NEW DELHI — Desperate to show progress in the poorly defined, but much-ballyhooed #DigitalIndia initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party-led government inflated e-governance data by designating previously uncategorised services like railway bookings, debit card and credit card transactions, NEFT, RTGS banks transfers, and Aadhaar authentication and e-KYC transactions with private vendors, as “e-governance”.
The government also massively ramped up the weather and crop updates delivered over SMS to millions of farmers in a bid to show rural Indians were embracing so-called digital services.
By adding and subtracting services at will, the Modi government has claimed a 300% uptick e-governance transactions during its tenure, while making it difficult to compare the data with previous years.
Yet these claims are largely hollow, as HuffPost India found upon checking IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s claims on the same e-taal platform mentioned in his tweet.
In 2017-18, for the first time, the government even categorised financial flows like NEFT, RTGS, and private and credit card data as a “Service Under Category C” of central projects. The following year, the government dropped NEFT and RTGS, but kept private credit and debit card payments — suggesting there is no logic to this process beyond massaging the numbers.
In 2014-15, a statistical head called “statutory and non-statutory services” accounted for only 26 crore so-called digital transactions in 2014-15.
The e-transactions jumped to 143.23 crores in 2015-16.
The reason? A full 111 crore of this jump came from Aadhaar and e-KYC transactions in a year when the government sought to make Aadhaar mandatory for a variety of services (As an aside, in 2013-14, Aadhaar wasn’t even included as a statutory and non-statutory service). Another 9 crore crore came from categorising all Railway bookings and cancellations — both online, and over the counter — as e-governance transactions for the first time, despite the ticketing services being available since 2002.
Another example comes from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, where e-governance transactions intended for farmers have grown a staggering 680% from 2013-2014 to the final month of the 2018-19 financial year. This might lead some to believe that India farmers have taken to buying and selling their produce online, and are searching for the best prices on the internet.
Sadly, the answer is more prosaic: the Modi government has simply been bombarding farmers with SMSes. The number of farm advisor SMSes sent has risen sharply from 26.8 crore in 2013-14 to 181.5 crore messages in 2018-19 (as measured upto March 1 2019).
Ordinarily, such bureaucratic tallying up of the SMSes and railway bookings and cancellations would simply be just another spreadsheet in a dusty sarkari file. But with elections around the corner, and Modi’s penchant for fudging the most banal of departmental numbers, his ministers have sought to turn any rising data point into an “achievement”.
The fact that the government sought to suppress a jobs report revealing the rate of unemployment to be the worst in 45 years, suggests the link between the “e-governance transactions” and economic growth is tenuous at best.
HuffPost India sourced all the data used in this story from the government’s e-taal platform and cross-checked it with department level dashboards. Our conclusions were shared with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The story will be updated if they reply.
No Definitions Please, We’re Bhakts
The government’s quest to fudge the books has been aided by the absence of a commonly accepted definition of what an “e-governance transfer” is — leaving the government to add fresh services at will.
“There is no clear definition of an e-transaction given in the IT Act 2000,” said Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer and expert in cyber law. “Due to lack of clarity there is definitely a huge difference between the government’s claim and the perception of a common man.”
The government’s “e-governance transactions”, Duggal said, could be more accurately defined as a “data transfer” — a term that is defined in Section 2 of the Information Technology Act 2000.
Strictly speaking any transfer of data can be termed a “transaction”, but the term is more commonly used to describe an exchange of value.
This dissonance between a “data transfer” and a “transaction” is most clearly visible in the case of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Kisaan SMS service, where — as mentioned earlier — the government bombarded hapless farmers with over 181 crore SMSes from 1 April 2018 to March 1 2019, according for 98.5% of all “e-governance transactions” supported by the Ministry.
HuffPost India cross-checked the e-taal data with data from the Agriculture Ministry’s own SMS dashboard to confirm that these were one-way farm advisory message sent by the ministry, rather than SMS-driven commerce between farmers.
Experts interviewed by HuffPost India questioned the logic of this SMS blitz.
“The SMS messages sent by the Ministry are centralised and not personalised at the state or district level and hence do not serve much purpose,” said Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture(CSA). “Take for example—a weather alert message sent by the ministry can inform a farmer about the rainfall prediction in the next couple of days but do not offer any advice to secure the soon-to-be harvested crop.”
SMSing farmers information on crop prices at central markets, Ramanjaneyulu said, was also of limited use as the local price of produce depends on the current financial liabilities of a farmer, the moisture content of his crop, local weather and also farmer’s commitments to the local commissioning agent.
The Indian railways began its online ticket reservation and cancellation service in 2002. Yet, it was only in 2016 that the government decided to categorise all railway bookings as an e-governance service under a statistical head called “statutory and non-statutory services.” Needless to say, the government did not calibrate the data by also including ticketing data for previous years — as is standard practice in building statistical time series.
In 2015-16, the government included all railway booking and cancellation data — both on the railways website, and at railway booking counters — as e-governance transactions. (Fun fact, nearly 20% of all online bookings are cancelled, while 15% of bookings at railway counters end in cancellation).
Taken by themselves, these bookings and cancellations accounted for 9.23 crore transactions — 35% of the total “statutory and non-statutory services” in the previous year, which did not include government data. Yet 2015-16 was a bumper year because a government-mandated push on Aadhaar, and a decision to include all Aadhaar authentication and e-KYC services (even with private vendors) resulted in pushing this particular indicator up by 143%.
Credit and Debit Card Transactions
Till 2016-17, the government classified only three kinds of “Category C Business-To-Consumer transactions” as “e-governance transactions” — the registry of new mobile numbers, online payment of direct taxes, and online fees paid for recruitment examinations, which accounted for a modest 6 to 8 crore transactions a year.
In 2017-18 however, the government suddenly included 14 additional services — including payments made through the Universal Payment Interface, a money transfer platform owned by a conglomerate of public and private banks, NEFT, RTGS and debit and credit card settlements. The number of transactions immediately shot up dramatically to 1205 crores.
For this current year, upto March 1 2019, the government has dropped NEFT, RTGS and two more services. As a consequence, the number of Category C transactions fell to about 1,000 crore.
Meanwhile the original three indicators — new mobile registration, online payment of direct taxes and online fees—remain steady at 6.8 crore transactions, suggesting no great spike in numbers.
“The National Payments Corporation of India(NPCI) acts as a regulator as well as a competitor to private credit card companies like Visa and mastercard,” said Rohan Mishra, former Vice President for Public Policy at Mastercard. “It doesn’t allow them to enter into the government payment system. Until and unless there is some involvement of a government-run entity like Common Service Centre (CSC) to seek any B2C service, it should not be included as an e-transaction under e-governance.”