'Clouding' the Cities

'Clouding' the Cities

Instead of stand-alone applications, urban local bodies should focus on standardisation and cloud computing

For a highly populated country like India, it is really a herculean task for the government to provide efficient basic civic services to all through its web-net of municipal entities across the country, each having their own Rules and Acts of governance.

An automation drive for rolling out e-Governance schemes for the municipal offices may be a good thought for providing a quick, transparent and reliable citizen-centric service. But it too has many glitches - which technology to adopt, how to make them accessible to citizens living in different topographical zones, how to secure data and others.

Though the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has issued a set of guidelines for implementing the project to the various state governments, it did not specify the solution to be applied in rolling out the project. Other factors apart, lack of standardised application to roll out this massive plan has been widely felt in all such projects being undertaken by different municipal bodies across the country.

And here lies the crux of the situation. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in Gujarat went for automation drive of its civic services by setting up six civic centres in 2002 by using ICT applications for its over 50 lakh citizens.

It was its own initiative and executed with its own resources. The citizen friendly civic centers began providing efficient, speedy and transparent process between the Municipal Corporation and the citizens and also checked corruption in its office to a large extent.

It proved a good initiative but ironically it was not being replicated elsewhere due to lack of funds, manpower and know how in other Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).

MoUD Strategy
Groundwork for taking this forward has been already laid down as automation of municipalities has been identified as one of the 27 mission mode project under an ambitious National e-Governance Program (NeGP)

The Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) of Government of India had some time back decided to implement automation of municipality scheme in 35 cities.

These cities were also identified for massive infrastructural upgradation under another ambitious central government scheme called Jawaharlal Nehru national Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Under this mission, identified cities are being provided funds for developing urban infrastructure and services. In return they have to introduce a system of e-Governance in their ULBs.

The Ministry had issued a set of guidelines on objectives, coverage, service levels, outcome, financial pattern and governance structure for implementation of e-Governance in municipalities. It had also prepared a model Detailed Project Report (DPR).

But the problem was that the Ministry did not have either the manpower or the expertise to do the appraisal of DPR. To address this issue, Program Management Unit (PMU) was setup with support from National Institute of Smart Governance and KPMG. IBSG, the strategic arm of Cisco is also working with NISG (National Institute for Smart Government) which is running the PMO e-Municipality projects. IBSG is also bringing global experience of large scale deployment of e-municipality project.

Cisco has been helping urban local bodies achieve their objectives by supporting and enabling initiatives like shared services, increasing e-Government services and bringing local government services closer to the citizens.

So far only six DPRs have been approved. The cities where DPR has been finalised are: Vijaywada (Rs 4.02 crore), Nagpur (Rs 13.45 crore), Cochin (Rs 870 crore), Pimpri Chinchwad (Rs 9.24 crore), Navi Mumbai (Rs 15.11 crore) and Ulhas Nagar (Rs 5.62 crore).

Flaws in MoUD Strategy
Currently all ULBs in India are following a stand-alone approach for offering same set of services which is leading to different flavors of the same solutions. The reason for it being that as per the guidelines of the MoUD every municipality has to offer minimum eight services, which will be common to all and in practice they are offering it, but with different designs.

This diversity is likely to create serious human resource issues since many employees of ULBs do get routinely transferred across different ULBs within a state. The staff, which gets transferred in turn, will have to deal with different solutions that are implemented in different ULBs. Even getting technical resources at district level to manage IT resources is not an easy task.

Another major flaw in the current strategy is that nothing has been done to assess service levels and outcome in seven mega cities, which are in advanced stage of e-Governance readiness.

These cities have already gone ahead with implementation of the eight basic services even prior to commencement of the MMP and some have ventured into advanced implementation of ERP and GIS.

These apart, there is no clear cut strategy on what approach will be followed to automate 5,000 ULBs across India.

Need for a different strategy
A change in the strategy is the need of the hour. Ideally one common application for all the 5,000 ULBs would be great but variation in law across different states and 22 official languages will come in way.

Also, it must be kept in mind that in every state, ULBs are typically of three types - city corporation (nagar nigam), city councils (nagar palikas), and town councils (nagar panchayats) - which are governed by a State Municipal Act and this Act devolves different levels of autonomy to different category of ULBs.

Keeping this diversity both across the country as well as within each state one of the solutions can be to go for one application for each state as state has one set of rules for ULBs inside it.

For such a large-scale deployment for all ULBs in one state what can be better than deploying centralised application. The urban local bodies can even use the existing State Data Center and State Wide Area Network of the state for hosting applications leading to cost reduction.

Cloud computing can address such flaws since it offer numerous benefits over the stand-alone model. It is evolutionary and is enabled by a number of existing technologies, such as virtualisation, automation, and self-service portals.

With cloud computing, dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users don't need to have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure in the "cloud" that supports them.

On the IT side, cloud computing can increase the speed of IT responsiveness to business needs, while reducing the cost and use of the infrastructure, platforms, and applications.

The technological power of cloud computing has been around for a while, evolving from the maturing of several different IT capabilities over the past few years. These include the "greening" of the data center, hosted computing environments, blade server and network technology, and virtualized data centers.

By hosting common services, all the municipalities within a particular state can share services like network, security, IT help desk support, facility management, and others to reduce expenses. For example, Rijksgebouwendienst (the government building agency) in Hague has been using Cisco solutions for 2,000 buildings to reduce expenses and enable collaboration between different departments.

For example, the City Council of Biel, Switzerland has moved from a standalone model to cloud model and has hosted 190 different applications. The result is that faulty clients can now be restored within minutes, and the compilation of software inventories is automated, allowing IT staff to save hours of maintenance time each week while improving end-user productivity.

In a nutshell cloud computing's cost of development, technical manpower requirement for maintenance of application software, rollout time for deployment in a particular state is far cheaper vis-à-vis standalone deployment by urban local bodies. And the states need to create and deploy the necessary infrastructure for rolling cloud computing implementation.

By Sandeep Budki,