This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on October 6, 2017.
Of the 250,000 panchayats (village councils) in India, very few are online. Those that are online, barring some in Kerala and a few others dispersed across the country, have extremely limited information listed online. The government does have a mission mode project called ePanchayat but it largely entails administration and monitoring of its own disbursements.
In a democratic country, a panchayat system seeks to do much more. It is the people’s government at the lowest level. A village goes to elections every five years to elect its panchayat, council, headed by a sarpanch (village head), but there is no democratic mechanism in place per se to facilitate transparency in the functioning of a panchayat. There is also no room for a digital platform where citizens can engage with their elected representatives directly or get regular updates on the activities undertaken by the panchayat. Section 2 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act says all government bodies should proactively publish important information online to reduce the need to file RTIs, but, except for a few examples from Kerala, panchayats have made little headway in using the medium of the web to promote public accountability. And there is so much the web can offer at the village level (read Recipe of a Smart Village).
Amid the rare sightings of panchayats and their comprehensive details in the digital media, there is a man who is eager to create a truly digital panchayat.
Dilip Tripathi is a businessman from Lucknow who hails from Hasuri Ausanpur gram panchayat in Siddharthnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. Disappointed with the lack of development in his home village, he decided to take the situation in his hands a year ago and contested the post of sarpanch in Hasuri and won.
Spread across 650 acres, Hasuri Ausanpur is barely 50km away from the Nepal border. It is home to only 1,024 people (Census 2011).
The revenue collected from this gram panchayat isn’t enough to sustain the development of the village, neither were the non-transferable funds allocated for Land Area Development, so Tripathi used his personal savings of Rs20 lakh to transform Hasuri Ausanpur into Digital Hasuri.
Inspired by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s vision of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas), Tripathi is now setting an example for responsible administrators who can leverage technology to enhance the image, efficiency, transparency and accountability of the village governance system, besides improving the socio-economic situation of the community.
To start with, he has created a public announcement system in the village; loudspeakers have been mounted on poles in various parts of the village for instant mass communication with people of Hasuri.
Twenty-five closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been installed at different locations in the village—footage of which is constantly monitored—to ensure safety of women in public spaces and to curb the habit of open defecation through the tactic of public embarrassment. There are also 23 Wi-Fi hotspots to allow people to connect to the Internet. However, seamless telecom and broadband connectivity is a challenge in the gram panchayat where the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) is yet to reach.
On digitalhasuri.com, all 225 houses, 75% of which are permanent houses, have been geo-tagged on Google Maps. The map also shows all health centres, schools, post offices, agricultural land, grazing land, playgrounds, places of worship, and networks of roads and canals. Further, socio-economic details of all families are entered into a database. This includes not only the number of family members, their age, caste and income, but also catalogues whether or not they have life and health insurance; if any member smokes or chews tobacco; if they are into the habit of washing hands before eating; if the households have toilets, kitchen gardens and compost pits; the source of water; do the families have bank accounts and ATM cards; do they own smartphones; and if anyone in their families carry out cashless transactions. (Yes, privacy is a concern; and he’s now trying to understand how he can facilitate an efficient governance system without breaching one’s privacy.)
With his eyes on PURA, health centres and schools in the village have been equipped with information communication technology (ICT) and digital tools. Point of sale (POS) machines have been introduced in the village, and individuals trained in mobile financial transactions.
The plan now is to establish distance learning linkages to enable the young to access vocational training, and install public water purifying plants to provide clean drinking water; biomass and conventional power supply, too, will soon be replaced with solar energy. Roads have been built and trees have been planted on either side of the roads. Impressively, the use of polythene is banned in this village.
Tripathi understands the opportunities that ICT and digital tools hold; and is leveraging them in the area of organized and unorganized sectors as well. From handicrafts to factories, livelihood earners are being introduced to cutting-edge modern technologies in the areas of management, production and marketing. He is also determined to create a generation of ICT-enabled youth who can improve their lives and of those in their community; and wishes to soon start vocational webinars and training workshops on participatory democracy and rural entrepreneurship.
“People are beginning to use WhatsApp in the village now. Women are watching videos online to learn to play the dholak and do embroidery!” he told me the last time we met.
“What will happen once your term ends?” I asked him. “I am sure the next sarpanch, too, will see value in it and continue with it,” he said, with a lot of hope.
Establishing an efficient and credible governance system is no easy task in India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, but Tripathi has set an example for India’s 250,000 panchayats. If this man can do all of this alone, imagine the impact and scenario when the government supports all gram panchayats to create such model smart villages.