Common Service Centres (CSC), widely known as Pragya Kendras in Jharkhand, have become central to many public services delivery processes, from issuing certificates to banking transactions, including disbursal of pensions and NREGA wages. They are routinely projected as a significant component of the Digital India Mission, as an example of the growing trend of using digital architectures under a private dispensation for maximum “efficiency”.
Run in a public private partnership (PPP) mode, individual Village Level Entrepreneurs are expected to raise capital and infrastructure towards setting up these front-end offices. They then earn on a commission-based model for the services they provide citizens.
Is this privatization of front-end services serving the interests of citizens? Has harassment and hardship for ordinary citizens who have to deal with yet another new system and technological intervention only increased? Are departments responsible for delivering public services shifting accountability to agencies that do not fall under the purview of any legal framework?
To understand the functioning of these Pragya Kendras, and its interplay with the above questions, a first of its kind study was conducted by a team of independent researchers led by faculty members from Azim Premji University with support from various civil society organisations. The study was conducted by student volunteers in 10 districts of Jharkhand in June and covered 61 Pragya Kendras and 401 households which had accessed services through Pragya Kendras.
Some key findings from the study indicate that while the Pragya Kendras were intended to bring public services closer to citizens by decentralizing access, citizens access to their essential services and entitlements is being undermined in many ways.
- While Pragya Kendras must be located in a public building such as the panchayat bhawan, more that 75% of these centres are running out of other locations including the homes of village level entrepreneurs.
- Citizens are being charged for services that should be provided free of cost. According to Taramani, from Simdega, “Pragya Kendras charge Rs 100 for Aadhaar enrolment and Rs 200 for any modifications”.
- Shifting banking services to Pragya Kendras is also compromising accountability where neither banks nor VLEs are taking responsibility for irregularities. In a vexing case, Jasmati Devi from Simdega district was unable to access wages worth Rs 54,000 credited into her account through the Pragya Kendra because of incorrect Aadhaar seeding. Despite going back and forth between the bank and the Pragya Kendra, she has been unable to withdraw the money that is rightfully hers because of any grievance redress mechanism within the Pragya Kendra system.
- The degree of harassment and obfuscation of accountability has only increased with the introduction of Pragya Kendras. Pensioners for instance are not provided any receipts on submitting applications through these centres, wait times are long, centres are overcrowded and people often have to be turned away.
- 42% of respondents in the survey said that in addition to visiting the Pragya Kendra they have to go to officials in the panchayat and block to get their work done in any case.
The study’s findings were discussed and deliberated in the one-day workshop in the presence of representatives from Government, academic institutions, civil society organizations and VLEs who put forward their respective perspectives. While addressing the lacunae in the implementation of Pragya Kendras in line with its vision, the deliberations also focused on larger questions of the impact of privatization on governance and its consequences on accountability towards citizens, vulnerabilities faced by front line functionaries within this architecture, limitations of digital connectivity, and centralization of power.
Responding to the findings of this study, economist Jean Dreze said “Pragya Kendras cannot not become a substitute for state service provision and banks. They must only provide people with an alternative.” Nikhil Dey, MKSS, Rajasthan said “All data on services provided through Pragya Kendras must be made public. While the digital platforms through which these services are being provided by Pragya Kendras can be a great way of registering and tracking grievances, this is not being done”.
Recommendations that emerged collectively from this workshop were endorsed by Village Level Entrepreneurs who shared their difficulties with making Pragya Kendras financially feasible. Participants of the workshop called for making the provision of all basic services through Pragya Kendras free, ensuring that the updating of passbooks for all payments made through Pragya Kendras is enforced and receipts are provided for all applications. Details of all services provided by Pragya Kendras must be made available to the public which will enable citizens to hold VLEs and the government accountable. Most importantly, Pragya Kendras must be brought under existing legal frameworks such as the Right to Guaranteed Services and the Right to Information Act. Pragya Kendras must be envisioned as an information and facilitation center for citizens, with a duty to assist and facilitate the most marginalized in accessing their entitlements.