Fri, Nov 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Cellphones give Indians a way to tackle grievances

By Rama Lakshmi  /  The Washington Post, LONDHIYA, India

Almost everyone in this village in central India has a complaint. Electricity comes only three hours a day. The road has potholes. Widows’ pensions arrive late. The school lunch program often runs low on food.

Villagers say they send letters, call a government complaint line and wait outside officials’ offices for help, but never get a response.

“All our complaints go into a blind well of the government,” said Mukesh Chandravanshi, a 30-year-old farmer.

Now a simple cellphone text-messaging program is providing a more direct line of communication between villagers and the government. Developed by activists, local officials and an information technology company, the system ensures that complaints are immediately acknowledged and that residents regularly receive updates on how and when their problems will be resolved.

Launched in two districts in two states, the system decreases the chances that a problem will be ignored by holding officials accountable, according to its developers. Such technology does not guarantee a solution, but it can transform the relationship between citizens and the government in a bloated bureaucracy beset with corruption and apathy, analysts say.

“Everybody’s pocket in the village has a mobile phone nowadays. If we can turn this into a direct pipeline to the government, we will have the power to complain and be heard,” Shafique Khan, a field coordinator for the program, called Samadhan, or “resolution”, said as he demonstrated how to use it to villagers sitting under a tamarind tree.

Through Samadhan, people can go to a Web site to see where most problems and delays occur and assess the performance of officials in those areas. The data can be used to identify systemic bottlenecks in the delivery of services.

This month, the program — which was supported by the UN Millennium Development Goals campaign — has received 530 complaints through text messages, such as “my water handpump is not working,” “health worker is absent” and “the village bridge has collapsed in the rain.”

Citizens groups and technology companies are increasingly using crowdsourcing technology to help make the government more efficient, empower people and even mobilize protesters. The ubiquitous cellphone, with about 750 million users in India, and open-source Internet platforms are being deployed to ensure that trash is picked up on time, to track bribes and to help people learn English, find jobs and report incidents of sexual harassment on the streets.

“Access to technology is changing our democratic idiom, and the mobile phone is a metaphor for this change,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a social anthropologist with the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Gandhinagar. “People are demanding accountability from the government. And speed of service delivery is key.”

Not everyone in Londhiya, in Madhya Pradesh State, can take advantage of the complaint service. As some villagers pulled out their cellphones and started typing at the demonstration meeting, a few older men and veiled women who said they were illiterate watched silently from a distance.

However, not all crowdsourcing applications are based on text messaging. In Hyderabad, for example, the local government uses Global Positioning System technology and cellphone cameras to manage the mounting problem of uncollected garbage. Sanitation supervisors take photographs of overflowing trash cans, and the images are uploaded in real time. Officials say this helps hold sanitation workers accountable.

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