Rasha Omar, country director of International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), India discusses how E-Gram, a digital initiative launched by PM Modi, will strengthen the governance and credibility of local government institutions.
How do you see India′s E-Gram portal, the initiative to connect its village-level governance, playing out for the economy?
Since 1993, when the 73rd Constitutional Amendment devolved political and economic power to local bodies, gram panchayats have increasingly acted as instruments for local social and economic development in India. Through the Gram Sabha, all members of a village have been able to participate in articulating local development aspirations. In my view, the mission of eGramSwaraj - to bring in more transparency in panchayat accounts, assist decentralised planning and improve reporting - will strengthen the governance and credibility of local government institutions vis a vis the citizens. Such increased transparency will also strengthen the accountability of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) to their citizens. I also learned that the Swamitva scheme, which underpins the E-Gram portal, helps to map rural inhabited lands using drones and the latest survey methods. The scheme will ensure streamlined planning, revenue collection and provide clarity over property rights in rural areas. Such land use information is extremely useful to guide agricultural and rural investments for sustainable livelihoods and the use of natural resources. For example, data about land types and land use is used to plan the investments in soil and water conservation, as well as the intensification and diversification of agriculture. As part of the IFAD-supported in Jharkhand, the Jharkhand Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Project (JTELP), crop intensity increased from 75% to 117% over the past two years. Agricultural incomes also doubled thanks to higher yields and diversification of crops. Diet diversity also improved.
Do you see knock-on effects on the country′s rural development through such connectivity?
In order for connectivity to drive rural development, I think that the E-Gram portal should have key data that can help mobilize public and private investment in the gram panchayat. For example, in the context of the JTELP (which I mentioned earlier) and another IFAD-assisted project, the Odisha Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Empowerment and Livelihoods Improvement Programme (OPELIP), the gram sabha developed resource and livelihood development plans supported by digital resource maps. The plan has a list of activities prioritised every year. Requests are submitted to government authorities for funding under various schemes. The portal can, therefore, track expenditures against such plans, and share digital maps of the geo-referenced public investments.
Are there best practices on rural connectivity from around the world that India could learn from; and similarly, are there other countries that could benefit from a similar portal?
India is among the most decentralised countries in the world and many countries want to emulate the PRI model of India. The E-Gram is unique as it can grow into an instrument that facilitates data-driven investments at the local level and ensure greater transparency and accountability of local bodies vis-a-vis their citizens. The portal would, therefore, be extremely helpful to guide local development and can be adapted to different country contexts based on the lowest decentralised administrative level. Many developing countries have scarce public resources and an instrument like E-Gram can allow them to allocate scarce funds based on performance and need, which would be extremely valuable for the local economic and social development of the country.
Do you see such e-platforms encourage greater transparency and accountability?
Yes, I believe so. Making information accessible to citizens also makes institutions more accountable, and we've seen that across India. However, two issues would need to be addressed. First, there is low computer literacy among some of the most vulnerable populations in these villages. They may not own smartphones or the devices that would enable them to access the information. So, this initiative must be accompanied by an effort to bridge the digital divide, as well. Second, the data that needs to be collected and fed into the portal may be too demanding. The data requirements should be carefully assessed and the data collection process should not be process intensive. The Gram Panchayat will also need sufficient human resources to enable these activities.
How can such an initiative be harnessed in times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic?
At IFAD, throughout this crisis, we have seen community-level organizations become front line actors to respond to local needs and support local government in organising the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by raising awareness in their community about protective and preventive measures against the disease, or by providing food and shelter to returning migrants and vulnerable populations. They have also directed their activities to make and distribute masks, essential items, etc. Going forward, the Gram Panchayat will require support in facilitating the recovery of livelihoods in their communities. For this, they will need to harness the potential of self-help groups, farmer producer organisations, and enterprises, and ensure that they are effectively benefitting from the government's relief and stimulus packages.
India is among the most decentralised countries in the world and many countries want to emulate the PRI model of India.
What are some other innovative financial measures that must be looked at for the rural areas of a country like India?
Two additional sources of financing can be considered. First, CSR funds and NGO programmes could be tapped to improve service delivery, internal efficiency and enable capacity building of local representatives and officials. Second, loan financing for private investments and the government's economic stimulus package presents an excellent opportunity. A scheme like Swamitva would be very useful to channel the resources where they are needed.
Rasha Omar is Country Director, IFAD India. *Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.