Hamstrung by the shortage of staff, lack of budgetary support, declining public patronage and stiff competition from other e-governance services, the network of Friends Janasevana Kendras is struggling to stay afloat, even as the government remains indecisive on the recommendation of an Assembly committee to phase out the citizen service centres.
Started in 2000 as a service delivery platform to accept payment of various utility bills and taxes, the Friends (Fast Reliable Instant Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services) network was extended to all district headquarters by 2001.
By 2006-07, the Friends outlets together registered a high of 40.28 lakh transactions. But since then, the number has come down to touch 20.69 lakh transactions in the year 2013- 14.
The subject committee of the Assembly on industry has reported that the competition from Akshaya centres and e-governance platforms such as e-District and State Service Delivery Gateway was responsible for the drop in footfalls.
The wider reach of the Akshaya network and the facility to pay taxes and bills through the e-payment gateway of several departments had offset the free service advantage of Friends. The Assembly committee reported that Friends centres incurred an expenditure of Rs.50 on each bill transaction. The outlets had to shell out more than Rs.50 lakh for hardware maintenance, system administration and consumables. With the decision to stop the free supply of electricity and water, the Friends network became increasingly dependent on government funds. Staff deployment at Friends centres has come down to an average of 30 per cent of the sanctioned strength. Several departments have either stopped or cut down on deputation of staff to Friends centres.
In December 2015, the Motor Vehicles Department wound up its services at friends and redeployed officials to the fast track counters at RTO offices to handle its own online services.
Left with only a token provision in the budget, the Friends network had to depend on a special assistance by the Cabinet to prop it up. “It is only a matter of time before the government decides to wind up the project that has outlived its purpose,” says an official.