|Topic:||Simplified ICT access for India’s rural users|
|Title:||Founder and President|
Ravi Baid is the Founder and President of Alliance Infotech, provider of unified communications and mobile business solutions. Ravi has been guiding the strategic evolution of Alliance right since its inception. He has seven years of business experience in related fields, and is a dual degree holder in Chemistry and Computers from the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani. He also has earned a Masters degree in Business Management from the University of Arizona, US.
Many Indian government and private projects have used information and communication technology to bring information and services to computer and telephone users. News reports adapted to each locality and automated systems that provide railway information are available by telephone 24 x 7; they each receive 15 to 20 thousand calls per day. A government system that lets citizens track and follow-up complaints by telephone or computer has increased efficiency, improved service and reduced costs for both citizen and government alike.
Employing information technology to help rural users access information has always been a challenge. The willingness of key information holders to share it and create systems to use it – not necessarily the technology itself – has been the major challenge. One of the biggest challenges in governing a country as large as India has been bringing transparency and accountability to public dealings. In recent years, though, a great number of e-governance initiatives have focused primarily upon addressing these issues. India has seen a great many government and private projects that have applied technology to bring information or new services to computer and telephone users. Some of these services have been highly successful. For instance, the telephone-based news service that Prasar Bharti runs, that 15 thousand callers use each day to get current unbiased news over their phones, will soon be available throughout India. The service provides specific content for each locality and is available in Hindi and English. The Indian Railways runs a telephone-based automatic information service that is available all over the country. Recently launched as a value added service, the information line now receives more than 20,000 phone calls each day. However, of all the applications tried, the initiative below has been one of the most empowering. It is too early to say whether this service will survive the test of time or lose focus and die out, but, given the early results, its chance for success is quite strong. LokVani, or the voice of the people, is a unique public/private partnership program established through the combined efforts of the District Administration and National Informatics Centre in Sitapur (UP, India). The LokVani initiative gives citizens of Sitapur an opportunity to interact with the government using the Internet or, more recently, via telephone; that eliminates the need for them to travel to a government office. LokVani offers several different kinds of services to local citizens such as land record research and emission, arms licence application status, GPF (General Provident Fund) for civil servants – the accounts of basic education for teachers, etc. The most popular service to date amongst all the services offered has been the Online Public Grievance Redressal service. Through this service, any citizen of Sitapur can visit any one of several authorised kiosks set up by the Government in partnership with local cyber-cafés and computer training institutes and for a small fee register a complaint on the system. These complaints are logged into a central database and through effective monitoring by the officials of the district, are resolved/responded to appropriately. Citizens are able to check on the status of their complaints by referring to a unique 5-digit reference number issued to them automatically at the time of filing the complaint. Initially, the LokVani application was completely Web-based, and citizens had to visit the local information kiosks and pay usage charges to get information they needed, or to check the status of their requests. This, of course, involved unnecessary travel and expense for the users; the citizen was never sure that a reply had been posted, or even if the reply was adequate, without checking personally on the site. Because of this problem, the District Administration of Sitapur and the LokVani Society engaged a private sector supplier to build a telephony-based version of the LokVani Complaints Status Information System (LCSIS). LokVani Complaint Status Information System The LCSIS lets citizens track their complaints through the telephone and hear the responses, if any, that the concerned officers have filed. The service is available on 24×7 basis so that anyone who wants to access the status of his complaint can dial into the LokVani server and check the status online. All the data – the complaints, complaint numbers, status information, responses, and the like – are stored centrally in the NIC, the National Informatics Centre, central database in Delhi. When a citizen calls into the LCSIS system using its publicly available telephone number, an IVR (interactive voice response) application greets the caller and asks the inquirer to punch his 5-digit complaint tracking number into the telephone handset. This tracking number is used to query the central database, from which the information, stored in Hindi, is retrieved. Figure 1 shows a pictorial representation of the whole system. Using a Hindi Text to Speech Engine, the complaint, complaint status, name of officer to whom the complaint was referred and the response, if any, are then automatically converted into clear, Hindi speech and played out to the caller. A service using SMS is utilized to let government officers retrieve complaints relevant to their position and official responsibilities. Accordingly, officers send SMS messages to the LCSIS to obtain a variety of information about items such as the number of complaints awaiting response and those that have lapsed, among others. This greatly helps in expediting and organising the officer’s action plan. Callers are able to hear the status of their complaints and the action taken by the local administration, without actually needing to visit a Government office or an information kiosk. This results in much greater convenience and greatly reduced costs for the citizen, since making a phone call is far cheaper than visiting a cyber kiosk. On the government’s side, the administration can provide the citizen with a response whenever he or she requests it, 24 hours per day 7 days per week, over both the telephone and the Web. The success of the LokVani initiative in Sitapur can be gauged from the fact that today LokVani receives an average of more than 10,000 complaints per month. The complaints are then speedily acted upon by the sectors concerned of the local administration. Impressed with this innovation, the Government of Uttar Pradesh has recently directed all district headquarters to implement the LokVani system within their respective districts. The above example highlights how information and communication technology, primarily computer telephony and voice processing, allows rural villagers to access information using nothing more complicated than the ever-present telephone. Given the number of companies in India specialising in computer telephony, projects such as LokVani can be easily and economically implemented. The challenge, of course, is the interest and willingness of the administration to take the initiative. Packages such as LokVani work very well in India; they provide great advantages to the users – on both sides. Business models such as “public/private partnerships” facilitate the financing of such projects and reduce the pressures upon the government, and upon its limited resources, to meet the needs of its citizens.