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.