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Digital mapping of rural India, courtesy rural development ministry

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-08-2017 Osama Manzar

Rural India always crops up in my discussions, not because it’s home to one of the largest populations in the world but because it has the most informationally isolated people globally.

Since we work in rural India, offering information and access to services, I was recently examining digital interventions carried out by the ministry of rural development (MoRD). Though I am often critical of the government’s inefficient implementation, I believe that their digital policies are in place to minimize the lag time in our development cycle.

My desire to explore digital interventions was based on a recent meeting called by the ministry to discuss with civil society organizations how the former could make 50,000 of India’s 250,000 panchayats self-reliant by 2019. At this meeting, some encouraging and trailblazing ideas were proposed to the MoRD secretary Amarjeet Sinha. What surprised me the most was when the secretary discussed a list—supported by documented proof—of initiatives taken by MoRD to map the work and progress of its projects and programmes using digital tools and technology, especially smartphones and geo-tags. 

To further understand the scale and vastness of the MoRD programmes and to verify its claims of digital interventions, I scanned their website (www.rural.nic.in) and several portfolios listed on their dashboard and mandate—Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Gramin (PMAYG), Aajeevika-Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY), and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDUGKY). With more than 65% people living in the hinterland, rural India is largely dependent on budgets sanctioned and allocated for MoRD. In the 2017 Union budget, this amounts to Rs1.08 trillion. This population that depends on central and state budgets is largely not connected to the internet though it is significantly mobile-enabled. But, in the last two years, MoRD has taken some steps to leverage digital tools for effective management of work under its departments.

One particular example that impressed me was that 800,000 families, with disabled members in their households and no breadwinner, have been identified and geo-tagged under the PMAYG to avoid duplication of addresses. PMAYG, earlier used to known as Indira Awaas Yojana, is a scheme under which government has a commitment to provide “Housing for All” by 2022. The budget allocation for each house of about 25 square metre varies between Rs70,000 to Rs1.3 lakh depending on whether the house is in the plains or in a hilly and difficult region. The tagging does not only document the delivery of entitlements but also captures the progress of construction work of the house with photos at regular stages of construction. According to MoRD, there are more than 3.5 lakh people working at the village level under various programmes of MoRD, who may have their own smartphones or have been given smartphones by the government, who are trained in data collection. These foot soldiers, who upload the information, get an additional income of Rs20 per entry, MoRD claims. There is also a proper monitoring mechanism in place to find eligible beneficiaries for the scheme, register beneficiaries on the portal and link their bank accounts. “Beneficiaries are no longer being picked by the village head but are picked from the socioeconomic caste census list,” Sinha said.

According to members at the ministry, “It used to take three years to complete the construction of a house earlier but now clear guidelines have been given to Gram Rozgar Sevaks to complete construction within six months to earn incentives of Rs300 per house.” They claimed that since November 2016, 55,000 houses have been completed and geo-tagged, and 51 lakh more houses will be added to the list by the end of 2017.

During the 100 days of work under MGNREGA, job seekers begin and complete construction of various assets, such as buildings, wells, roads, etc. Tracking their progress is a massive task, given the high number of development projects underway in the country and the number of people involved in building them. To make this process simpler and to remotely track the progress, MoRD has geo-tagged 15 million assets on NREGAsoft management information system (MIS) so far.

NREGAsoft is a custom-made application that, besides allowing the government to tag and track progress, provides information to citizens in compliance with the Right to Information (RTI) Act and makes available various documents—like muster rolls, registration applications and job cards, among others—which are unavailable to the public otherwise. 

To support his claims, Sinha opened the department website for MGRENGA and took us to West Champaran, Bihar, where 15,753 assets have been geo-tagged so far. This data includes entries for everything—from roads and ponds to plantation and toilets—that has been built under MGNREGA from 2006 until now, complete with geo-locations, photographs, starting dates of construction, dates of completion and cost, among other details. This information, too, has been captured by paid foot soldiers working at the village level. “Soon attendance, too, will be updated via mobile phones,” the secretary promises.

In both the cases, these government employees are given incentives per entry, over and above their salaries, to feed data into an app called GeoMGNREGA. This is enabling people working at the village level—such as panchayat members, front line health workers, school teachers, self-help groups—who have been trained to carry out surveys and transactions on their devices, to crowd-source information with a bottom-up approach and leverage digital tools to bring in efficiency in their roles and responsibilities. Further, it is also creating a cadre of digitally literate and digitally functional individuals at the village level who can help make their villages self-reliant. So imagine, if all government projects and programmes can be digitally mapped and tracked with the help of foot soldiers, how many digitally literate individuals and jobs rural India can produce?

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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