on product packages sold in India.

docBHOOMI: Closing the digital divide through innovative reforms and partnership

Brazil 2012

Brazil 2012

IACC Video

IACC Video

FaceBook

FaceBook