Choked Bangalore – Heart of the matter?

[Cross posted at Praja]

The best piece of news I have heard this month came last week. It goes “BBMP to book crook engineers“. Its something we all know and suspect to be true for ever now, and the plan to break the so called ‘nexus’ is ambitious:

BBMP will book the engineers of the erstwhile CMCs and TMC who have sanctioned projects on storm water drains, valleys, in agricultural lands etc. … Taking a serious note of rampant violation of zoning regulations and building bylaws, the BBMP … will trace these officials … and recommend action against them … In the wake of demolitions being carried out across the city, the BBMP has stumbled on several cases where engineers have encouraged encroachments in exchange for kickbacks running into lakhs of rupees.

Not that we haven’t heard similar language before, but there is an interesting twist to BBMP’s threat this time.

Continue reading

Who is it – city government or us?

[Cross posted on Praja-Bangalore]

How interesting to see different media houses use varying headlines to describe one same PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC) survey on Bangalore city and governance.

Here are some interesting notings from this PWC survey:

Continue reading

Your property tax for 2005 …

[cross posted on Praja-Bangalore]

… is due! Spotted an interesting BBMP tender that tells us that you could very soon find letters like that in mail.

BBMP requires services … to extract data, print Demand/Collection/Balance notices of owners of the Properties in BBMP area … for the fiscal year 2005

Further details of scope of this work tells you a bit about the level of computerization at BBMP’s end:

Continue reading

Complaints: a tale of few cities – #1

E-governance is a two way street, no initiative is complete without an electronic and easy way of taking in suggestions and complaints, and may I add – RTI (Right to Information) applications as well. How about we look at relevant online systems of a few city governments?

KALYAN-Dombivili gets cited for having one of the best egovernance implementations. As about the complaints system, you can lodge one via 4 clear steps. You get a token # in the end that you use to get status on your complaints. Even better, there is a citizen charter there that tells you the number of days a complaint should take to get addressed and who all get to act on it. One curious thing – even though Kalyan has concept of “unique citizen #” for its residents, it is not used in lodging complaints.

HYDERABAD lets you register complaints, as well as check status on same. One thing that sets them apart is – you can search and lookup all complaints. 1491 entires for March 2007, what says you, is usage high or low? Searches showed me that most complaints lodged and disposed are about street lighting. Understandably enough, most complaints in “encroachments” category are ‘pending’!

Continue reading

So what exactly is egovernance?

When I heard about the deal between National Informatics Center (NIC) and IBM, I went wow!

IBM India will revamp the country’s national portal – http://www.india.gov.in – to deliver government services anytime, anywhere.

This news also reminded of the hype around a similar sounding deal between IBM and the state of Rajasthan (back in 1998?). Thankfully, Rediff still has that safe – IBM and Rajasthan.

Wait, there are more things to correlate. Remember Srikanth Nadhamuni’s not-for-profit company “eGovernments.org“, they were in news recently for helping Bangalore City (BMP) do an electronic upgrade.

So now I have two questions. First question – What exactly is egovernance? Second question – I will save that for another post – what companies should our governments partner with to implement e-governance, the for-profit IBM types, or the not-for-profit and almost-charitable eGovernments.org types?

First question first, when I think egovernance, I think of two things (here goes my ignorance up on the Internet):

  1. Two-way information and service delivery mechanism for citizens. Two-way = interactive, and is key
  2. Information systems within the government departments that bring speed and transparency to their processes.

The apparent catch here – if you see it from techie eyes – is that #2 may need to be in place for #1 to work. However, if a government body has a public website – I expect it to have item #1 and nothing else! Fair expectation?

Now, head over to Rajasthan government site, shall we? What do we have here? A badly organized web-page with animated images of the 90s. Chief Minister and her government selling themselves with some announcements though I’d expect these in an “about” page, or in a “press release” section. There is a news page that shows some junk because they still don’t have a glitch free way of showing Devanagari fonts on browsers.

There are some links that sell tourism, but there isn’t a mother of all “tourism page”. Where is everyday stuff or any interactive systems for regular citizens? Scroll down and go to the bottom of page to find a “Citizen’s corner”. If you are willing to dig deeper, there is an IT-enabled services page for citizens. To do what? Pay some utility bills! “Send a message to the chief minister” and a “feedback” form are about the only interactive things visible on the portal itself.

