What’s so smart about SMART Cards?

India is undergoing a smart revolution – make that a smart card revolution. Smart cards have been in the news lately with the Government’s decision to set up a Unique Identification Authority (UIDA) to develop multi-purpose identity cards for every Indian. The smart card UIDs are expected to improve national security, enable easy access to government services and help eliminate fraud and corruption in the management of large-scale social welfare schemes as the NREGA and PDS. But, UIDs are just the tip of the iceberg – there is a vast and untapped market for smart cards in India. Growing annually at the rate of 45% the Indian smart card industry is predicted to reach $6 billion by 2010.

Basically, smart cards are pocket sized electronic devices that can store a variety of data safely and securely. We are all too are familiar with the many avatars of these nifty devices which include credit cards, ATM cards, fuel and phone cards. Smart cards are commonly used in Europe and other developed countries as they offer governments and service providers and citizens with a number of benefits. First of all, they are portable, easy to use and offer cashless and paperless transactions. They can be used to as a one-stop shop for citizens to access multiple services. Smart cards improve service delivery by connecting clients directly with service providers thereby reducing the discretion of public authorities. If implemented well smart cards can improve service delivery systems to cut out middlemen, corruption and bring services to closer to end users and beneficiaries. From a service delivery and accountability perspective, smart cards can help plug leakages and curb corruption in the implementation of large-scale social welfare schemes. Capable of storing a range of beneficiary data such as name, address, photographs as well as biometric information, smart cards can help in beneficiary selection, identification and targeting under anti-poverty programmes and schemes.

The Indian government is experimenting with smart cards in sectors such as health care, transport, social security and defence. Smart cards are increasingly being used to deliver wages, pensions, rations and even health benefits under programmes such as the NREGA and RSBY. A number of States including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Tamil Nadu amongst others have already begun integrating smart cards in the implementation of government schemes and programmes with interesting results. In Andhra Pradesh, the State Government has tied up with Mumbai based company – Financial Information Network and Operations (FINO) – to provide biometric smart cards to disburse social security pensions and NREGS wages in 5 districts. Following a successful pilot of the smart card initiative in Warangal and Karimnagar districts, smart cards are now being used for disbursement of pensions and NREGS wages in 259 villages in Andhra Pradesh. In Delhi, the State Government has launched “Samajik Suvidha Sangam” (Mission Convergence) to streamline the delivery of basic services in the NCR by converging citizen services provided by various departments into a single window for easier beneficiary access. Key components of the programme include the setting up of a computerised data bank, computer systems at each delivery point and the provision of e-benefit cards to citizens. The e-benefit card is a biometric smart card issued to individuals to provide them with easy access to a number of government services. At a national level, smart cards are being used to deliver health insurance benefits to BPL families under the Rashtriya Swasthiya Bima Yojana (RSBY). Under the scheme, all beneficiaries are issued biometric smart cards that contain the fingerprints and photographs of family members. As of 6 August 2009, 53,77,708 smart cards are active and operational in the country. Increasingly, a number of States are considering using the RSBY smart cards to piggy back other welfare schemes, as the cards now provide a dependable means of beneficiary identification.

While there is certainly limitless potential for the use of smart cards in India, there is also need for caution. For one thing, there is a huge gap in our knowledge base about how smart cards actually work on the ground. There is not a lot of data or research that documents the use and impact of smart cards on large-scale social sector programmes like the NREGA or RSBY. There is also little information publicly available about the actual details of how these schemes are being managed. With contracts being awarded to private companies there are growing concerns about the transparency and accountability of these companies to beneficiaries and ultimately taxpayers. However, by far the biggest challenge is surely in the execution and implementation of smart card technologies. Smart cards clearly have the potential to revolutionise the way we think about service delivery – but the success of this technology depends greatly on how well they are implemented. The old adage “well begun but half done” come to mind here. The perennial Achilles heel of India’s many welfare programmes has always been weak implementation. The Government of India has been issuing voter ID cards, ration cards and PAN cards for a number of years, yet, discrepancies such as ghost entries, missing beneficiaries, multiple cards continue to exist. These are issues which must be addressed as smart cards become the new mantra in service delivery. As Swaminathan A Aiyar recently observed, there is a real danger of smart cards becoming “just one more scheme, with its own leakages and omissions”. Ironically, it appears we need to be smart about smart cards!

