Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011

The North Block, in New Delhi, houses key gove...

In the gathering storm about the draft rules on internet content another proposed government measure in the domain has been largely ignored. Late last month the Ministry of Information Technology released a draft of the Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011 aiming to speed up the transition towards the online delivery of government services. Even though a similar measure contemplated more than ten years ago under the Information Technology Act, 2000 provided for the recognition of electronic governance, there was not much movement due to the caveat imposed in the statute, stating that the provisions did not confer any legal right to demand the provision of online services.

The Electronic Delivery of Services Bill hopes to change this by making a legal duty upon center and state departments to mandatorily provide for the electronic provision of services. The Bill states quite ambitiously that it hopes to phase out the manual delivery of in favor of electronic methods. The first significant provision of the bill is under Sec. 5(1) which provides for the implementation of electronic services in a time bound manner. To shake government departments out of their comfort with paper the bill states that steps should be taken to implement provisions of the act within a period of 180 days from the Act coming into force. What is perhaps most material is that the provisions of the Act under Sec. 6(1) create a legal right in favor of citizens to demand the provision of electronic services. There is also enforcement machinery which is contemplated under the act both at the state and the central level. In case of complaints for the noncompliance of any government department with the provisions of the act, complaints will be filed before the State Electronic Delivery of Services Commissioner and appeals being heard by the Central Electronic Delivery of Services Commissioner.

However, what is somewhat troubling is that bill states under Sec. 11, which is innocuously titled as obligations and accountability “notwithstanding anything contained in any provision of this Bill, the obligation and accountability to implement the provisions of this Bill rests with the appropriate government”. A simple reading of Sec. 11 renders most of the provisions of the act seem illusionary as it subtracts whatever legal right which has been created under Sec. 6(1) and whatever time bound implementation under Sec. 5(1), to the option of the government. Another area which seems problematic is that for any offence which is committed under this act, cognizance can be taken by a court only when a complaint has been made by the state or the central commissioner.

The draft though laudatory in its objective also fails to explain as to how reliable electronic services will be rendered. Several government websites suffer regular downtime and it is well known that the website of the income tax department crashes and times out during the calendar end of the period for filing taxes electronically. Also in a country as India, though electronic governance initiatives are to be supported, such measures should be tempered with the realities of digital exclusion. Large swathes of the Indian population remain illiterate and physical over the counter facilities provide them with some level of access. When making laws for electronic governance, such realities and concerns should be reflected.

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