Feature: E-governance in Lakshadweep

Among the few places in India that I really wish to settle down in; Lakshadweep would be right on the top. A chain of 30 odd islands in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep is truly a coastal paradise. Cut off from modernity, it still retains some of the old world charm, though computers and IT are reaching the remotest islands. Hopefully, before modernity spoils this idyllic paradise, I just hope to hang my boots somewhere in Kavaratti or even Bitra.
Tiny Lakshadweep's Giant Strides

The smallest union territory of India is eagerly embracing ICT and changing the lives of its citizens for the better, thus, becoming a role model for its bigger cousins on the mainland.

Khadim Miyan seldom makes a promise, but in the rare cases that he does, he goes to any length to live up to his words. Thus, when Miyan promised his niece, Hidmat, that he would bring her gifts on Eid ul-Adha, or Bakri Eid, he knew it would be impractical but not impossible. After all, he could not take more than 3-4 leaves from his work at the local tourist cottage in Kalpeni and the journey to his sisters house in Minicoy takes over 14 hours by sea. But, more than the time spent in traveling, it was the time spent on arranging a ticket in one of the five ships that linked the dozen odd islands in Lakshadweep that bothered Khadim.

Seats are scarce, especially during festivals like Eid, and there is no guarantee that one could find a berth on these ships. It is simply a matter of too many passengers and too few ships. There have been cases that aspirants for a berth on these ships have lined up a few days in advance in the hope of finding a seat. Considering the situation he was in, Miyan decided to play it safe. He decided to check the availability of tickets on Lakport.nic.in and then plan his trip accordingly. In a matter of minutes, Miyan zeroed in on MV Bharat Seema and booked for self a ticket to Minicoy. Stepping out of the port office, all that Miyan was concerned about was which toy should he purchase for his seven-year-old niece. At least he was sure that this time too he had managed to keep his promise and he had to thank technology for it.

Like Miyan, there are thousands of people on Lakshadweep whose lives are changing for the better, thanks to the miracles of technology.

Located some 200-300 km off the coast of Kerala in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep is the smallest union territory of India. The total land area of the territory is some 32 sq km. In 1956, Lakshadweep was designated as a union territory and brought under the direct authority of the Center. As the ecosystem of the islands is pretty fragile and not supportive to heavy industrialization, the territory lagged the rest of the nation in terms of economic growth. In fact, it was an isolated paradise where quite a few travelers wanted to go, but only a few did.

Over the past many years, the government seems to have woken up to the potential of the island paradise as a top tourist destination. Located close to the "Gods own country", Kerala, Lakshadweep can be a big draw for people looking to be away from the madding crowd. This, in turn, has prompted much needed investment into physical infrastructure, thereby making the place attractive to visitors and tourists.

Bridging the remoteness
Fortunately, technology is a two-way sword and it always cuts both ways; so the very application of technology, namely, registration of seats on ships to and from Lakshadweep, has not only been a boon to tourists, but also to the local population like in the case of Miyan. Credit is due to a few individuals like the administrator of Lakshadweep, BV Selvaraj, and technical director and state information officer, NIC, Lakshadweep, Ajith Brahmanandan. Both have taken upon the cause of modernization and the result is robust and thriving ICT initiatives in the various islands. In fact, over the years, e-governance projects in Lakshadweep have received awards at different platforms in recognition of the path breaking efforts made by the smallest union territory.

"Technology needs to have a human face. ICT, for the sake of technological upgradation, is no good unless and until it raises the standard of living of people. In Lakshadweep, all the projects that we have completed or are working on, have a very strong focus on making life easier for the citizen," says Brahmanandan.

Slew of innovative projects
Indeed this human focus has been the hallmark of all e-governance projects carried out in the union territory. Unlike other places in India, Lakshadweep has very unique problems and pain points. Thus the solutions that have worked well in the hinterland are not necessarily the best solution for it. Take the case of ship reservation itself, the 5 or so passenger ships connect the 11 inhabited islands. The total population of Lakshadweep is in the range of some 65,000 people. The population is also spread very unevenly, for instance the capital Kavaratti and Androth islands have a population of over 10,000, while Bitra has a mere 250 odd people living on it. From this problem came the genesis of the reservation system.

