Amid COVID, Here’s How Citizen-Govt Gap Was Bridged Via Technology
“Amid COVID, a paradox emerged: visiting govt offices — a lifeline for many — could also expose us to the virus.”
The Quint DAILY
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On a cold afternoon in February 2020, Mr Fayaz Malik, a complainant, walked into my crowded office, a large room tucked inside an old building in Anantnag. He had come to meet me regarding his family dispute. In the eleven months since that meeting I have interacted with Mr Malik three more times, through WhatsApp video calls. Since the reporting of the first cases of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, life changed for millions of complainants like him all over the country.
This disruption in human contact, especially during the lockdown period, hastened the use of technology in governance at an unprecedented scale.
Back when walking into police stations and government offices was already difficult for the disadvantaged sections of our society, social distancing compulsions resulting from the pandemic took these offices further away from the citizens.
Easy access to institutions of governance is essential for good governance and citizen-centric service.
Rise In Number Of People Approaching Govt Institutions Via Digital Means
A highly effective shift to digital had already taken place in the financial sector much before the COVID-19 pandemic. Till 2010, long queues of migrant workers could be seen in post offices waiting to book their money orders. Having worked in postal department during that period, I was witness to much misery that people had to go through when a money order couldn’t get delivered at the right time.
With the shift to electronic banking, the queues for money orders have grown shorter in post offices. Sending money back home is no longer the hassle it used to be.
It is indeed odd however, that in an age of such dramatic changes in the financial sector catalysed by technology, the shift has not been as fast in grievance redressal, that is, in adopting technology for enhanced public interaction.
Over the past 11 months, there has been a rapid rise in the number of people approaching government institutions through digital platforms. The problem of efficiency, effectiveness and how to make a more responsive grievance redressal is an obvious priority for the officers on ground. Notable innovations have been made, and they indicate a more holistic version of governance.
How District-Level Officers Are Making Their Officer More Approachable For Citizens
In October 2020, amid the pandemic, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir started an innovative programme of public grievance redressal titled ‘LG Mulaqat’. This programme, to be held every month, will use video conferencing and an online grievance registration mechanism. The entire administration including the Lieutenant Governor, senior officers and all district level functionaries will be able to connect digitally.
The complainants whose grievances are found pending are now presented with an opportunity to state their cases from their home district headquarters directly to the LG and officers responsible. This programme, which gives an opportunity to citizens from all districts of the UT to interact directly with the LG, has been well-received. There has been considerable increase in the number of grievances registered as well as the disposal of cases.
There are a few examples of digital innovations brought in by district-level officers to make their offices more approachable for citizens.
In Prakasam, district of Andhra Pradesh, the Superintendent of Police Mr Sidharth Kaushal started the weekly grievance redressal programme by connecting all 80 police stations of the district through video conferencing.
In a district whose geographical area is more than twice of Sikkim, people had to travel 100s of kilometres to meet the SP for their grievances. After the introduction of this programme, citizens can connect with the SP from their respective police stations. Similar initiatives have been taken by officers in Sheohar, Bihar and Tiruvenveli, Tamil Nadu.
What Good Governance Rests On
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted our ways of physical interaction but it could not stop crimes, quarrels, property disputes, accidents, deaths and sufferings from other diseases, accumulating debts and pending EMIs. People’s problems did not cease to exist with the onset of the pandemic. If anything, all sorts of problems increased and the avenues to report them shrank further, resulting in a bewildering paradox: visiting government offices — which serve as a lifeline for many — became a possible exposure threat to COVID.
Good governance thrives on sustained redressal of citizens’ grievances, but the pandemic has necessitated that these mechanisms be taken online.
The ‘Digital India’ programme launched with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy has included ‘Digital Empowerment of Citizens’ through collaborative digital platforms for participative governance.
Individual innovations ushered in during the pandemic need to be refined, and a country-wide mechanism for online face-to-face access to government officers using technology can be a major step in the digital empowerment of a citizen. Hopefully, when the vaccine helps us control the virus and get back to regular life, this year will be counted as our greatest wake-up call.
(The author is SSP, Anantnag, Jammu & Kashmir. He tweets @Sandeep_IPS_JKP. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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