Mandakini Devasher is a Consultant with the Accountability Initiative.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The tabling and subsequent withdrawal of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Act, 2009 by the Law Minister Veerappa Moily has raised several key questions pertaining to the power of the RTI Act 2005 and judicial accountability. The subsequent hue-and-cry among the opposition & civil society organizations and the media interest generated on what seems to be a double standard adopted in the implementation of the RTI act by shielding of judges from scrutiny has confined the bill in its current form to the dustbin. Reforming and making the judiciary more accountable indeed is the need of the hour, however, successive governments have failed in taking any meaningful steps in this direction, under pressure from both the judiciary itself and political considerations.

A CMS-TI study threw light upon the reasons for corruption in the judiciary. From misuse of power by judges without fear of any action being taken, a tedious impeachment process (no judge has ever been impeached by Parliament since Independence) and above all, the inefficient pace at which cases move through the courts all make it possible for people wanting to pay to speed up the system and get favourable judgements, to be able to do so.

Arguments for the Bill in its current form come from well-regarded members of the legal fraternity. It usually boils down to the possibility of harassment of judges handling controversial cases. Though this may be true, the question remains whether a blanket law allowing non-disclosure of assets will do more harm than good. Public perception of the independence and incorruptibility of the Judiciary will definitely take a hit. By excluding judges from declaring their assets, the big fear is that it will indicate that they are a separate class of citizenry, an argument which would take on a different dimension if extended to our politicians and other public servants. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchers?) seems appropriate here.

Abhijit Patnaik is Senior Researcher at the Accountability Initiative

The Judges’ Assets Bill – A window for reforms

As the India transitions towards a more accountable and transparent democracy, the society gets confronted with issues that sometimes raise fundamental questions.

One such issue is being raised with the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill (hereafter ‘the Bill’), being introduced as part of the ambitious reformist agenda of the current government. The Bill tries to further judicial accountability by making disclosure of the assets and liabilities of the judges mandatory.

In Indian society, role of the judiciary has been pivotal. Decisions of the Courts in India have always had a tremendous impact on the way the country is governed. Society, which sometimes gets disillusioned by the executive and the legislature, gets left with only the judiciary to look to for fairness in governance. However, with the growing instances of corruption in the judiciary across the country, it was necessary that some regulation get introduced to make the functioning of the judiciary more transparent. In a system where, traditionally, public scrutiny of the functioning of the judges has been very minimal (especially on the matters concerning disclosure of assets and liabilities), the Bill comes as a big leap forward.

But fearing that the Indian public might misuse the disclosure to mudsling against the judges, and that the judges may not be able to defend themselves like politicians, the Bill created an in-built system by which the disclosure will have to be made only to the respective Chief Justices, and not to the public at large. In fact, the Bill makes it a penal offence in case the disclosure of the assets of the judges is made to any citizen. In effect, the Bill exempts the judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court from any real public scrutiny of their assets – a privilege even the President and Prime Minister do not enjoy. Expectedly, the Bill faced stiff opposition in the Parliament, and its introduction had to be deferred.

Clearly, judges should be put at par with the elected representatives, and any provision that exempts them from such parity in probing may go against the Right to Equality built in the Article 14 of the Constitution, as well as the Right to Information Act. Elsewhere in the world, many countries including the USA require public and annual declaration of assets as a norm by all federal judges including judges of the Supreme Court. Surely there is no reason to think that such a requirement would be any differently problematic in India to warrant any exemption?

While in spirit, the Bill does signifies a positive start towards a much needed process of reforms in the justice delivery mechanism of the country, and to that extent it should be welcomed, exemptions such as one in question dissipate the very objectives of transparency and equality that the Bill purportedly stands for. It remains to be seen if the Government takes steps to address the problems in the Bill, and reintroduce it in the earnest.

It is crucial that the momentum in judicial reforms be maintained. The Judicial Inquiries Bill, the reconsideration of procedure for appointment and removal of judges, as well as instituting an appraisal mechanism to evaluate their performances are all long due reforms within the judicial system, and let us hope that productive discussions around the Judges Assets Bill bring into light the need for these changes as well, to ensure adequate checks and balances within the Judicial system.

