Recently, I visited a government office and was shocked to see the working conditions there. Forget facilities, there was not even a proper seating arrangement for the staff. Huge bundles of files were piled up on the shelves, threatening to crash anytime into the heads of passersby; tables and chairs were crammed like vehicles in a traffic jam and the computers looked like they belonged to some pre-Internet generation.
This last observation was the most depressing. While both the Central and State governments pay lip service to issues like e-governance, corporate governance and financial inclusion, the ground reality is starkly different.
This particular office I visited deals with financial matters. The officer I met is supposed to handle around 5,000 cases every year. He is handling almost seven times more than that. Forget about skilled employees, there is no workforce even for routine jobs in the office.
Therefore, the officer has hired some outside people and is paying them from his pocket. After a scam was unearthed in this office, in which some employees and agents were arrested, all the remaining officials are playing it safe and are closely scrutinising each and every file, resulting in inordinate delays. The official is supposed to dispose of all the remaining cases (around 7,000) by March–end, but he is struggling to clear more than 150-200 files a day.
There are very few employees who know how to operate the department's software. Three big offices of the department, including the one I visited, have only one IT service engineer, who is clueless when the system fails. According to the employees, the engineer often spends the whole day resolving a minor problem, resulting in wasted overheads and loss of productivity.
This is not an isolated example of the rot of e-governance. Most government websites are dysfunctional and getting the information you want from them can be a daunting task. Take, for example, the website of the Maharashtra government (http://www.maharashtra.gov.in). Under the 'Departments' tab, you would expect to find a list of all the government departments. Nevertheless, it provides two links, namely, 'Mantralaya' and 'All Departments'. Stranger still, the 'Mantralaya' link provides a list of websites of some of the departments while the 'All Departments' link provides information about the State-run bodies under various departments. The 'Industries/Energy' tab provides links to MSEB Holding Co Ltd (MSEB), Directorate of Industries, Maharashtra Energy Development Agency (MEDA), etc. But to access information related to the Industries or Energy department or ministry, you will need to click the 'Mantralaya' link. What a mess!
The official website for booking rail tickets (IRCTC.co.in) remains unavailable for users who want to book tickets under the Tatkal quota, till 8.15am every day. They can access the site only after all the Tatkal tickets are booked by travel agents. "Naturally, this does not seem to be a system failure conveniently happening between 8.00am-8.15am. This cannot happen without the authorities being involved," says a user who posted his comments on the Moneylife website.
The IRCTC website is designed to disappoint users in many more ways. I recently booked two tickets for my parents, both senior citizens, through the site. I specified lower berths for both travellers, but to my surprise, they were issued upper berths (in fact, my mother was assigned an upper berth among the side berths). When I went to see them off, there was more surprise in store. All the berths, except those assigned to my parents, in that particular compartment were given to people whose names were on the waiting list. To avoid such situations, I now book my tickets physically at a railway counter instead of using the IRCTC website—which also charges me more for online booking.
The authorities need to wake up to the fact that e-governance requires not only the technology infrastructure, but also the human will to make it work. But that’s one lesson which our babus have shown scant inclination to learn. — Yogesh Sapkale