#2: Whither, e-Governance?
I had concluded my last blog with the thought that in spite of measures to streamline government processes through e-Governance, there is a certain unresponsiveness and indifference that continues to linger. So why does the government live in parallel worlds, nay, centuries? Why do some people in the government dazzle us with visions of a cashless, paperless future in which we breeze through life with nary a thought to the burdens of transacting with the government, while on the other hand, the same dusty rooms, with piles of files, the same rudeness, confusion and corruption assault us daily when we visit a typical government office?
Maybe the answers lie in history.
Now that I am old enough to bore everybody with my reminiscences, I think back to my early days in the government, where with the same revolutionary zeal that I see in younger government officers one set about to streamline government systems. Computers were unknown in the mid-1980s in most government offices, not to speak of connectivity. In the small town where I started my career in the government, we were served by a manual telephone exchange, with a jolly man (whom I never did meet in person) at the other end who would connect us to the outside world. A lightning call, which meant that one did not have to wait for an outstation call – sometimes the wait could be a day or more – cost a lot of money. Yet, the friendly telephone man connected government offices with each other without charging us the exorbitant lightning call fee. By the year end, he was helpful enough to connect me to my wife in Bangalore instantly, whilst charging me ordinary rates. On one memorable occasion – New Year’s Eve it was – he enabled me to play an Elvis love song to my wife, oh so far away. That must have been a first of sorts, for lightning calls.
Yes, that telephone man caused a considerable revenue leakage in the telecom department by misclassifying calls. I do hope the laws of limitation apply and arrears are not deducted from his pension with usurious interest by some nit-picking auditor.
It was the typewriter and the stenographers who were our window to speed and efficiency. Luckily, I was served quite well by efficient stenographers throughout my official life; the first ones engineered the transition from my monochrome English dominated persona to someone who could swear as fluently in Kannada, and what is more, dictate court judgments in it. It helped that I had learnt typewriting formally; so on the rare occasions when a document needed to be typed in English, I could step in as well. One, from the pair of stenographers that I had, assured me that if I did not know the Kannada equivalent for a particular official term, I could use the English term and she would immediately tell me the Kannada equivalent. That was the most efficient language class that I ever took; except that my familiarity with stilted official language rarely used by ordinary people, made my informal conversations in Kannada seem like I was a government circular come to life.
Speeding up decision making by just having the decisions typed out faster was, as they say nowadays, a win-win situation. My office’s arrears in disposal of court cases came down dramatically and what’s more, one of my efficient stenographers married the clerk looking after my court cases.
The first desktop computers came into the Government Computer Centre in the late 1980s. I was one of the first people to opt for a training programme. It was fascinating; one was instantly hooked. We speak of the era before the emergence of software suites for Office; one prepared documents and performed simple sums on spreadsheets, directly with the blinking cursor on the black screen. One memorised the various key combinations for operations and that enabled one to get by.
In the meantime, the winds of change were blowing through the offices of private secretaries of senior officers. The electronic typerwriter; a curious hybrid between a typewriting keyboard and electronically assisted punching of the typefaces onto paper, began to make their appearance. They were horrendously expensive and their ribbon cartridges were not designed to reduce one’s revenue budgets.
Yet, in spite of these tentative first steps, the objective still remained that government offices ought to become more efficient. As desktop computers began to be part of the official landscape, a few laypersons in the government began to realise that they could be used for something more than mere typewriting. To fully utilise the potential of computers to improve one’s efficiency, a few enthusiasts – one cannot term them as computer experts – began to experiment with something more than mere typing.