Friday, February 06, 2015

A (not so) Simple Solution for AccheDin

A government always has the best interest of its people at heart - deep down inside. I said 'Government', not the people in it. By the time these interests come up for transformation into action by the people, various emotions creep in - greed, fear, ego, hate, prejudice - and the result is almost always a failed state. Whether it is the mighty United States of World-Lecturing, or the Islamic State of self goals, the journey from an idea to the result is what we have a problem with.

For this article, allow me to pick one angle to it - implementation transparency, and see why we can't do better with it. This article is just me running amok with my idealism.

India, being a promise-driven voting society, has always been kind to whoever makes the most ludicrous promises. Our beloved Krantikari has already promised enough to cost the exchequer the entire budget of a few small countries, if he's elected. While I pray the people of Delhi are smarter than that, its just that - a prayer. As a welfare state, we have millions of projects running simultaneously across the country, with trillions of rupees being spent each year. Money that you and I have paid as taxes - directly and indirectly. From the whim of a Chief Minister who wants to change the entire state secretariat because he feels the Vastu isn't right, to MNREGA wherein the government pays ₹174 per day and only half of that is actually paid to the peasant who does the actual labouring (the rest is openly fleeced by the middlemen), its all funded by us.

Right to Information has been around for a while now, and has lost its sheen in spite of some real warriors who've made it their life's purpose and are really making a difference. One such 'warrior' has become Krantikari, but that's just my hate of that man talking. Armed with a ₹10 application, people can choose to wait for months just to find out the status of a project that they have indirectly funded, and based on the promise of which they have voted a government to power. Funny, no?

Lets digress a bit. 
Like most of India, I love shopping online. The convenience and the choice, coupled with the fact that there is free delivery and I don't need to search for parking spots at Spencers, makes me a fan. I can't cease to be amazed at the economics which allow a giant like Amazon to deliver a product priced at under ₹100 for free - that too via BlueDart - and still manage to eke out a profit! And what's even more fascinating is the fact that we can track the status of the shipment on the mobile app, and see exactly where the product is. It is quite like that program on National Geographic on the Mumbai local trains, where the controller's room has an entire wall of LEDs showing the exact position of every train in transit at any given point of time. It is tremendously empowering! I feel like I'm powering the global economy and participating in something awesome - all through my ₹100 Cash on Delivery order :)
Here's a screenshot of an order that came home a couple of days ago.

Amazon delivery

Continuing my amazement is the fact that they often deliver in under 48 hours. Sometimes even under 24 hours. This particular screenshot is for a mobile phone holder for a car wind shield, and cost ₹140. Since this was sold by a third party, I don't think Amazon made more than ₹10-20 on it, and I'm quite sure the seller himself wouldn't have made much more than that either. Since BlueDart was delivering it at something like ₹20-30 in that kind of a turnaround, I don't see them making too much money of it either. It is all a game of volume, and that is a topic for another article.

Now, tracking like this has two purposes. While it serves the customer to know where his shipment is, and aids in customer delight, there is also the company's benefit of being able to keep track of all those millions of packages in transit, and use the same platform to solve customer queries. True genius is in creating a platform that works with both the front end and back end user, with different interfaces. Our e-commerce sites have got that down quite successfully.

According to Wikipedia, the total E-Commerce business in India in 2013 was $2.3 Billion. (Read Here). That's about ₹13800 crores. Since the running costs are incredibly high for an e-commerce business in India, lets take a profit margin of 10% for now. That's a cumulative profit of ₹1380 crores for all those sites. Out of this, probably ₹1000 crores would go to the big 4 or 5, and the rest divided among all the small ones. So each site - even the biggest ones - made only a few hundred crores at best. I'm not an economist, and this number could be incredibly skewed, but it'll serve the purpose of what i'm leading to in the next part of this post.


Lets now apply this learning to our government.
The Hyderabad Metro has a plan outlay of about ₹14000 crores.  The outlay for NREGA for this year is ₹34000 crores. And there are millions of projects running, and millions more - from Panchayat level to Central government level, that are in the approval pipeline. The total Budget Spend for 2014-15 was forecast at ₹17,94,892 crores. Yup. That's more zeroes that we can visualize! For every department that is involved in this spend (and there are thousands of departments), there is a capital spend outlay in order to spend this money efficiently. Afterall, that is the whole purpose of an elected democracy - to spend our money as best as they can, ideally for the good of the country. 

