In early 2018, Tolaram Kumhar, 73, suddenly stopped getting his pension of ₹750 per month. “I went to the bank after a while, but they didn’t have any answers. I didn’t know what to do until Baluji came,” he says, holding a creased booklet that documents the saga of his pension payments. Tolaram gestures to the man sharing the charpoy with him on a breezy October evening. “Baluji looked up information on his phone and found that I had been removed from the government’s pension list,” he says. Why? “Because they said I was dead.”
Tolaram, who wears a torn blue T-shirt and a dirty white dhoti, spends most of his days in a small hut located high above the fields and grazing grounds of Thana village in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan. The land looks lush, but excess rainfall in this typically water-starved region has destroyed the maize crop this year, leaving marginal farmers and agricultural workers like him on the brink of destitution and deeply dependent on the government’s pension scheme for basic sustenance.
It is people like Balulal Gujjar, popularly called Baluji, who have come to the rescue of people like Tolaram. Baluji is dressed in an intricately tied white dhoti, pleated white kurta-jacket, a silver neckband, and a red turban. He has been a social activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) for half of his 62 years. Now an elected ward member in Thana, Baluji with his faded pink jhola is a familiar sight to villagers for 30 km around.
Baluji carries a well-used Samsung smartphone in his pocket, through which he accesses the Jan Soochna (public information) porta l , which is the Rajasthan government’s latest effort to offer wider and easier access to the State’s increasingly digitised databases. The single window portal aims to increase transparency and accountability in governance. It has 82 different information request options for 32 schemes across 13 departments. It not only explains the schemes but also provides real-time information on beneficiaries, authorities in charge, progress, etc. Jan Soochna was launched with great fanfare by Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in Jaipur on September 13. Different elements of the portal have been on trial for more than two years, with gradual public access to databases being provided under the previous regime of BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
For example, in 2017, MKSS activists got access to a list of 10 lakh people across the State who had been excluded from the government’s pension scheme when the payment system switched from the post office to Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. Overnight, the number of pensioners dropped from 68 lakh to 58 lakh. According to the government, almost three lakh of the excluded names were dead, while another two lakh were fake or duplicates.
By painstakingly tracking down names from the list of the supposedly dead, activists like Baluji found that thousands of people like Tolaram had been wrongly excluded. “We sent in the papers to show he is alive, and finally they restarted his pension three months ago,” says Baluji. He navigates search queries and Excel sheets on his phone with a fluency that is enviable in a 62-year-old who has only studied till Class 8. “See, he got ₹8,000 worth of back pay, pensions unpaid for 11 months, on July 25, 2019,” Baluji points to the screen. Tolaram cannot read the information there, but nods vigorously with a gap-toothed smile. “Overall, I have helped people who were denied pensions get more than ₹80,000 worth of unpaid pensions,” says Baluji. In the neighbouring Bhim tehsil alone, more than 1,300 wrongly excluded names were added back to the pension scheme after a re-verification exercise. “It is only possible because we are able to see this information in detail,” Baluji says.
Digital Dialogues, the beginning
Over the last five years, Rajasthan has been digitising and integrating databases, including flagship social sector schemes, using Aadhaar-based verifications and payments. In 2017, the Department of Information Technology and Communication (DoITC) began to host ‘Digital Dialogues’. Bimonthly meetings were held with interested citizens including activists from MKSS and the wider collective of the Soochna Evam Rozgaar Adhikar Abhiyan, to discuss how to open access to such databases and present them for public use.
“Digital Dialogues was the real beginning of the Jan Soochna portal,” says R.K. Sharma, an additional director who oversees the project. Sharma joined the DoITC in 1988, the year it was formed, and can speak at length about the State’s efforts to use “technology for integrated service delivery” over the last three decades. “Through our discussions with citizens and activists, we developed this portal to share whatever real-time, individual-level data are needed by the common man, to reduce corruption and to increase transparency of governance.”
In the month since its official launch, the Jan Soochna portal (jansoochna.rajasthan.gov.in) has had 3.3 lakh visitors and almost 15 lakh information hits. Apart from this, there have been another 50,000 information hits from the Jan Soochna mobile app.
The portal provides information in Hindi and English on universal social security, health and education schemes as well as welfare schemes specifically aimed at farmers, construction workers, miners and students. Land revenue records, case listings, and grievance redressal databases are also available. While some categories, such as forest rights, have very limited data, some others have a lot of detail — on individual beneficiaries and specific details of payment, for instance.
