NIHALI IS 82 YEARS OLD. With her hunchback, she has been forced for five months to run from one government office to another in Sonipat, Haryana, about 60 km from Delhi. A pensioner for 20 years, she was suddenly stopped by her bank from making a cash withdrawal. Her name in the bank records does not match her name on the Aadhaar card, on which it is spelt ‘Nahli’.
The error forced her to beg for food in the village. “Her two sons are dead already and the grandchildren do not care about her. Without her little money she is miserable,” says a relative.
Someone in the village asked them to visit the newly opened Antyodaya Saral Kendra near the deputy commissioner’s office. In the last few months, these centres in Haryana have radically changed the nature of the government’s interface with citizens. There are 100 kendras functional now in 22 districts of the state and have received close to 10 million applications from people who want to avail of government services and schemes.
The Saral Kendras, which became fully functional in December, provide a single-window solution for 556 schemes in the state, across 36 departments. “Haryana residents can now apply for any government scheme and get its benefits in a stipulated time and track the progress of their application at every step,” says Gaurav Goel, founder of Samagra, an organisation which has helped the Haryana government put this public service in place.
For most Indians, negotiating their way through bureaucratic labyrinth remains a nightmare. There is very little awareness, especially among the poor, of various schemes the government may have set up for them. But even knowledge of these can translate into nothing. Often, government schemes cut across several departments, making it more difficult for people to traverse the maze. At several steps, as the ‘file’ moves, they may be asked for a bribe. Many depend on touts or agents who get their work done after taking a cut.
Saral promises to remove all these bottlenecks.
The ground work on implementing the Saral platform began sometime in mid-2017, say senior Haryana government officials. “We had a simple brief from the Chief Minister [Manohar Lal Khattar] that everything has to be on a computer,” says Rakesh Gupta, a bureaucrat in the Chief Minister’s Office who looks after this project. To streamline processes, the responsibility was given to the Digital Haryana Cell.
As the team started to look at the functioning of various departments, it realised they were at different levels of technological sophistication. Thirteen were totally offline. Some accepted online applications, but the rest of the process was offline. “The first challenge was to know how many schemes even existed across departments,” says Goel.
The poor remain unaware of government schemes. They may even be asked for a bribe to get what they deserve. Saral promises to remove such bottlenecks
Several attempts were made earlier to make such a platform run. But these failed, restricting such technology to only two or three departments. The team realised that for such a platform to work, all departments must have a sense of ownership of it. “Otherwise, whenever a problem arose, departments would have said, ‘Vendor se poochho’ (Ask the vendor), and washed their hands off the project,” says Goel. The team decided not to do away with legacy systems and retain whatever technology systems departments had already put in place. “Normally what happens is that when a new thing starts, old things are rejected and thrown away. We did not want to do that,” says Gupta.
But how does one integrate existing department technology with a common technology platform? It is then that the team came across the ‘Service Plus’ software created by the National Informatics Centre (NIC). The team realised this platform could incorporate other platforms, and with some tweaks every department could be integrated with it. A team was put together with 20 members from the NIC, Haryana, and 10 people were brought onboard from the Service Plus team. Then every department was asked to loan two-three technology experts to create a 130-member strong team. It is this team that has created the entire Saral infrastructure.
A Saral Kendra is like a VFS centre that manages administrative work for diplomatic missions. At the entrance, a person is given a token and is made to wait for his or her turn in a designated area. Once the token number is called, the person goes to a window where a trained operator, drawn from various government departments, completes all formalities. In case the operators face any technical difficulty or are not aware of any component of a scheme, they can seek immediate help on WhatsApp groups connected to experts. “All top officials are on this group and sometimes we have experts offering solutions late in the night as well,” says Deepak Bansal, head of the technical team in Haryana. A Saral Kendra itself is tracked on 70 parameters, ranging from availability of air-conditioning to availability of runners to ferry files to departments for processing. “Imagine a man coming here and the clerk not even looking at him. And then he goes to the Saral Kendra where he is offered cold water,” says a senior official in the labour department.
At the Sonipat centre, 32-year-old Rajbala came with her father to apply for a widow allowance scheme meant for families below the poverty line. Her husband died the previous year of a heart attack. “In his absence, I have been dependent on my father for financial support—till someone in the village told me about this scheme and asked me to go to the Saral Kendra,” she says. Her application has been received and soon, says Sonam, the operator who handled her case, she will begin to receive benefits.
On the other window, Aakash came to apply for the CM Vivah Shagun Yojana where girls belonging to Scheduled and Backward castes receive a one-time stipend ranging from Rs 11,000 to Rs 51,000 to meet their marriage expenses. In February-July 2018, the Saral Kendras received only 42 applications for this scheme. In the last six months, because of awareness, the number of applications has increased to over 21,000. Similarly, applications for a scheme to start mini dairy units has increased to over 19,000, as compared to over 2,400 received in six months prior to that. For ration cards the number of applications has increased to over 200,000 from 40,000. The Saral helpline receives about 15,000 calls per week now.
At the Sonipat Saral Kendra, Rajbala, 32, applied for widow allowance. At every stage, she will receive an SMS. She can also track the progress on the Saral dashboard
Once your application is accepted at a centre, you can track its progress online. At every stage you receive an SMS on your mobile phone. The Saral team has created a dashboard which is now accessible to general public as well. Here, anyone can see the performance of any department, like how many applications are pending. To make it easier for government officials to monitor progress, a mobile app has been created where they can check the dashboard in real time. “Earlier, citizens would come to my office and there would be long queues all the time. But now all of them apply online or go to Saral Kendras,” says Shweta Suhag, sub-divisional officer (SDO), Kharkhoda, Sonipat.
Based on their ability to process applications, every district and department is given a rating. It has created a healthy competition among departments and district officials to perform better and get better ratings. The social justice department, for example, receives 700,000 applications per year. “They have brought down their processing time down to two months from four in the last few weeks,” says Utkarsh Vijay, one of the managers of the project.
The progress of applications in each district is monitored by deputy commissioners (DCs) and department heads as well. For on-ground feedback, DCs depend on the Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates (CMGGAs), a team of young professionals hired for a limited time. One CMGGA is based in every district, where an eye is kept on the functioning of Saral Kendras and citizens are engaged. In Sonipat, CMGGA Kuvam Mehta came across a hassled man who was being misguided by a notary outside the DC’s office. The man had come for the registration of his vehicle and the notary acting as a tout told him the file had to be moved elsewhere, whereas he just needed to walk into a Saral Kendra. “He was asking for a bribe of Rs 2,000. I called him and warned him to desist from such activities,” says Mehta.
UNDER THE GOVERNMENT’S Saksham scheme, unemployed youth get Rs 3,000 a month, and if they are attached to some department, they get an extra Rs 6,000. Many of these youth have also been employed by the team to keep a watch for touts and agents who may be misleading people outside centres. “It has become an elaborate eyes-and-ears system,” says Vijay.
Senior government officials in the team say the real game- changer is the penetration of over 4,000 Citizen Service Centres across villages and small towns. These are run by small-time entrepreneurs authorised by the government. They charge a small fee to process every application.
There are a few problems here and there in the transition phase. A few months ago, on feedback from a few people during a public meeting, the state labour minister announced that no application in the department would be processed online. It is only after the Chief Minister intervened that the process is back. “We have achieved zero walk-ins for industrial services. But for individual services, those who have no idea still come to our office,” says Narinder Mann, who heads the IT section of the state’s labour department.
At one of the government offices in Chandigarh, a senior officer speaks of how Saral has forced them to change their ways of dealing with work. “It was easy for me to lie earlier if my boss asked me if I have cleared all the files pending on my table on a particular day. But I cannot do that now since he has access to the dashboard and can see how many applications are pending,” says the officer.
Other top officials say that drastic behavioural changes have been observed in government departments. “It is a train that everyone will get on to,” says Prashant Panwar, SDO, Sonipat.
On his part, Samagra’s Gaurav Goel is happy that it has all worked out. An IIT-IIM graduate, Goel had a stint with McKinsey before he decided to quit to understand how the wheels of the government worked. In six months, he travelled to 75 districts in 17 states and subsequently worked with a few Members of Parliament. “I realised that the levers of change at the MP level or the Centre’s level have limitations,” he says. Scalability could only be achieved at the state level. “The state is where the action is,” he says.
Team Saral now hopes that its model is picked up by other states and that it changes the perceptions of citizens across the country towards governance.