Finally, there is a hope that the issues that were so far hidden below the surface will be put on the reform agenda of the government. As far as the reforms in the legal arena are concerned, it is high time that we demand even stricter and more rigorous regulations for those who uphold the law itself.

Kanan Dhru is Managing Director of Research Foundation for Governance in India.

What is driving the Indian middle class towards electoral politics?

In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Delhi registered a 53% voter turnout – the highest in twenty years and the second highest among metropolitan cities in India. The media attributed this development to increase in middle-class vote, most due to aggressive political awareness campaigns by the election commission and popular media. This may be true to a large extent, but political awareness alone cannot explain the differences in voter turnout across cities. This development made me think of the 2007 Municipal Elections in Delhi where the middle class vote was not only higher than usual but some members of Resident Welfare Associations, most of which are middle-class in nature, ran for political office.

That being said, the middle class has been active in public policy related discourse in the last few years across most urban areas in the country. We see this activism through the rise of neighborhood associations. Examples include the Advanced Locality Management (ALM) program in Mumbai, Janagraha in Bangalore, Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) in Chennai, Delhi and other cities. Delhi presents a unique case for a number of reasons. Neighborhood associations in Delhi were able to form horizontal networks across the city and used their influence to tilt major policies in their favor on multiple occasions. This included major policy changes like coercing the State Government to revert the proposed hike in electricity rates by electricity distribution companies, and preventing privatization of the Delhi Jal Board. Interestingly, all of this follows the popular Bhagidari program of Government of Delhi that institutionalized citizen government participation through these very associations.

Most intriguing of course is the participation of some of these associations in electoral politics. It is significant not only because this was the first time a development took place in any large city in India but also because this represents a blurring of boundaries between the civil society – characterized by its ‘apolitical’ nature, and the political society which has traditionally been the domain of the poor. As a graduate student at the time, I got an opportunity to study the rise the RWAs and their subsequent advent into formal politics in 2007. It was very interesting to find out ‘who’ within the array of neighborhood associations in the city decided to join politics. This year long research led to me discover that neighborhood associations with pre-existing networks with government agencies were more likely to remain apolitical and assume the traditional ‘watch-dog’ role of civil society. RWAs without these networks – either with the high bureaucracy or political representatives at the bottom, sought to become part of the government machinery through formal electoral channels. Going back to my first observation, although it might still be difficult to link the dynamics of local politics with turn-out rates in the national elections, these developments clearly point towards a more politically active middle class in the capital. And given the political emphasis on decentralization and local governance, we are likely to observe similar developments in other cities soon.

Poulomi Chakrabarti is a Consultant at Accountability Initiative

How effective is India’s Right to Information Act (RTI)?

Last week the Hindustan Times quoted a prominent Central Information Commissioner, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, warning the country that the government and the judiciary together pose a serious threat to the RTI. Gandhi argued that the government’s infrastructure – training, resources – for the implementation of the RTI is woefully inadequate. He also highlighted the role of the courts in weakening the Act. The judiciary has been granting stays on orders of the information commission – which he noted is a very dangerous trend.

Gandhi’s concerns resonate with some of the findings of a recently completed country-wide assessment of the RTI conducted by the Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group’s (RAAG). The study surveyed 27 information commissions to find that nearly 60% of the commissions reported inadequate infrastructure as their biggest problem. Inadequate staff and low budgets were the most commonly cited problems. Perhaps because of inadequate infrastructure, there is a wide variance in the speed and efficiency with which Information Commissions dispose of cases and some states (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh) have an estimated waiting period of over one and a half years!