“This is a much-needed step inspired by the spirit of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, which mandates governments to maintain computerised records and provide this information suo moto to the public, so that there is minimal need to file RTIs,” says Nikhil Dey, an MKSS activist who has been at the forefront of the RTI movement. A recent NGO study of orders by the Central Information Commission in 2018 found that 70% of the original RTI applications requested information which should have been put out in the public domain already. “You have made people go through so much pain for digitisation, getting multiple cards made, giving their biometric data... At least, let them get some benefits from it. Through Digital Dialogues, we argued that the public has a right to all the information the government collects about them. There should be no password-protected login barring access to these databases,” says Dey.
The role of facilitators
“It was activists like Baluji who gathered initial information on what data are most needed by marginalised villagers,” says Vineet Bhambhu, earlier a U.S.-bound software engineer and now a grassroots activist, who helped lead MKSS conversations with the DoITC for Digital Dialogues. “We found that people mostly needed data on their own entitlements: food, pensions, job guarantee, educational scholarships, labour welfare benefits, health insurance, treatment for occupational diseases such as silicosis, land rights, etc.,” he says. Bhambhu points out that many poor people had no way to track what happened if payments had been diverted to a different bank account or if forest rights applications had been rejected. In other words, they had no way of finding out what happened to payments if they could not access the databases and processes that form the backbone of a particular scheme or law.
Take the case of Sovani Devi. A 45-year-old widow in Bherukeda Amner village in Rajsamand district, lack of information cost her a flock of goats, a loss she could ill-afford. Sitting in her bare courtyard, Devi is flanked by her sons, both disabled. Ram Singh, 18, cannot use his legs and drags himself around on his knees, while his 16-year-old brother Kishore can neither hear nor speak.
“Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a tumour in my uterus and I went to the hospital because I had Bhamashah [health insurance],” says Devi. The Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital, a private hospital, is empanelled as part of the State’s cashless health insurance scheme, the Bhamashah Swasthya Bima Yojana, and should have treated a card-holder without payment. “But they said I would have to first pay for the operation and that I would get the money back only later,” Devi says, showing the folder from the hospital. which is located in Deogarh town, 40 km away.
Faced with a demand for ₹15,000 for the operation plus additional charges for medication, Devi saw no choice. “I used up all my savings. I went back home and sold 12 [out of 16] goats for ₹30,000 and used that to pay the hospital,” she says. Apart from the operation, Devi says she paid ₹8,600 for medicines, of which bills were provided for only ₹4,600. The rest of the money from the goat sale was soon gone too, in paying for food and travel, with a one-way trip to hospital by taxi costing ₹600.
After she recovered from the operation in June 2017, Devi made several visits to the hospital, but failed to recover her money. “I took all my papers, but they told me they have applied to the insurance company and nothing has come yet,” she says. “Only when Vineet bhai looked on his computer, he found that the hospital had already got the money.” Devi also says that after her operation, she put her fingerprint on a form that she could not read. Later she found out that the form falsely stated that she had not paid any money to the hospital as she was covered by the cashless insurance scheme. In March 2018, Bhambhu, armed with information from the Bhamashah database, accompanied Devi to the hospital and recovered ₹19,600.
“After that, my husband got cancer, so we had to use up the money for my husband’s treatment. He died last year,” Devi says, as her two remaining goats enter the courtyard along with her youngest child, 13-year-old Radha. “I never went to school, but my daughter has finished Class 8 and I want her to study till Class 12 at least. Without education, there is nothing,” she says.
Strength of unity
For unlettered villagers, the Jan Soochna portal is of little use without facilitators like Bhambhu and Baluji. However, in Gomaka Badia village in Thana panchayat, villagers have also discovered the strength of unity when armed with information. On a hot evening in May 2017, Baluji set up a projector in an open area in front of a small shop owned by Chun Singh, 67. Suddenly, the shopkeeper saw his own face flashing on the makeshift screen. “They had all the details about my ration card. For the first time, I found out that I was getting less foodgrain than I should have. There were five names on my card, so I was owed 25 kg of wheat every month, but I was only getting 10 kg,” he says, sitting on a steel drum in his shop.
The information obtained through Digital Dialogues showed that almost every family in the village was getting cheated by the local dealer, Paras. Outraged, a delegation of 22 villagers took their complaint to district authorities in Bhilwara. Following an investigation, the dealer was suspended and the 400-odd quintals he had swindled were distributed among the villagers.
“I got one bori [100 kg] of wheat. Now, we all know we must ask for the receipts every time we get ration,” says Singh. Although an FIR was filed against Paras, villagers say that his proximity to the local MLA means that no further action is likely.
