'GRASP'ing the Zilla Parishad
This blog is part of a series on the rollout and progress of e-Governance in India.
If one individual has to be fervently thanked for initiating a national movement towards e-Governance, it must be Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. During his tenure, he ensured that the National Informatics Centre established an office in each district in the country. As Karnataka had established a strong rural decentralisation framework with the Zilla Parishads as the district level rural local government, the NIC office of the districts were not located in the offices of the Deputy Commissioners as done elsewhere, but were attached to the Zilla Parishad offices.
By the time I moved to the position of the Chief Secretary of the Zilla Parishad of Hassan District, Karnataka, Rajiv Gandhi was no longer Prime Minister. But his good work continued; all NIC offices in the districts were connected through satellite with the national office and the capability of data passing upward seamlessly was established – not that data passed that way, but in any case, one could not grudge that the infrastructure was not in place. The world-wide-web was in the future, for laypersons such as us, so the movement of data was still in the domain of the programmer, who all behaved as if they were apostles of God.
But that was not the case with Parasher.
Parasher was a young gentleman just out of college, and had the bounding enthusiasm of an individual who genuinely thought that all of the rest of his life would be like his college days. He was unsullied by government hierarchy and spoke out of turn in meetings – a trait I welcomed, even as I saw the acute discomfiture of those who thought that I must only receive filtered information. Since I was staying alone and the evenings were long and lonely, I spent plenty of time in the NIC centre with Parasher, learning the ropes of the latest in computerisation.
The NIC office was a quiet haven in the hubbub of my office complex. Like a temple, one left one’s shoes outside reverentially, and went into the sanctum sanctorum where a bunch of earnest programmers, under Parasher’s watchful eye, sent data and received instructions from their mysterious masters in Delhi.
In those days when the principle of separation of the budgets of the state and local governments were more strictly followed than today, the government issued an order every month, releasing the Zilla Parishad a one-twelfth installment of its annual budget. This single consolidated order released funds department wise, for each of the 20-odd departments that worked under the Zilla Parishad. My office sent the order manually to the local office of the treasury after the necessary authentication, following which the treasury operated the order and released funds to the departmental heads concerned at the district level.
However, there was a chronic problem that I had to face. The government system of budget taxonomy is a two stage one, with funds being allocated to ‘Major Heads’ of Account, which are then further sliced into ‘Minor Heads’. Thus, the Public Health Engineering Department receives funds for provisioning of drinking water supply under a Major Head, which is then sub-divided into Minor Head allocations, for piped water programmes, drilling of borewells, maintenance works, payment of electricity bills and suchlike. The government, in its release order, only allocated funds to the level of the Major Head. However, if in turn the Zilla Parishad released the funds on that basis alone to the departments, it faced the risk of the money being diverted within the Major head to some Minor heads alone, starving other Minor heads of sufficient money. This occurred usually due to bad planning, but corruption, which drove officers to spend more money on purchases while neglecting maintenance was not ruled out. I therefore needed to put in place a system that would automatically divide the Major Head-wise allocations made by the government to the Zilla Parishad, proportionately to the Minor Head level. Communicating this order to the Treasury would ensure that the Departmental heads could not divert money from one Minor Head to another, thus sabotaging the Zilla Parishad’s implementation plans and leaving it with piles of useless inventories.
It was kids play for Parasher to design and implement a system that would do this. As soon as we received the monthly release order from the government, in a few hours the data was digitised and an automatic release order subdividing the allocations to the level of the Minor Heads was issued to the treasury. Parasher did not stop there; he designed a system by which expenditure vouchers lodged in the treasury by the implementing departments concerned could be tracked, so that we had an idea of who was spending how much, when and for what.
We called our system GRASP – Grant Release and Accounting Software Programme. Over two years, GRASP was able to introduce a level of budget discipline in the departments that executed the plans and projects of the Zilla Parishad. There was resistance as departmental officers lost the flexibility to play around with the money released under a Major Head in the past, as they could not divert money from one Minor to another Minor head now. But in the long term, they saw the sense in budget discipline, as their programmes did not stop and stutter for a surfeit of money locked into useless inventories, while they starved for it elsewhere.
Parasher did not stay long in the NIC. Within a few years, he joined a major software firm; one that would make waves over the next few decades. He is probably driving a Ferrari in sunny California, as we speak. That was another lesson I learnt with e-Governance. The champions of e-Governance have already moved on, even before the systems they develop are entrenched in government processes.