The problem of poor infrastructure is not restricted to the ICs. 900 Public Information officers (PIOs) across rural and urban India were interviewed as part of this study. 60% of them reported never having received any basic training in the RTI. As a result there is a lot of confusion about the Act particularly about the kinds of information that ought to be made public. Another serious lacuna in the government’s infrastructure for the RTI is that of poor record maintenance. Across the system, no effort has been made to collect, analyze and store information in a manner that is accessible and relevant to the public – a fact that was made evident through interviews with heads of departments in all states. Poor record keeping results in delays in the provision of information and is often used as an excuse not to furnish information sought. Moreover, governments departments are not making any effort to disseminate information pro-actively. The study surveyed the extent to which government departments are complying with section 4 (proactive disclosure) to find that 70% of government departments report on less than 50% of the items specified in section 4 of the Act. Worse still of the information reported, most of it tends to be out of date and unusable.

There is some good news! Despite this poor infrastructure, people are getting information. The study team filed and tracked 500 RTI applications. Information was received in 55% of cases, and in 40% cases information was received on time. This experience is similar to that reported by applicants surveyed (over 2000 applicants were surveyed in the study) where 58% respondents reported receiving information and 50% said they received information on time.

This good news may be short-lived if steps are not taken urgently to address infrastructure weaknesses. But perhaps the greatest threat the RTI faces comes from the prevalent mind-set – one that runs deep through all our public institutions – that is fundamentally resistant to the idea of open government. The judiciary’s opposition to the RTI application seeking information on judge’s assets and the recent trend that Shaliesh Gandhi alludes to of courts issuing stays on IC orders points to this problem point to how this mind-set manifests itself. The obvious irony of the Courts, the key institutional mechanism for enforcing accountability of the executive and legislatures, refusing to hold itself up to legally set standards of accountability and transparency, has not escaped most commentators. Crucial for the future of the RTI is the urgent need to take steps towards initiating this mind-set change. Civil society needs to rise to this challenge.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director of Accountability Initiative, and Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

What effect do information campaigns have on the political behaviour of citizens and their representatives?

In a democracy, having cast their votes and investing their elected representative with the power to govern them, citizens have a right to know how they are being governed, and to demand detailed scrutiny of the process. In this sense, information about their government is something that citizens have a reason to value intrinsically. But access to information is also seen as being instrumental in improving the quality of democracy in many different ways.

For instance, one hypothesis that was at the heart of information campaigns preceding the recent parliamentary elections in India was that access to information about elected representatives enables citizens to make informed voting decisions, which in turn would mean better quality of representatives. An informed electorate would also mean that it is in the incentive of the representative to perform better in order to win back the votes. The media and the civil society organizations enthusiastically carried out many campaigns leading up to the elections, informing electorates about their representative’s performance, assets, criminal backgrounds, and so forth, in the hope that their voting decisions be based on information on substantive indicators rather than caste, religion or region.

Satark Nagarik Sanghathan (SNS) is one such organization. SNS works at the grassroots with the residents in some of the South Delhi slums, assisting them in their use of the RTI Act to improve access to public services. Also, like they had done for the MLA elections in late 2008, SNS ran an information campaign leading up to the recent MP elections. Employing the RTI Act, and other means, they accessed information about the performance of MPs along important indicators like the level and quality of participation in the Parliament and standing committees, and the manner in which they spent the discretionary constituency development funds that each MP is allocated. Using this information, they brought out MP Report Cards, which were publicized widely in collaboration with the mainstream newspapers. Focus Group Discussions and door-to-door campaigns were conducted in selected slums to disseminate this information to the citizens. This was in addition to the more sustained campaign and discussions in which SNS educates the citizens about the roles and responsibilities of Councillors, MLAs and MPs, so that citizens know what they are entitled to, what to expect of their elected representatives, and who to approach for what kind of grievance.

I was part of a team from Accountability Initiative, which had the opportunity to qualitatively study the effect of SNS’s information campaign on the citizens in the slums. We were interested in the effect on their ‘political behaviour’, which we defined in a broader sense than merely voting decisions. We were also interested in other forms of demand-making on political representatives that take place between elections, and perhaps more ambitiously on how the residents in the slums defined themselves in relation to their representative.

Over a period of one month, we spoke to the residents of five selected slums where SNS works. The study is still ongoing, and we are hoping to get some inputs from the elected representatives themselves, for a comparative perspective. Admittedly, changes in political behaviour of both citizens and elected representatives, happen over sustained periods of time, and are very difficult to measure. As we progress with the study, we will have more postings about it. But at this stage, there are a couple of interesting preliminary observations about collective action and leadership, which we can talk about.

