The Delhi government’s much-touted plan to provide doorstep delivery of 40 types of government services to citizens starting September 10 has been greeted with some concern because the scheme’s implementation will rely heavily on the services of a private firm.
Under the scheme, documents such as ration cards and income, caste and marriage certificates will be delivered to citizen at their homes. Citizens will also be able to sign up for old age and handicap pension schemes from their homes. This service will be provided for an additional fee of Rs 50.
Connecting the government to citizens will be VFS Global, an outsourcing and technology services provider that is primarily known for providing visa and passport processing services to governments around the world. According to the plan, mobile sahayaks or helpers hired by VFS Global will visit people’s homes to collect the information required for the government to issue them the documents and services they have applied for.
Activists have expressed scepticism about the Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to privatise what would otherwise have been a government operation.
The Delhi government has already set up a call centre manned by government officials through which citizens can make requests for documents or services. These will then be directed to VFS. The mobile sahayak will go to the citizen’s home and upload the documents needed for their application with the help of a mobile phone or tablet. The document will later be mailed to the citizen’s address.
Questions of accountability
When Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the launch of the doorstep delivery scheme in August, he described it as a “big blow to corruption”.
Delhi Revenue Minister Kailash Gahlot said the idea was to bring government services right to people’s homes so that residents did not have to face long lines at government offices. He added that there was “no other alternative” than to float a tender and rope in a private firm to implement the scheme. “Doing this in-house was not an option as we do not have the bandwidth to hire people for this,” he said.
Rakesh Bali, Secretary of the Delhi government’s Administrative Reforms Department, also defended the government’s decision. “It is cheaper and easier to outsource this,” he said. “If we did this on our own then there would be an issue with hiring more people who would need to be recognised as government employees.”
As with many other policies that the Aam Aadmi Party government has attempted to implement in Delhi, this scheme too was caught in the battle between the Delhi government and the Centre-appointed lieutenant governor.
The Delhi government had first announced the doorstep delivery scheme last November. It submitted the proposal to Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, who rejected it in December. He pointed out that this scheme would lead to additional expenditure by the government, since 35 out of 40 of the services to be provided were already available online. He suggested that the Delhi government should focus instead on setting up internet kiosks to help more citizens access the government’s services online.
But in January, the lieutenant governor approved a revised proposal after the Kejriwal government assured him that it would do more on the digital front as well.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled that the lieutenant governor of Delhi was bound by the “aid and advice” of the council of ministers in the state government on all matters under the government’s jurisdiction.
The Delhi government subsequently issued a call for bids from private companies that could implement the doorstep delivery scheme. It has also set up a project management unit to monitor its implementation.
Bali of the Administrative Reforms Department said that VFS Global had been chosen after it “scored highest marks” in its technical evaluation as per the tender. It also quoted the cheapest rate.
The private firm will hire the 70-odd sahayaks required at the moment for the scheme.
Scroll.in emailed a list of questions to the firm asking for details about its hiring process for mobile sahayaks and how it planned to protect the data of citizens. No response has been received so far.
Concerns of activists
However, some citizens groups have raised concerns about transparency since the government did not put this initiative in the public domain for scrutiny. “Every policy that is brought into place needs to have a pre-legislative consultation before the government introduces new concepts,” said Amrita Johari of Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan. “The point is to have a democratic say in this. If this was tested out, we would be able to see the gaps in involving private players.”
Johari added that the involvement of a private firm in the implementation of a government scheme also required the firm to come under the Right to Information Act. “The level of scrutiny should not fall,” she said. “The government should give out required protocols to address representation from citizens.”
Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information contended that the Delhi government’s decision to outsource its services is an instance of “very bad kind of governance”. She demanded to know how the private firm would be made accountable to citizens. “People are dependent upon documents for so many services,” he said. “What is the accountability put in place? What if documents don’t get delivered?”
Privacy and privatisation
Aam Aadmi Party’s national secretary, Pankaj Gupta, denied that the doorstep delivery scheme was a step towards privatising government services. “They are just involved in delivering the service,” he said. “There will always be scepticism when we are about to do revolutionary things. All we have done is made the process easier for people to avail of services.”
Responding to concerns about privacy, Bali said that citizens availing of the services would be in contact only with the government-run call centre. “VFS will not be retaining any data,” he said. “They will only be uploading documents on the digital interface by the government.”
Bali added that while the call centre set up by the government would process requests from citizens, it would also act as a platform for grievance redressal.
Bhardwaj, however, questioned whether there was actually a demand for such a service. “These are basic services that a government is supposed to perform,” she said. “It cannot abdicate all its responsibilities. This is the same government that cried against the privatisation of water in 2015.”
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the article incorrectly identified Anjali Bharadwaj’s affiliations.