The way I see it, the portal is a badly organized amalgam of information, and has no serious services of use to the citizens.

Who developed all this? Can’t be Tata or IBM. Perhaps their partnership with Rajasthan was only to sell hardware and training. I suspect it is RajCOMP (warning: that link wont open in firefox), which is an undertaking of Rajasthan state government itself!

And hey, wait, you forgot to ask which one exactly is the official website of Rajasthan government. Is it the official site or the NIC Rajasthan one? Looking for a parallel wont help. Because, the seemingly official Karnataka website is always down, and NIC Karnataka site seems to have a lot more stuff than the NIC Rajasthan site. Ours is a truly diverse country !

So essentially, this egovernance thing – as seen by this IT savvy citizen, the very people these portals target – is nothing more than an electronic mess right now. I only hope #2 isn’t as big a mess. I wouldn’t know that because I dont have access to any internal government systems.

Hema Malini’s cheeks – how to get there?

PuneRoads4Quality of roads in our cities tell us something is not happening right. What exactly is that? A decade ago, one may have said our cities don’t have enough money. But today, at least cities like Bangalore and Pune are not short on resources.

The so-called “system” is setup well enough. Local government allocates money to upgrade or construct roads. Tenders are floated with description of work that needs to be carried out. The best bid – I assume the “cheapest” one – is selected from a contractor that “qualifies” certain criteria. And then, this contractor carries out the work.

And what usually is the quality of such work? Drive on Marathahalli – Sai Baba Ashram road, talked about as the perfect example of PPP. Nice road, built in part contributions from local Real Estate developers. But, take any right or left from this beautiful road, and you will see roads even worse than the ones I showcased from Pune. And at Pune, even the arterial roads have severe quality issues. The pictures in that post are from Junglee Maharaj Road, Fergusson College Road and University Road.

When the budget-tender-contract-execute “system” seems well setup, why do we have these quality issues all around? Of course corruption, no prizes for guessing that. But let me tell you about the two pieces in this overall processes where it hurts the most:

  1. Selection of contractor: Who decides whose bids are valid and whose bid is the best? How easy it is for a random contractor to complete the documentation “required” to submit a valid bid?
  2. Who inspects the quality of completed work and signs off saying the work is done and payments can be made?

Most egovernance initiatives target problem #1. A completely online and transparent tendering process should fix this. The word “completely” is important, for if any human has the power to delay anything, you could be inviting corruption.

How to fix problem #2 though? You can’t computerize here as it is not easy to quantize quality. So who should decide whether the quality of work is billable and good or not?PuneRoads2

Road building is a “service”, right? Then, who is the end user or beneficiary? Local government, no? You and me, the citizens, yes! When you pay for a service and get it, isn’t it you who decides how the quality is, right? So why does this happen different in case of road works or any “public” work?

Imagine a process where after finishing his work, a contractor is required to get sign-offs from a fixed percentage of “beneficiaries” of the service he provided. To go hand in hand with this system, imagine a law that calls for penalties if an identified beneficiary does not respond to the quality questionnaire.

Beneficiaries must be identified upfront. This will be the toughest hop in the process. But this process could solve the quality problem. It puts the onus back on the citizens, and that is how it should be. Or else, people like me and you will just crib around and create negativity without doing anything meaningful.

Egovernance @ Bangalore – new BMP website is here

The new look website of BMP, built by the Egovernments Foundation is online! Looks good, and I am trying to do a detailed review. But writing anything in detail takes time. Moreover, the new BMP site is due for big updates real soon (Sep 15). So for now, here is a quick look at this exciting initiative!

[Note: A press release said that the "complaints" page was already up on this site. But that is not the case, as "Public Grievances" module is listed under the "Coming soon" section].

One basic question first. All these egov sites seem to assume I know where I live. Ward numbers, CMCs and all, it gets a bit technical. How do I know for sure that I live in Mahadevapura and not Bangalore and what exactly is my ward number? I need to know this to figure whether to go to this BMP site, or Mahadevapura city site.

Even the list of wards, where presented, has user interface quirks. Go to Property Tax Id page. You have a drop down with all ward names here. If you live in Domlur, you may want to type D and find it. But the wards names are listed with their number prefix. So you have to scroll through the big list and find Domlur, and that will be # 72.

Talking of user interface, go to the “know your property tax details” page. In here, try finding a specific address in say J P Nagar. You have to go through a page by page listing of all properties to find yours.

What I am alluding to is this. User interface for these city portals seem to be very ‘academic’. First up, all these sites need to be hosted under the umbrella of a “Karnataka state” page. There could be an entry point that asks you for your location, which I could provide by clicking on a map, or by typing in the name of the area where I live. Based on my answer, I could then be redirected to the website of the appropriate town, city or ward.

Next, what is up with all those “pdf”s? It is a bit annoying to run into “pdf”s even for simple bits of information.

Ward map with work details is nice and wonderful. But I wish this could be a query driven page, and I could get to see details of all types of works, not just the roads. That may be headed our way in form of the “ward works” module. That could go hand in hand with the complaints (aka grievances) page so that citizens will have ready and reference-worthy context for their complaints and suggestions.

List of legal hoardings is cool! I can now easily figure the illegal ones and hopefuly soon, report these to BMP right on this website.

I clicked on the “building plan approval” link with hopes of finding an electronic way of submitting soft copies for approval. But the page is merely a collection of addresses and phone numbers.

Also, as a layman, I am bit confused as to what things fall in jurisdiction of BMP vs BDA vs BMRDA vs BWSSB and what have you. For example, if I find a road flooded due to a broken water pipeline, who do I call for help? BDA or BWSSB or BMP? I wish BMP could provide links to “related” egovernance sites, and offer some guidance on jurisdictions. A ‘true’ city portal (bangalore.gov.in like thing) would be the best.

All in all, a good beginning in the form of an organized site that presents whatever information I assume BMP and eGov are in a position to present right now. It is just a beginning however, a directory of information of sorts. For us, the citizens, real fun will begin when the modules listed in the “coming soon” section will come online. Because then, there will be a real chance that the BMP portal could become a medium for two-way dialogue between residents and BMP.

Let us wait and watch.

[PS: "Ward works" link on Mahadevapura CMC site produced a pdf with garbage characters. I hope that is because I am missing some kannada fonts on my PC]

Magic bullet for bribery and corruption?

No, RTI alone is not enough.

Amidst all this new-found excitement and debate about RTI (Right To Information), allow me to make a reality-check post on why I think it is a bit over hyped. Talk of RTI connects me with two dots of memories I have:

  • Remember those Bollywood flicks of early eighties that showed hero cops chasing goons for over 2 hours. They would do all to prosecute the goons, but would still be unable to lodge them behind the bars.
  • Also remember this basic lesson you may have read in your high school Social Studies. The subject was called “Civics” when I did my high school. The lesson went, “every right has corresponding duties for citizens”. We used to call it the Newton’s third law of civics :)

NDTV and CNN-IBN have been selling RTI as a single cure for bribery and corruption. RTI does help, but it is certainly not a cure all. It does half the job, helps you find the guilty or irresponsible public servants. What should happen after RTI helps you with names and deeds? Legal follow up. And how easy it is to do that? Well, about 20 times as tough and time taking than filing RTI applications.

On a similar note, recall the frequent spurt of support media and public showers on Lokayuktas. What do the Lokayuktas say to that? They ask for powers to prosecute! (it is on the cards, but not happened yet).

RTI does not have ‘corrective’ actions associated with it. But see how this news report (Parents file RTI on kids’ safety norms) misleads readers into believing that:

The concerned parent say their next RTI application would be to the education department asking them to assign a special officer who can accompany the school children on these trips.

Going back to the “rights have associated duties” lesson, what are our corresponding duties on RTI? These would be to make full use of it, and then use it to participate in how we are governed, or to do legal follow-ups. Making use of RTI is really easy, but making use of information obtained is not.

So what could happen is this. After the initial flood of stories about RTI applications scaring public servants into action, we will see the same public servants settle down to account for RTI annoyances at their work. For they all know that at end of the day, India is full of lazy and selfish citizens, and will most likely not take the next steps even after getting to be in the know of most of the happenings.

