Indians use cellphones to plug holes in governance

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a U.N. campaign that supports the text-messaging program in India. The U.N. Millennium Campaign supports the program, not the U.N. Millennium Development Goals campaign. This version has been corrected.


Shafique Khan, right, demonstrates to Ghisi Lal Varma, center, a 61-year old farmer, a new grievance reporting service to use for sending complaints via text message to the government about problems in the village. (Rama Lakshmi/Washington Post)
October 28, 2011

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, 30, a 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 government’s delivery of services.

In October, the program — which was supported by the U.N. Millennium 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 IT 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 phones and started typing at the demonstration meeting, a few older men and veiled women who said they were illiterate watched silently from a distance.

But not all crowdsourcing applications are based on text messaging. In the southern city of 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 photos of overflowing trash cans, and the images are uploaded in real time. Officials say this helps hold sanitation workers accountable.

In New Delhi, a new Web site urges women to report harassment and help map neighborhoods they consider unsafe. A mobile app called Fight Back, which will be launched in November for $2 a month, is tied to the site and enables a woman to send alerts to her friends from her smartphone if she is harassed. The alerts also go to her Facebook page and identify her location on a map.

“The ‘unsafe map’ of Delhi that we are creating with women who report harassment on our site will push the government to turn their attention to these places and warn women and tourists,” said Hindol Sengupta, co-founder of Whypoll, a networking platform for improving governance that has listed such areas with input from more than 100,000 women.

Sengupta recently demonstrated the program to several women at a busy upmarket mall in the capital.

“Do you go to the police if you get harassed?” he asked women. All of them said no.

“I feel helpless if a man whistles, passes a lewd comment or touches me in a bus or a public place. I just ignore and keep quiet because I do not want to provoke them. That’s what we are taught by our families,” said Reena Sharma, a 31-year-old cosmetics saleswoman.

Initially available only on smartphones, the service will eventually extend to low-cost cellphones as well, said Sandeep Sidhu, global delivery manager of CanvasM, the technology interface company that created Fight Back.

Some of these initiatives, including a mobile app launched by CanvasM, are helping India’s 400 million blue-collar migrant workers tap into new opportunities.

“We are helping poorer Indians at the bottom of the pyramid take advantage of the job opportunities arising out of the economic boom that is underway in India,” said Jagdish Mitra, chief executive at CanvasM.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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