Here's the question then. Why do I have to file a ₹10 RTI in order to know how my money is being spent, and how efficiently the works based on my money are being done? During the budget, there were several ₹100 crore trials that were announced towards new spends. Wouldn't I want to know how well they are being spent - if at all? For that, why should I have to go through another process from another department and an information commissioner? When I order a product from Amazon or Flipkart, I don't have to pay them extra money and file an application to check the status of product / service delivery, no? Even if the company is losing money on the order, they still give me realtime access to the delivery mechanism. Why should it be different for a government which is Of the People, By the People, and For the People?

When a builder wants to construct an apartment, it is a rule that he should display up front a board with all the salient details about the construction. The number of dwellings, the nature of the construction, the application number, money paid to the government towards utilities, name and contact of the builder, and the approving authority. That board is supposed to be in place through the duration of the project so that anyone can see what's being done. We don't file an application with the builder and pay him ₹10, then wait for a few months to get this information. What's funny is that when the government assigns a project to a private vendor, they expect all this information to be prominently and accurately displayed for their benefit. When a private vendor (or a citizen) pays the government for a project, we need to keep running behind them to check the progress. Why this Kolaveri Di?

This article isn't just to outrage. There's a solution, and that's why the e-commerce reference. When a company that is barely breaking even can invest in technology that truly empowers both the front end and the back end user, why can't the government that has an entire department in the form of NIC, have technology in place that will make this entire process streamlined? Yes, as soon as they are asked about it, they'll say it won't work in rural areas where bulk of the work is being done. But then, that's not right! SKS Micro and several other Micro financing organizations are doing a stellar job of rural financing using Bio metric and mobile devices. ITC is changing the way farmers go about their business through their E-Choupal kiosks in the most rural places in India! And then there are independent innovators who have been using technology in the most amazing ways possible. Don't keep them relegated to a column in the Science page of newspapers and to an award once in a while. Bring them to the mainstream. They're located rurally and can help in getting the root level processes set. 

Much like the screenshot above, if there is a software in place wherein every update is automatically converted into a visually appealing interface, no need of an RTI system, no need of files to move back and forth between government departments, no need of millions of hours wasted in transit, complete transparency, and true empowerment of the taxpayer. If the government is serious about weeding out corruption, can there be a better way than this? Technology is already playing an awesome role in simplifying and streamlining processes even at the government level. Our guys are no longer befuddled when it comes to using computers. Broadband proliferation, even at rural level, has reached a decent level to kickstart something like this. Anyway NREGA and DBT are being done online. Every one of those can be integrated into a master platform. We have the world's computer programming being done in Bangalore and at Hyderabad. Technocrats like Nandan Nilekani have already been roped in by the earlier government. Yup, we're still confused about Aadhaar, but a start has been made! Give them the challenge, they will rise up to it for sure! Proud Indians like Anand Mahindra and Sunil Mittal will more than gladly put their organization's resources in the job and get the challenge solved.

Here's an example. The central government has promised an IIM at Visakhapatnam. The promise was done a few months ago, land was identified by the state, acquired, and the foundation stone was laid by our central HRD minister last month. So the roadmap already has four checkpoints done. The next step is to finalize the contract and begin construction. If we had an interface where that were visible, every citizen is empowered to check and make sure work goes along like it should. Yes, there will be trouble for the government, as they aren't used to a time-bound style of work. But with Modi Sarkaar, that is the change that citizens expect! That's why they voted them to power. And when they have access to information at a glance - on their computers and mobile devices, every citizen is a policeman! Feedback will pour in by itself - which is anyway needed by the government since there are too many factors at play. There will be problems in implementation, but that can be handled. Anything that needs change will have problems :) I can write a ton of material about this, but I'm sure anyone thinking on something like this will come up with their own interpretation anyway.

Is our government capable of ushering in change at such a massive level? If yes, it genuinely is AccheDin!

No comments: