Computing for the masses
The desi side of computing
Lack of English language skills, until recently, had left
a talented workforce out of the IT revolution, says Kumar Dawada
A digital divide exists between Indians who know English and those who do not.
People educated in the vernacular medium had been hitherto left out of the computing
revolution. The biggest losers were the government and NGOs (non-government
organisations). The IT revolution left rural India and non-English users untouched.
Initially, local language computing was obsessed with the wrong segmentthe
DTP market. Then they realised that the really important applications were not
DTP but the software revolving around front-end and back-end systems. Once the
focus shifted to developing front-end and back-end solutions in local languages,
technological revolution was bound to happen. Todays local language software
applications are silently but swiftly bringing about a revolutionary change
in the least likely placethe government.
The e-governance projects of the Maharashtra Government are all set to transform
its bureaucracy into a 21st century e-government. It will literally connect
every minister, every agency head, every supervisor and even field workers to
ensure that the government is more efficient & accountablemore on
the lines of a MNC.
Moiz Hussain, State Infomatics Officer of the Maharashtra State Unit NIC says
that the project are being carried out keeping in mind the governments
main objective of making it more transparent, more people-friendly, and bringing
it closer to the people. The idea was that both the government and people should
be able to access important data at the right place, time and in the required
A major success story in the field of regional language computing is the LRIS
(Land Records information System). It is a software developed by NIC, Pune,
for the Maharashtra government. It is used for computerisation of a village
form called Form No 7/12 which contains all relevant information about the land
in rural areas. In urban areas, an equivalent software called PCIS (Property
Cards Information System) is used. The computerised 7/12 or PR cards are then
issued to the public.
The District Connection
Computerisation sounds good in the cities but has it been implemented at the
district and taluka levels? Bharat Gandhi, a District Infomatics Associate at
the NIC Centre, Thane, narrated how the PCIS and LRIS as well as other regional
language software are actually implemented at the district and taluka level.
In the property card and the 7/12 form, data is entered in Marathi. The LRIS
application is quite complex and combines seven or eight different database
tables to provide the required information. Another regional language software,
Lokshahi Din, maintains information about all complaints received against various
government departments. It keeps the information and also generates reports
about how many cases have been resolved on each Lokshahi Din, which is held
in court premises on weekends. It is presided over by judges or prominent advocates.
The citizen facility centre (Setu-Sevatun Samadhan in Marathi) was established
at the district level. The interface is in the Devnagri script. The status of
about 27 different certificates given to the public at district level (including
age proof, domicile, nationality, income proof and caste certificates) are made
available on request.
Even now the operating system is in English. This is mainly because government
departments are familiar with computers ever since former Prime Minister Rajiv
Gandhi introduced them in government offices. Being well-versed in English,
government staff is more at ease with an English interface. It is only the front-end
or data entry interface which is required in Marathi or other regional languages.
At the district level, government offices including the registrars office,
the district court, the zilla parishad and RTO use Devnagri GIST Fonts or other
GIST products developed by C-DAC.
The government prefers to use Linux and OpenOffice as they are available for
free and are without licencing hassles.
The major problems faced while making the Indian language software was fine-tuning
the data fed from the front-end application to the back-end. Initially, data
entering in the front-end application was made in Visual Basic, but when it
was retrieved, what they got back was unusable.
This problem was solved by C-DAC. They used the ISCII (Indian Script Code for
Information Interchange) format that enables government departments to feed
data by using Indian scripts in the front-end and get back the same data after
it is stored in the back-end. The government departments use CDACs ISM
Old Is Gold
Bharat Gandhi is not in favour of frequent upgrades or state-of-the-art regional
language operating systems or application software. The government or even private
organisations cannot just rush into new updates even if it is a world famous
brand name in computing such as Windows XP or MS Office in regional languages.
The main reason is that computers in government departments have been around
for a long time, and new operating systems or applications are not compatible
with old computers.
The government has chosen Linux for security reasons. Very few government officers
are technical experts. Because Linux users in India are far few in number compared
to Windows users, Linux is more resistant to hacking. This makes data manipulation
more difficult. The government has already introduced biometric authentication
for fingerprint-based security.
The NIC trains government staff and gives technical support to all government
organisations. Based on the requirements of the government, it suggests the
client server configuration as well as other hardware to be purchased. The computers
are purchased in bulk for all districts by the state government, but if upgrades
are needed then suggestions are given by the NIC Tech support team. However,
the final decision is taken by the District Information Officer.
The client computers used at the district level are of HCL, Wipro, PCS, Rashi,
etc. They usually have the same configuration and price because the government
is very stringent as far as tenders are concerned, and insists on low-cost and
In the near future, the registration of the land will automatically update the
property card as well as 7/12 abstract. Testing is already in progress on a
pilot basis in two talukas. Currently, talukas have one server and two or three
clients, and their data comes in the form of CDs but soon it will start coming
regularly via optic fibre.
A minor problem currently faced is the lack of uniformity. For instance, a particular
crop is called Vari or Varai depending on the taluka, due to different dialects.
Different document formats result in the same information being processed differently.
The best solution is to have a uniform system of data entry.
The Maharashtra State Electricity Boards (MSEB) objectives are to speed
up and streamline its billing system, to improve staff efficiency, and create
a better communication system at E2E (Employee to Employee) level as well as
at the E2P (Employee to Public) level.
Samir Pandit, Consultant, Management Resource Centre at MSEB in Bandra, Mumbai,
says, The MSEB Web site is in English, Hindi and Marathi. Around 90 percent
of MSEB circulars are in Marathi. MSEB has been using computers for around
20 years, so our employees are conversant with computers. We have tie-ups with
Aptech and NIIT, and even the steno-typists at MSEB are given computer training
free of cost, he says.
MSEB is also in the process of coming up with SETS (Secure Electronic Tendering
System). The suppliers will be able to participate and submit their tenders
online. This will remove the need to actually go to the MSEB office just to
submit a tender to the concerned officer. Current innovations in MSEB, including
unmanned meter readings and meter billing, are implemented in the billing sections
of MSEB; its employees will no longer have to go to the building or factory
or shop premises and read meters manually.
The development of Indian language application software has helped in spreading
the use of IT in the country and brought computing to the masses. The biggest
beneficiaries of local language computing are government organisations and NGOs.
In actual terms, this translates to a more efficient, transparent and responsible
government whose activities can be double-checked by people. The government
itself can also keep a watch on errant staff. The challenge before the government
now is to apply the lessons of technological efficiency in all aspects of its
Kumar Dawada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org