The other day, a Maharashtra government official called me up, wanting to resume contact after several years in postings elsewhere. The new posting was in Mumbai and wanted to know who was where. When I pleaded ignorance about some, she said not to worry; she would try and locate them via Facebook or MySpace.
Then again, there was another surprising development. College principals weighed down with the larks of the common online entrance procedures to junior colleges get regular instructions and updates faster than they ever got them in the past. The Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited, which messed up the process, however, showed some spark -- the instructions would reach the colleges via text messages.
I think that came like fresh breath even in Maharashtra, a state seen as front-ranking in many things. From my other contrarian experiences, and what others have gone through, that was unusual and quite welcome, indeed. They are quite the exception. But I suspect that is not quite on a universal scale, not even now, though e-governance is much talked about.
Travelling in II-AC sleeper train over the weekend, a co-passenger and I struck up a conversation. He was a top official in one of the districts and interfaces with the government at various levels a lot. He and his finance officer were travelling to Mumbai because some key officials in the government headquarters do not access emails. He now needed to personally go and sort things out which an email could have resolved easily.
Some officials, I am told, do not even have an email address and for them, papers placed on a cardboard file and wrapped in the horizontal four-inch flaps and a thread are quite the official thing.
An email which demands quick attention can stare him/her in the face unlike a file that can pile up with others on some remote shelf in the office, sometimes almost forgotten.
They are still stuck in the past.
Hurdles in using
Often, this is what I have heard from officials I have interacted with. They could not check the mails sent because the personal assistant was on leave and he alone knew the password. Mind you, this, from officials who have a desktop on their, well, desk.
Often, of course, before the space allotted for emails was much smaller, one had to call up and say, "I sent a mail, it bounced back because there is no space left in the mailbox."
The response to this was very simple and straightforward. "Why not send a printout instead?"
My response would often be, "Why not discard the pretence of modernised office and throw out the desktop and the Internet connection?"
Officials, being what they are, would chuckle, turn it into a joke and say, "Seriously, if that was so important, please send a printout."
They pile up
The other problem these worthies have had is that when emails pile up unattended, they also get lost because it is hard to locate them, unless they use a mail service that can be searched by key words.
Instead of making lives easier or letting it flow just nicely, email had complicated their lives. But the administrators of the systems can easily solve this kind of a problem by evolving simple technology; all it needed was a guy who could write some extra codes and get it going.
By why fix it when it can be ignored altogether?
Then there are others who find that an attachment in .doc or .pdf file is a tougher baby to handle. Many do not even notice that there is one appended to the email and have to be specifically told about it. "Oh, I missed that; didn't know there was one."
That is why when meeting people I always carry a hard copy. Saves everyone's time, and mine is valuable. And it keeps my blood pressure from shooting up.
A good tool, unused
The substance of this lament is that the government which has been provided a tool for speed, efficiency and openness has chosen not to make optimum use of it.
Email has the potential to democratise the system though of course there is a danger of the officials, whose time is valuable, being snowed under silly stuff. But then one can screen them -- after all, why are there aides to these officials? It can speed things up, save travel and other communication costs and save a whole lot of paper, perhaps enough for the government to claim carbon credits.
No one found this democratic tool's potential more than the suave Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. He had a personal email with rediffmail, and when he asked people to get in touch with him he got 2,000 of them in six months.
In a state where people have to meet ministers to get a school teacher appointed in their village school or a well dug, that was nothing but it put people in access to the man without having to trudge to Nariman Point, wait inordinately in queues and then find that the person they sought to meet was out.
Talking of the chief ministers' rediffmail account, it is a fact that several policy-making personages including some politicos use email accounts of private mail providers and seldom does one come across an ID which is something like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com which is a mystery.
Is it that the I-T department of the Maharashtra government did not spread the word about its own server and their capacities to them?
Tell the CM
The use of personal email IDs implies that the users are keen but the department has not matched the demand with their supply, for whatever reasons including that it could not care much.
The email IDs, I wager, have to be office-specific, not individual-specific. That would institutionalise the arrangement. If an official, say in home department, uses a personal ID and he moves to another department as happens periodically, what happens to the official mail received on personal IDs?
There seems to have been no thought applied to this all-vital communication tool. Time it was done.
May be those who think like me should send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know.
Tell him that it is shame that when Bihar, under Nitish Kumar, gets to be the best e-governed state in India, despite the fact that when he went to occupy the chief minister's office there was only a ramshackle Remington typewriter there, Maharashtra's officialdom lags in the use of even emails.
Tell Mr Chavan by sending an email, not a petition in hard copy!
Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator and former deputy editor, The Hindu