Similarly, employment is a big issue in Lakshadweep. As there isn’t much industrialization, there is a high level of unemployment amongst the youth. For these people the only hope is the employment exchange, and close to 20% of the population has registered themselves with the bureau. In not so distant past, people had to travel to Kavaratti employment exchange for registering and other facilities. Keeping in mind the geographic spread and inadequate transport facilities, it would anything between 8 days during normal season and around 15 days in monsoon for the job aspirant to travel to Kavaratti and back to his island.

To cut down on this unnecessary travel and trouble caused to the islanders, the administration of Lakshadweep and National Informatics Center put together "total digitization of employment services". Under this, all the data relating to some 15,000 registrants was digitized and re-codified, virtual employment exchanges were opened up in all the islands and the same were connected through the bandwidth provided by NICNET and BSNL. The project, launched in 2007, has been a roaring success with hundreds of job aspirants registering themselves in the new employment exchanges that have been set up on their islands.

"Additionally, the process has become transparent and free from any kind of manipulation that could have been easily done in the past. It has also touched the lives of many people as they no longer have to spend money or their valuable time just for mundane registration process. But, according to me, the biggest benefit has been the spread of awareness of the benefits of ICT among the poor and the uneducated people who live in far flung and isolated islands," adds Brahmanandan with a touch of pride.

The project was recently bestowed with the Manthan Award, and, accepting the same, Selvaraj said, "The administration, along with all the political representatives, namely, members of Parliament, and members of the District and Village (Dweep) Panchayats, has been working toward effective administrative reforms through aggressive e-governance. We are going to have a basket of e-governance projects and compete for the best e-administered State/UT of the country shortly."

Another project that has received a lot of applause has been the Web-enabling of the Lakshadweep electricity department (read Selvarajs column for more on that). Lakshadweep also has the unique distinction of being the first union territory/state in the whole country to have universal electricity. And due to the efficient materials management and transportation of fuel and effective maintenance of power houses there has been no instance of load shedding in the past year.

Not only that, the administration has also refurbished the Lakshadweep (lakshadweep.nic.in) Web portal, providing vital information about the islands and also giving a link to over 20 different administrative departments. The portal also has links for citizen charter and even an online photo gallery that showcases the beauty and serenity of the island paradise. Little wonder, the portal is referred to as the ‘electronic window’ to the union territory.

Future beckons
Going ahead, Lakshadweep has decided to implement a state level SWAN Implementation Committee that will formulate the technology to be adopted and various other aspects of the implementation of state wide area network. As of now, the SWAN project is in proposal stage and the implementation committee will aid in faster completion of project, the deadline for which is September 2008. The members of the committee have been derived from NIC, BSNL and ISRO and the project will be funded by the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and jointly implemented by NIC and the IT society of the Administration

Additionally Selvaraj is also keen on improving the Web connectivity in the different islands. In this regard, he has asked BSNL to augment the bandwidth of the BSNL satellite earth station, Kavaratti to 16 Mbps from the present 8 Mbps immediately. Once the SWAN is in place, a slew of e-governance applications, like digitizing of land records or payments of taxes, etc. would be rolled according to officials.

Through all this, Selvaraj also emphasizes the need for structural reforms. “Technology is important, but e-government projects by themselves will not bear fruits unless they are coupled and integrated with structural reforms,” he says. He has also appointed a committee on administrative reforms that harmonizes the functioning of different departments and looks at bringing in transparency.

With these and many other Lakshadweep is finally coming out of the isolation that geography has bestowed on it. Like any other place in the country, mobile phones have also made a huge impact in the lives of the islanders. In was in 2003, when BSNL had launched it services in Kavaratti and today there are more than 10,000 mobile subscribers in Lakshadweep. In fact private operators are also on the anvil and Airtel supposedly does provide connectivity on Kavaratti.

Little wonder, people like Miyan no longer feel left out in the race to modernization, and there lives have been enriched in ways they would have scarcely believed. Using the portnet online system, Miyan was not only able to visit his niece on distant Minicoy but also ensure that he did not waste any time in the process and was back to his job on the promised day. He is quite happy, that he was able to live up to his word and has ICT to thank for it. The best part is that stories like Miyan are no more mere anomalies or exceptions but are steadily becoming the norm. And by this benchmark alone, tiny Lakshadweep has made giant strides towards a better and wholesome future. Something its larger cousin states on the mainland could take a few pointers on.

Shashwat DC

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