First is observations related to ‘collective action’ for accountability. Who participates in the SNS meetings, and why? We found that the attendance in SNS meetings is predominantly by women, but this could be because the men are away at work during the day. Not all the women seem to retain what is discussed in the meetings, but they still turn up, some of them avidly. In many cases their motivation behind going to the meetings is the hope that SNS will help them access what they are personally entitled to, especially in cases where these entitlements are well defined – for example, ration cards, and SC cards and so forth. It would appear then, that collective action is more forthcoming when there is expectation of entitlements that are selective, tangible, and well defined.

A second observation is about leaders and change agents. We found that in most of the camps there were one or two women who were more engaged in SNS meetings than others. Women who had higher than average levels of education that their neighbours, and who came from less patriarchal family backgrounds are more likely to become resident activists of the organization. They also had significant spill-over effects on their immediate community, and were approached by others for discussing their grievances. Identifying and working with such change agents at the interface might be critical to any successful intervention of this sort.

Although it is early days, we observed that there is an incipient shift in the way these residents demanded services from the state. While traditionally, they worked through their pradhans, through strategies like appeasement or corruption, the information campaigns, and the Right to Information Act appear to have allowed people to start asserting their demands through the argument of rights and entitlements.

In our future posts we will have done more research to be able to talk about what effect the information campaigns had on the kind of demands made on the elected representatives, and if this has had any effect on how the representatives perceive the citizens.

Bala Posani is a Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative

Making good on promises: Union Budget 2009

On July 6th 2009, the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will conduct its first major business activity since coming in to power: present the annual budget. Much hope resides on this budget. The President’s address before the first session of Parliament laid out the UPA’s governance agenda for the next five years. Many promises of action are made in solemn speeches, but in most cases they are also quickly forgotten. The question to be asked of the budget is this: Will it live up to the promises made?

The President laid out 10 broad areas which the present government will focus on. Among the usual issues of security, social welfare, fiscal management, and infrastructure, the speech specifically mentioned the “consolidation of the existing flagship programmes for employment, education, health, rural infrastructure, urban renewal and introduction of new flagship programmes for food security and skill development” and “governance reform”. The two issues are interlinked. A lot of the problems that the flagship programmes suffered from during the tenure of the last UPA government had to do with failures in governance – basically the lack of a culture of accountability.

For instance, the curious case of unutilized funds. According to estimates, more than Rs.50,000 crores that were committed to these flagship programs in the previous government are lying unutilized. This amounts to a loss of 1% of GDP. How do we make sense of this? And do we know enough about how the money is being spent, and by who? Who do we hold accountable for this?

For one, it is virtually impossible to track many of the government expenditures in real time. In the present system, a large part of social sector expenditures are incurred through a mechanism known as Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS). Within CSS, funds from the central government are ‘off-budget’ i.e. they by-pass the state government treasury and go straight from the central government coffers to bank accounts of the specially created state implementation societies. Ironically, this procedure was put in place to get away from the red-tapism of the bureaucracy but it has created more problems than it has solved. Legally, state level societies cannot be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Instead, audits are undertaken by private auditors. These are neither regular nor uniform in their methodology and process. Worse, these reports are not easily available in the public domain making it impossible to track social sector funds.

In addition, one of the primary reasons why funds might be lying unutilized is that the implementation societies in the States can carry forward the allocated funds from one year to the next.

Governance reforms that address these aspects in strengthening transparency and accountability in public planning and expenditure processes are critical to making sure the desired outcomes from the flagship programs are attained. Of course the budget cannot do everything at the same time. After all it is only a statement of revenue and expenditure of the government. But seeing as the flagship programs will undoubtedly get more allocation in this year’s budget, it does present us with an opportunity to bring in new initiatives that would go a long way in improving accountability within the system. A revamped outcomes budget, and extending the mechanism of mandatory social audits in these schemes are some thoughts. The budget can also announce the setting up of an Independent Evaluation Office, and adequately fund this important body. These would be the first few steps towards “re-energizing government and improving governance”.

The President’s speech promised that this will be the case. But will it happen?

Dr. Anit Mukherjee is a Fellow at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi