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Issue of August 2005 
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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 segment—the 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. Today’s local language software applications are silently but swiftly bringing about a revolutionary change in the least likely place—the government.

NIC’s Solution

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 & accountable—more 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 government’s 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 format.

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.

Devnagari Script

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 registrar’s 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.

Teething Problems

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 CDAC’s ISM Office.

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.

Why Linux?

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.

Price-Conscious

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 better configurations.

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.

MSEB Story

The Maharashtra State Electricity Board’s (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 Result

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 decision making.

Kumar Dawada can be reached at kumard@networkmagazine.com

 
     
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