Is E-governance opaque by design in Bengaluru? The website of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), a body with 12 standing committees that take major decisions impacting the metro — be it town-planning, administrative reforms, infrastructure or justice — barely reveals any information about the meetings or decisions.

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) website has no schematic map of the water and sewer lines or of the expansion plans. Someone looking for a house has no idea if the area has municipal water supply.

For all the claims made about the IT city’s prowess in e-governance, websites of government agencies providing civic services miss out on an important aspect: they lack transparency and make selective information public.

Bengaluru-related agencies such as the BBMP, BWSSB, Bescom, BDA, BMRCL, BMTC do not share crucial information like minutes of meetings, circulars, notifications, allotment for procurements and tenders, layout approvals, trade licences issued, plan sanctions and annual budgets on their websites.

While much effort goes into the aspects of websites, the content is, at best, not satisfactory. This despite Section 4(1)(a) and 4(1)(b) of the Right to Information Act that mandates every public authority to record and publish a set of data and information in the public domain.

“It is important for government agencies to suo-motu adhere to RTI provisions. The level of transparency to its citizens can be gauged by the information that is put out in public,” observes Meena Nair, head of research at Public Affairs Centre.

In fact, many RTI activists attribute the reason for growing number of RTI applications to the lack of information in the public domain.

“The increase in RTI applications is directly proportional to the information available on websites,” says V Ramprasad of Friends of Lakes, an organisation that works for the conservation of lakes and often knocks on the doors of government departments for information.

Is E-governance opaque by design in Bengaluru?
Pointing out one such instance, Ramprasad observed how the BBMP and the BDA have conveniently ignored displaying data related to civic amenity (CA) sites. The Bengaluru municipal authority is accused of diverting CA sites for other purposes.

“Fifteen per cent of land in every layout is supposed to be earmarked for civic amenities. Can the BDA and the BBMP put out the list of approvals given to layouts and where the CA sites are earmarked? They will not because the agenda is to hide information from the public,” Ramprasad said.

Many websites deny basic information such as notifications. A case in point is the four-month-old gazette notification regarding the formation of the Karnataka Tank Development and Conservation Authority (KTDCA).

Despite the hue and cry raised by citizens against the scrapping of the lake development authority and the formation of a new entity under the Minor Irrigation Department in March, the government did not publish the notification online.

The case of the Aadhaar Act is no different. Even after a week of the Act coming into force in Karnataka, a copy of it has not been made available online.

“It is almost impossible to get copies of gazette notifications online. Though general gazettes are made public, the same is not the case with special gazettes. People have to go through the RTI route even for availing the simplest piece of information,” says Adarsh R Iyer, co-founder of Janadhikara Sangharsha Parishat. The organisation relies on RTI to get relevant documents and information.

While hiding information is not specific to agencies related to Bengaluru alone, the fact is that it is more evident in the capital city. Major projects and programmes implemented in the city provide a large scope for malpractice and corruption.

Pranav Jha, a Bengaluru-based data activist, is of the opinion that Bengaluru-related government agencies are more lethargic when it comes to sharing information. “I have observed that agencies outside Bengaluru fare better. One of the reasons could be that matters related Bengaluru are seen as more sensitive,” Jha said.

The websites of Sakala, the Department of Municipal Administration and the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre, for instance, were doing a fair job in sharing data, he noted.

“Having attended several departmental meetings, I have noticed that the government has the capacity to publish information regularly. But they are not well-organised. Every meeting minute is diligently recorded but for internal consumption only. They lag behind in converting it online and making it public,” Jha said.

Government websites are bound to follow the minimum standard guidelines set by the government. In fact, the Central government, which had first published guidelines for government websites in 2009, published revised guidelines this February.

Acknowledging the fact that existing websites are not so userfriendly, the guideline reads: “these websites follow different technology standards, design layouts, navigation architecture, or, in simple terms, different look and feel as well as functionality. This invariably requires a common citizen to familiarise himself/herself with the functionality of each individual website which results in a lot of inconvenience, thus defeating the very purpose of these initiatives.”

The new guidelines broadly categorise website content into primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary content is the original content to be shared with public. Though the guidelines has made a generic list of content to be published on the website, it only talks about the basic information to be provided.

The guidelines give autonomy to departments and organisations to compile their own list of contents/sub-contents, which they stipulate, should be in the public domain. With the Central guidelines focussing more on design and technicalities and the State’s Centre for e-Governance attending to service aspects, there is no focus on the content.

Also, if the non-availability of data is one part of the problem, the format in which the information is shared is another problem.

TR Raghunandan, former bureaucrat and advisor to Accountability Initiative, said most documents related to Bengaluru’s departments are in scanned PDF (JPG) format, making it difficult to extract. “Ideally, they should have a three-click rule. Three clicks should reach you to your target. Data should be downloadable, retrievable, extractable and machine-readable. Only then can the government claim credit for achieving the set target,” Raghunandan says.

Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of World Wide Web describes five stages of openness of government data. It includes making data open, making it available in a structured form, linking data through URIs among others. “Looks like we have not achieved the first stage yet but have already announced victory,” Raghunandan said.

While officials of the Centre for e-Governance were not available, Chief Secretary T M Vijay Bhaskar said he has sent out instructions to all departments to follow 4(1)(a) and 4(1)(b) sections of the RTI.

“I have also asked them to publish every information both in Kannada and English. Departments can add more content to their websites and I will make sure that department websites give easy access to information,” he said.

Data seekers, however, feel a great need for strict monitoring and auditing of the websites. “Bengaluru should have a chief information officer who is responsible for sharing all information with the public and to make the system transparent,” demanded Pranav Jha.

What better place can there be than Bengaluru to start with? “With enormous information and data in the departments, Bengaluru is an ideal place for throwing open data for public,” said Raghunandan.

The former bureaucrat-turned-activist said the city also needs “a bunch of nitpickers who can do constantly audit government websites.” But auditing will bear fruit only if the government takes note of the audit and is willing to incorporate suggestions.



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