“The Jan Soochna portal is not about simply getting information for information’s sake. It must be built into a wider ecosystem of accountability,” says Bhambhu. Over the last two weeks, he has been part of a social audit of a welfare scheme for construction workers. Using their access to the government’s database, teams visited workers across the Bhim tehsil of Rajsamand district, gathering complaints which were presented at a stormy jan sunvai, or public hearing, in Bhim town on Monday. Confronting the labour commissioner, senior police officials and the local MLA under a swaying tent, hundreds of workers testified to a corrupt nexus of agents and government officials swindling them. They said they had been denied thousands of rupees worth of benefits. “We did not know our rights. We had no other option, so we paid the agent, but he cheated us,” said Ambalal, a worker from Sameliya village in Rajsamand district.
No middleman, yes middleman
In the Bhim block office, adjacent to the public hearing sit two expensive kiosks branded as e-mitra plus machines, which are meant to cut out the corrupt middleman and provide services and information directly to the user. The sleek orange and grey machines, which also host the Jan Soochna portal, look like ATM machines and cost ₹2 lakh each. Nearly 15,000 have been installed across the State.
However, neither of the machines in Bhim works during the public hearing. One sits amidst coils of wires which have not been connected. The block’s informatics assistant Dalvir Khatik manages to switch on the other machine, but jerks his hand away as he gets an electric shock every time his finger meets the touch pad. Using a piece of paper as a makeshift protective glove, he manages to reach the Jan Soochna portal, but it fails to cough up any information. It gets stuck on a ‘loading’ page.
“There is not enough signal for the Internet to work properly,” Khatik says apologetically. “Imagine, if it is so bad in Bhim town, it’s much worse in the village panchayats. At least, with the urban machines, they can be connected to Wi-Fi even if the speed is slow. Rural machines must be connected to Rajnet [the State operator].” Data available with the government show that in one year, only 10 transactions have been made on this particular machine. Of the 14,440 machines installed across the State over a year ago, 914 have never been used.
Khatik adds that all 37 of the kiosks installed in Bhim block have private operators who act as middlemen anyway. “There is no incentive for the operator to even login to the machine in many areas, because he can charge more for the same services without using it,” he says. DoITC data show that the kiosks are used more frequently in urban areas mostly to print out digitally signed certificates and pay for phone and electricity bills. The Jan Soochna portal itself has been accessed only 16,000 times on these machines over the last month.
Although the Jan Soochna portal was launched with much publicity, information about it is still to reach many people in Rajasthan. “No one outside our office has heard the name of this Jan Soochna. But it is a new scheme, it will take some time to become popular,” explains Khatik.
In the villages of Rajsamand and Bhilwara district, there is no visible publicity regarding the portal as yet. Even villagers who have personally benefited from the expanded database access are yet to hear the term Jan Soochna.
“We have put out advertisements in papers and are planning awareness programmes. So far, the entire expenditure on Jan Soochna has come from our own internal budget, but the DoITC has now proposed a budget of ₹5 crore over the next five years to maintain the software and popularise the portal,” says Sharma. He sees the Jan Soochna initiative as the next step of the government’s integrated service delivery efforts, a natural evolution of its franchisee-based e-mitras or service centres. He argues that e-mitras are the ideal facilitators for the Jan Soochna portal.
According to the MKSS activists who helped evolve the concept of Jan Soochna, e-mitra operators are often part of the problem, acting as middlemen who have a vested interest in blocking access to information. “We see Jan Soochna as a natural evolution of the RTI movement. This information is meant to back up an accountability and grievance redressal framework, and as such needs government-run information and facilitation centres,” says Dey.
MKSS wants training on Jan Soochna usage to be imparted to front-line government workers at anganwadis and panchayats as well as grassroots social workers. Local databases need to be made visible offline as well, says Dey. “Specific data on ration beneficiaries should be painted on the walls of the ration shop itself, so it can be seen even by those who cannot go online,” he says.
The DoITC is also seriously considering an MKSS suggestion that printouts of information from the Jan Soochna portal should automatically come with a digital signature, giving them the same legal validity as RTI responses.
At the Jan Soochna launch, the Chief Minister gave a big boost to the point of view that the portal is part of a wider RTI framework rather than a mere service delivery, reminiscing about his engagement with the early RTI movement. “About two decades ago, I reached the sit-in protest organised by social worker Aruna Roy and her companions demanding RTI. I agreed to their demands. Then, fortunately, we formed the government and Rajasthan became the first State of Indian to initiate for this law,” he said.
As the Rajasthan experiment evolves, other States are already making plans to follow suit and are thus closely watching these debates. Just five days after the launch of Jan Soochna, the Karnataka government directed all departments with beneficiary schemes to begin sharing datasets in preparation for the launch of a similar portal. The real success of the story will depend on how well the Rajasthan government can help empower the marginalised with the biggest tool at its disposal: information.