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Hi-tech solutions for India's job guarantee scheme

11 November 2009

Vidya Viswanathan

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The impoverished state of Bihar in India will soon introduce e-muster rolls, biometric smart cards and an online system for effective and transparent implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. A non-profit technology entity called Life Line to Communities is providing technical assistance.

NGOs monitoring the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) have been complaining about fake job cards, muster rolls and payments. Now cutting-edge technology is coming to the employment guarantee scheme’s rescue.

Biometric NREGA.jpg
Image credits: Manthan Award/ Bio-metric tracking of payments under NREGA

Picture this: e-muster rolls, biometric smart cards and an efficient online system which creates an audit trail of all transactions. The state which is taking the lead in making NREGA hi-tech is Bihar.

Shortly, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s government is going to roll out a pilot programme in one panchayat in the Phulwari Sherif district of Bihar.

"Attendance will be marked on the card using thumbprints and payments will be made on that basis. The card will also record the number of days worked"

“We want to implement an e-muster system in one panchayat and learn from there. Group members will be identified using fingerprints through a hand-held device. Attendance will also be marked on the card using thumbprints and payments will be made on that basis. The card will also record the number of days worked. We can compare that with the 100 days that they are supposed to get from a central computer. Eventually all the blocks will be computerised. Cash transactions will be eliminated. A payment advice will be made to the bank or the nearest post office,” says Anup Mukherji, commissioner and secretary, Rural Development, Government of Bihar.

If this plan of identifying 80 million citizens of Bihar is successful, the state government plans to extend it to other schemes like SGSY (Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana).

The e-muster system is going to be implemented by a joint venture between Beltron (Bihar Electronics) and IL&FS (InfrastructureLeasing and Financial Services).

Technology solutions for greater accountability

The technology backing for the project comes from LL2C (Life Line to Communities), a non-profit entity started by Kris Gopalakrishnan, 53, who has returned from the US after quitting his previous assignment at Ispat Mexicana in North America. He had revived a closed plant there and was a director when he quit in 2000.

Gopalakrishnan started a company called LL2B (Life Line to Business), a company that creates a paperless e-governance software.

The company’s software has been implemented in the district administration office of Pondicherry. LL2C now makes software for biometric identification and creates a database.

"The idea is that the biometric card can be used for payments if banks integrate it with their technology"

This then integrates with the e-administration software, an electronic workflow, which eliminates all physical file movements.
The software can take all 10 fingerprints of a person and store it in the card, in a local device and a central database.

The database also stores a citizen’s personal details. The idea is that the biometric card can be used for payments if banks integrate it with their technology.

Gopalakrishnan’s software is open-source and works with the biometric recognition hardware built by many vendors. His business model is to give the software to the government along with the source code for a one-time payment that compensates for development effort, or alternatively, to give the software free and charge for implementation services.

“Tranparency can eliminate all inefficiencies. There should be no cash transactions. You can create infrastructure where inexpensive handheld devices that can identify people and record payments or debit expenses are available all over the country.

These devices in turn can transmit data to a bank when hooked to a telephone line. All public payments should be made to unique identities which are captured in a central database,” says Gopalakrishnan. He also points out that payment is not the only leakage point.

Making NREGA effective

“NREGA is supposed to create assets for the village. But the same bund is shown as five different projects. If all the projects are collected from the gram sabha and identified in an open source GIS tool like Google Maps, it will eliminate this fraud,” he says. His vision is ambitious but very real.

His ideas are tested at the grassroots. LL2C first started working on the biometric system when Gopalakrishnan was invited by a food for work programme organised by CEC (Centre for Environment Concerns) and REDS (Rural Employment Development Society) to do a field trial of the biometric system in Jakullatha Palli in Anantapur district in April 2006.

They registered 100 citizens and created a database of the villagers. It had the name, family name, age, fingerprint and a photo. When payment had to be made, the fingerprint was read, compared with the card and then the payment was made.

“This was 80% successful,” says Gopalakrishnan. Many of the workers had a smudged thumb because they had worked with chuna. So they had to take a second fingerprint. Gopalakrishnan and the two NGOs used an optical biometric device manufactured by iPower Solutions of Chennai and the details were stored as binary characters in mySQL, an open source database.

They soon realised that power supply was a big problem. But they discovered that the device could work with a battery. They tried to locate the nearest car battery and powered the device. A second trial was done in Mohammadabad village in Ahmedaguda mandal. This time they carried battery back-up and enlisted another 100 people.

Biometric system

Centre for World Solidarity (CWS), a Hyderabad based funding agency came to know about these trials. They were running a flood relief programme and were funding several grassroots partners. One of the partners had paid only 15 people instead of a hundred but had submitted a paper report with several fingerprints.

CWS wanted to see if this solution could be implemented with their partners.LL2C conducted a field trial for them in Gurrampetla in Khamam District.

"This is a foolproof system. It can clean up the administration"

“The tribals here did not even speak Telugu. They spoke a language called Koya. We had to call a gram sabha meeting to convince them about what we were doing. We identified Shankar, a Class 9 dropout who had gone to a town to learn computers. He translated what we wanted to do to the villagers and they readily agreed,” says Gopalakrishnan. Here they recorded the details of the citizens who had earlier been cheated and then payments were made. This time they used a thermal biometric reading device from Precision Systems and recorded all 10 fingerprints.

“This is a foolproof system. It can clean up the administration,” says Udayshankar, IT advisor for CWS. But CWS’ own grassroots partners are reluctant to take up this technology.

Their objection is that biometric cards give the impression that CWS does not trust them anymore even though they had worked with them for a long time. These reactions don’t faze Gopalakrishnan. He pursues his mission doggedly with anyone who wants to make a difference.

In Bihar, the technology is going to be further refined. The state government is going to use handheld devices from eFSL systems in Bangalore.

Eventually, Gopalakrishnan wants to build a system where the database contains all details about a citizen. This unique identification could be used for banking and all government programmes. But that would mean storing personal data about all citizens in one centrally accessible public location and in the card.

“In the US, where citizens are worried about privacy, it would be an issue. But in our country where corruption and lack of transparency is an issue, this is the solution. In any case any electoral roll has data about a person’s caste and other details,” counters Gopalakrishnan.

He also says that financial institutions like FINO (Financial Information and Networks Operation) and ICICI are interested in investing in creation of an infrastructure where banking can be done through biometric identification.

“Just biometric recognition is simple. We do need to create a network of stakeholders that can operate by using this identification method,” agrees Roy Mathew, vice-president, Common Services Center, IL&FS. He also points out that several details like privacy have to be ironed out.

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