Centre for Internet & Society

The Draft Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011 (“Bill”) is a Bill to provide for delivery of government services manadatorily through electronic means by phasing out manual delivery of services. It is heartening to note that the Bill shifts the approach to electronic delivery of services by Government agencies to one as part of the citizens' right to service delivery through electronic means rather than a luxury or benefit doled out by the Government. The Bill introduces bodies exclusively accountable for ensuring that electronic delivery of services by the Government at the state and central levels. While this is a welcome move on the part of the Government there are a few comments we, at the Centre for Internet and Society, have on the present version of the Bill:

  1. Accessibility
    The Bill does not make it mandatory for all Government services to be accessible to all including persons with disabilities. The Bill refers to the term “access”, as defined in Section 2(1)(a) from the prespective of merely gaining physical access to the services or availability of such services1 rather than from the perspective of catering to the ability of a person with print (or other) disbilities from gaining access to the services in the normal format. It is very important that the electronic services are delivered in a format which is accessible to all persons including persons with disbilities, elderly persons etc. It should be mandatory for the Government to comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and National Informatics Centre (NIC) guidelines for web accessibility. It is also important to ensure accessibility of all documents produced during service delivery by Government agencies.
  2. Linguistic Accessibility 
    Section 5(2)(b) of the Bill requires the Government to prescribe a framework for all its agencies to ensure web presence or enablement which refers to rendering electronic services in the language chosen by the user. In pursuance of the same, it is important for delivery of services to be available in all national languages of India to begin with in addition to the content being encoded in Unicode font for all languages. It is important to note that there are not many open fonts available for Indian languages. Hence, it must be ensured that the Government allocates sufficient funds to ensure linguistic accessbility of the services delivered, while ensuring implementation of the provisions of the Bill.
  3. Public Scrutiny 
    In order to ensure transparency of Government services and process of service delivery, it is essential that the Bill incorporates a provision to enable citizens to gain access to information provided by the Government as part of the service delivery process unless disclosing such information would amount to violation of any applicable law. Similarly, provision should be made for making public all RTI applications filed with the Government and responses to them.
  4. Use of Free and Open Source Software
    Considering that electronic service delivery by Government agencies is effected through public money, it is important that Governments are urged to use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for service delivery. This cuts costs to a great extent and also make the process more transparent and capable of customisation to varied needs of different departments. It is important to insert a provision requiring the Government to use FOSS as far as possible and in the event of any use of proprietary software, the Government should clearly explain the reason for such use, the costs incurred for the same, the additional benefit derived out of its use and other relevant details.
  5. Open Standards
    The Bill must stress on use of open standards for all computer resources and service delivery systems by Government agencies. As is the case with FOSS, such use brings down operation costs drastically and makes the service delivery process transparent and available for all to use. Use of ODF formats for documents, HTML for websites, ISA standards for hardware is recommended. It is also useful to ensure compliance with W3C guidelines by the concerned Government departments during implementation of the Bill.
  6. Whistleblower Exception
    The Bill does not contain any safeguards to ensure free and fearless disclosure of any wilful violation of the law impacting larger public interest. It is important to include a provision protecting any person exposing any violation of the provisions of the Bill or blowing the cover off any scam or farudulent activity decieving the public committed by service providers under the Bill. Such protection can be given by ensuring that the actions of such whistleblower, to the extent required for the exposure, does not constitute an offence under the provisions of the Bill.
  7. Penalties for Offences
    • Chapter 4 of the Bill gives a detailed list of acts constituting an offence under the Act including Section 15 which specifically relates to offences by companies. It is critical to ensure that the punishment and penalities for offences extend not only to citizens and companies but also to Government officials who misuse information they are privy to under the provisions of the Bill. In fact, a separate provision specifically applicable to the various offences which could be committed by Government officials under the Bill can reduce misuse of its provisions by the Government.
    • It is to be noted that several provisions listed under Chapter 4 of the Bill covering offences and penalties are a reproduction of the provisions for the same under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”). Such reprodution is unnecessary and acts which are already deemed to be offences and have punishments prescribed for them under the IT Act (or any other legislation for the time being in force in India) need not be covered again in the Bill. This will avoid duplication and confusion in the legislations.
    • Section 19(1) of the Bill provides that no alleged offence under the Bill can be tried in a court of law unless the Central Electronic Delivery of Services Commissioner (“Central Commissioner”) or the State Electronic Delivery of Services Commissioner (“State Commissioner”) authorises the same by issuing a complaint in this regard to the relevant court. This provision directly conflicts with a citizen's constitutional right to seek legal redress since it takes away his freedom to approach a court of law for redressal of his grievance without the permission of the Commissioners. It is recommended that the provision be either deleted or suitably modify so that it is not in violation of this constitutional right.
  8. Bottoms up Approach
    A decentralised approach should be adopted along the lines of the Panchayati Raj system giving the citizen a greater say in the framework and implementation of service delivery by Government agencies. Implementation can be at the Panchayat and District levels apart from State levels. Citizens must be able to access and update their information. Furthermore, they should be able to define to a certain extent, access control to their information. This will automatically make them eligible or ineligible for various government services. 
  9. Charges for service delivery
    Section 4 of the Bill authorises the Government to allow service providers to collect charges for electronic service delivery while Section 3(2) provides for the Government to regulate the manner and method of payment of such charges. It is critical to ensure that such charges levied under the provisions of the Bill do not exceed the charges levied by the Government agency for manual delivery of services. Charges for manual service delivery may include charges for photocopy, printing, paper, postage etc., all of which are totally eliminated during service delivery through electronic means. Thus, levying the same charges, let alone greater charges for electronic service delivery is totally unnecessary and places an additional burden on the citizen ultimately defeating the very purpose of the Bill. 
  10. Security in payment of charges
    Section 3(2) of the Bill provides for the Government to regulate the manner and method of payment of charges for delivery of services.It is important that each transaction that takes place is done securely and without the exposure of an individuals confidential details. There are many ways to structure the transaction of payment of fees to achieve this goal. We reccommend that the SCOSTA smart card structure is used for completing and processing a transaction. 
  11. Data Security and Privacy
    Section 5(1)(e) of the Bill requires the Government to ensure integrity, security and confidentiality of data collected, preserved and retained. We recommend that in addition to this, the Government also ensures integrity, security and confidentiality of data or information that is transferred, accessed or deleted. We also recommend that the Bill requires the Government to prescribe a framework under Section 5(2) for agency privacy policies to ensure that they are interoperable and consistent between different departments of the Government. 
  12. Functions of the Central Commissioner
    Section 8 of the Bill grants the Central Commissioner the power to perform any or all of the functions listed in the provision including Section 8(f) which refers to the power of the State Commissioner in conducting the work of the State Government agencies. A Central Government authority may not have a say in all matters under the purview of the State Governments. This aspect has been left out for consideration while drafting this provision and hence it needs to be relooked at.
  13. Cut-off Date for Implementation
    While the Bill mandates a cut off period of 180 days for the Government to finalise on the scope, framework and manner of service delivery under its provisions, it states that the Government “may” prescribe a framework for implementation of the provisions. It is recommended, for the purpose of ensuring speedy implementation of the provisions, that the term “may” in Section 5(2) be replaced by “shall”.
  14. Transparency of Government Agencies
    Transparency and accountability of the Government towards the citizen is as important as the transparency of the citizen towards the Government. Therefore, the provisions of the Bill must ensure that the Government activities are transparent to the citizens by making available to the citizens, details of the responsible officials under the Bill, manner of service delivery and other relevant information in this regard.
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