I think the real spirit behind RTI was to make citizens participate in how they get governed, and to provide us with one of the tools to help improve quality of governance. I am afraid the point about “one of the” is getting lost, and RTI is being sold as the tool here.

Tell me if you think I am wrong in saying that RTI alone is not enough.

Egovernance and Bangalore

The best piece of local news I read over the weekend was about e-governance (E-governance … face of BMP). And, in there, I liked the talk of a “real” and usable public grievance redressing system.

As I have maintained, the best way for us to get better local-governance is by actively participating in it. And the easiest and most practical way to participate, besides voting, is to complain! Yes, don’t vent around in vain, complain to the authority who is in a position to do something about it.

But, good and usable complaint systems are not around yet. A dream system, internet based, would be like this:

  • Pick your locality, say Whitefield (actually, Mahadevapura)
  • Pick what you want to complain about, it has to be one from a fixed list
    • of all “assets” owned by local government, like power lines, roads, water pipes etc
    • of “recent jobs” (or “works” as they call it) carried out in the locality
  • As an example, you could pick the recently widened and worked upon ‘Varthur road’.
  • And then you type in some free form text. For ‘Varthur Road’, say “missing pavements”.
  • Now, you get a complaint number.
  • And the complaints site has a system to tell me what is happening with the complaint I lodged a few weeks ago. Just provide a complaint number and it will tell you a thing like
    • “read and dismissed”
    • “read and merged with complaint xyz”
    • “read and acted upon”
    • “incomplete, supply details, pictures etc”
    • Or whatever. But some status, that I can track and seek more information on if I want to.
  • Last but not the least, I should also be able to see other complaints, and stuff like “most complaint about asset or work”.

Notice that this ‘dream’ system is almost a marriage of proactive RTI compliance by local government (list of assets, works, and status of complaints) and regular public grievance redressing system.

The press release on Egovernments foundation and BMP partnership didn’t describe the exact complaint system Mr Srikanth Nadhamuni is building. But I am hopeful that it will be on similar lines. And it will sure be a lot better that the current way of going to one of the four citizen service centers of BMP.

I have a complaint

Since I concluded we don’t complain enough about poor services rendered to us, let me explore how easy it is to complain. Internet is the synonym for easy. And it turns out a few public bodies are already setup to hear from us on the internet.

Grievance website

I live near Whitefield, my area falls under the city of Mahadevapura. My city has a website. And this website has a “grievance-redressal” page. In here, I can easily register a complaint. Wow! But I bet 95% of residents of Mahadevapura don’t know about this service.

At the bottom of the grievance page, find a note that says “Public Grievance System provided to City Municipal Council Mahadevapura free-of-cost by eGovernments Foundation”. I am lucky enough to have met the person who runs Egovernments Foundation. Srikanth Nadamuni will sure be a proud man if more and more of us start making use of this module his foundation has been developing.

What if I have a complaint related to traffic or law and order “service” in Bangalore. I found Bangalore Police has a website. And they have a complaints page as well. By the way, they have a page for “suggestions” as well. The funny thing is that the suggestions page assumes suggestion = complaint. Perhaps true!

Next I searched around to see if I could file online complaints with Karnataka Government. Unfortunately, the official website of Karnataka government was down. I went to the next best thing, Karnataka page at National informatics center (nic). On the Karnataka NIC site, I found an external link that – interestingly enough – said “Online public grievances”. Went there and from the content on this page (http://darpg-grievance.nic.in/), it seems there is a whole ministry dedicated to “Public Grievances”! Visitor count on this page is way too low though. Looks like I was # 16685 there.

This page also said “Public Grievances pertaining to identified 16 Central Government Organizations (for list click here) are dealt with by Directorate of Public Grievances, Cabinet Secretariat.” So you have a complaint against these 16 government bodies, this is the page to go to (http://dpg.bharatsarkar.nic.in/). How confusing.

So yes. It is all a bit confusing. But if you have a complaint against a government body, good chances that there is an online channel to take that in. The challenge is to find it.

And then, I don’t know how responsive these sites are. Is following up on an already lodged complaint covered under the “Right To Information” act? I hope yes!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.