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IT in governance was introduced in India during the seventies with a focus on in-house government applications. There was a deployment of ICT to manage data intensive processes such as elections, census and tax administration. IT emerged as a transforming force in the early nineties with the deployment of wider-scale applications, with an emphasis on bridging the rural-urban divide and including all sections of the society into a then developing framework of e-Governance.
Gone are the days when e-Governance projects used to be for only internal government systems; today there is a high level of emphasis on government-to-citizen systems. There is a focus now on using technology to connect, network and set up systems for processing information and delivering services. Today, the urban businessman and the rural farmer are equally important targets for all e-Governance initiatives.
The increase in the deployment of IT has empowered a fairly large population of Indian citizens to freely interact with various government departments—anytime, anywhere with minimal effort. The thrust has varied across initiatives, with some focusing on enabling the citizen-state interface for various government services as some others focus on bettering livelihoods.
A heterogeneous demography
While the Indian cultural and demographic fabric is vibrant in its diversity, it also throws up stark differences. We are a nation that houses the literate, the semi-literate and the completely illiterate, all within the space of a few kilometres. Therefore finding a medium that binds the myriad consumer needs and preferences is a key challenge.
Most of the current e-Governance programmes are powered by computers and broadband connections, which come to a standstill in rural areas and smaller cities that lack the infrastructure. In this context, effectiveness of e-Governance is implicitly dependent on the e-readiness quotient of a state usually measured using the broad parameters of network access, network learning, network policy, and network economy.
Mobile as an e-Gov catalyst
e-Governance must allow for easier, regular and inclusive interaction. The goal of equity needs to be achieved at many levels since the digital divide itself is a story of multiple divides. The ground realities point at the urban-rural divide and at inadequate focus on the concerns of the illiterate, the marginal farmers and women.
The unprecedented growth in the mobile telephony sector clearly shows a path. Data suggests that India is on track to realise tele-density targets and it is hearty to note that telecommunications is touching lives of people who are otherwise marginalised.
According to TRAI, India had more than 584.32 million subscriptions at the end of March, 2010 which indicates that 49.6 percent of Indians were having mobile connections. The resulting opportunities are tremendous, giving citizens a chance to exploit new modes of access in newer and more innovative ways.
Benefits of speech technology
For social mobilisation and awareness generation programmes to succeed one needs to take into consideration the demographics and local conditions for deployment that can facilitate citizen-to-government interfaces. There should be seamless access to information and also seamless flow of information. With the aim to make e-Governance services available to every citizen, the government is piloting advanced mobile technology and speech technologies to tackle the illiteracy problem.
Speech being the most natural means of communication, it has provided a consummate platform for man-machine interaction. India is a country where there are numerous dialects, and people prefer using their own language to communicate. Speech recognition solutions today encompass all prominent Indian regional languages, which will go a long way in strengthening e-Governance initiatives. In rural and remote areas, citizen information services can be provided more effectively by using speech interfaces, thus effectively overcoming barriers of literacy, language and infrastructure. And it is in this context that mobile phones, supplemented by speech technology,can play a crucial role in accelerating e-Governance deliverables.
A recent example of speech technology in e-Governance is the deployment of speech-to- text technology in Karnataka high courts to help write judgments. Government of Karnataka adopted speech technology for quick disposal of cases and to provide better services to citizens, as the shortage of stenographers was hampering the functioning of judiciary. Voice verification technologies are being used for authenticating and recording attendance in social schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It has helped in eliminating the cases of fake attendances at NREGA. Value added services (VAS) providers have already started deploying speech-based technologies to provide better services to their customers.
Sustaining the momentum
Speech, voice verification and text-to-speech technologies, by utilising upgraded and ubiquitous mobile infrastructure, have the power to transform the current face of e-Governance to make it a far-reaching and all encompassing wave.
Rapid technological advancement and quick adoption, mainly fostered by mobile access have made social and technology inclusion achievable rather than a far-fetched dream of a developing nation. The need of the hour seems to be to harness the unexplored potential of the mobile and speech platforms.
It will be important to see how governments are able to share knowledge and learning and ride on this opportunity. Finally, it will be particularly critical to note whether the disadvantaged and the marginalised can and will influence the face of e-Governance using these technologies. firstname.lastname@example.org