New Delhi: From being labelled a “suit-boot ki sarkar (a pro-rich government)” when it came to power in 2014, to forging a distinct pro-poor image, the Narendra Modi government managed a 180-degree turn in its first term in office.
Voted back with a resounding mandate in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is all set to continue with its welfare push, buoyed by what it views as the success of its initiatives.
The Modi government’s welfare plank has mainly stood on three legs – targeted beneficiary selection through the use of Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) data, electronic funds transfer, and geo-tagging of assets and works.
While the first two fit in predictably as far as attempts to usher in transparency and efficiency are concerned, geo-tagging has been an unlikely, but powerful, tool.
Government officials associated with the implementation of welfare initiatives believe geo-tagging has gone a long way in improving their effectiveness and coherence.
The welfare plank isn’t merely a governance tool, but has also helped the BJP’s political and electoral fortunes. This primarily pro-poor, pro-rural focus is reflected in a slew of schemes – from rural housing, to cooking gas connections, toilet construction, increased rural roads access, and even a renewed push for the UPA government’s rural job guarantee scheme.
In his Budget speech for the year 2017-18, then finance minister Arun Jaitley specifically mentioned the exercise, claiming that the initiative to geo-tag all assets built under MGNREGA and putting the data in public domain has “established greater transparency”.
ThePrint does a deep dive to understand the process and results of employing geo-tagging as a tool in the delivery of various welfare schemes.
What is geo-tagging?
Geo-tagging is the process of ascertaining the geographical location of an image.
“It is the process of adding geographical identification like latitude and longitude to various media such as a photo or video,” the government said in a press release dated April 2017, “Geo-tagging can help users find a wide variety of location-specific information from a device. It provides users the location of the content of a given picture.”
To this end, the central government works in association with ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) at Hyderabad, which uses a software platform, Bhuvan, that “allows users to explore a 2D/3D representation of the surface of the Earth”.
The idea was to use mobile-based geo-tagging and a Geographical Information System (GIS).
“Geo-tagging uses latitudes and longitudes to precisely locate where an image is taken. It gives reference points for users to analyse satellite data. You choose a point, and there are high-accuracy GPS equipment that can pinpoint the location with accuracy in centimetres,” said an aerospace expert who has worked with the Bhuvan platform. “It’s useful for those who work with detailed urban imagery analysis. Simply put, geo-tagging is putting location information in images.”
Also read: Geo-tagging, e-payment, real-time check — how Modi’s rural housing scheme is different
How it started
The first scheme that experimented with geo-tagging was the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) – the Congress-led UPA government’s marquee rural jobs scheme that promises 100 days of employment every year to each village household.
It was felt that the assets created under the scheme, like ponds and dams, were neither durable nor always fulfilling a need. Officials explained how a pond was dug up several times, or a road re-laid more than once, since there was no way to monitor the assets on a real-time basis.
Geo-tagging thus made its debut as a tool in government schemes. In June 2016, the Union Rural Development Ministry and NRSA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
“The Prime Minister during a review meeting recently underlined… online recording and monitoring of assets to check leakages and for effective mapping of terrain for future developmental works,” the statement issued at the time said.
Currently, geo-tagging is being used in a range of government schemes – MGNREGA, Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (Grameen), Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), for toilet construction under Swachh Bharat, as well as for highways and urban housing.
According to government officials, so far, all the construction undertaken under the rural housing scheme has been geo-tagged.
As for MGNREGA, around 90 per cent of the assets created since the inception of the scheme have been geo-tagged, they added, while 100 per cent of the roads built under PMGSY have GIS mapping. The ‘rurban’ scheme has also started to use this technology and several assets created under the 14th Finance Commission are also geo-tagged.
The postal department has geo-tagged post offices using Bhuvan, as has the Department of Land Resources for monitoring watershed activities in states. The agriculture ministry is also using the tool.
Use of geo-tagging under the schemes is well-defined. For instance, pictures of each stage in PMAY (G) – from existing house, to the proposed site of the new one, and progress at each step of construction – have to be uploaded on a government portal. It’s only after this is done that each instalment is released.
In MGNREGA, the completed asset is geo-tagged and photographed by the ‘gram rozgar sahayak’ aka employment guarantee assistant or junior engineers.
The Union Housing and Urban Affairs ministry has also started depending on geo-tagging to monitor the progress of urban infrastructure projects, for example the construction of toilets under its flagship Swachh Bharat Mission.
“We are not just going by reports submitted by states on the number of toilets that have been constructed. Every constructed toilet has to be geo-tagged to check fudging,” a housing ministry official said, “The release of funds is linked to this.”
It’s the housing ministry that oversees the urban version of the PM Awaas Yojana (Grameen), where geo-tagging again plays a crucial role.
GPS is also being widely used to bolster the safety of passengers, especially women, in public transport.
The Union Road Transport and Highways Ministry made vehicle tracking systems mandatory in all new means of public transport, such as buses and taxis, from 1 January 2019.
“Even many state governments are using GPS to track the movement of public taxis and buses,” said a senior road transport ministry official.
The highways ministry is also planning to start satellite-based electronic toll collection via GPS technology.
Also read: Modi govt wants to give jobs first and then develop skills through MGNREGA
What the government claims
Officials claim the use of this technology has helped streamline the implementation of schemes, monitor them efficiently, and draw up plans for the future.
“Technology and geo-tagging are part of the overall structure we have worked out for good governance. It is a very effective monitoring tool. There is no doubt it helps clean up the system,” rural development secretary Amarjeet Sinha told ThePrint.
“Geo-tagging has also enabled us to develop a future course. Essentially, it gave us a sense of what we are doing and what we need to do differently. In MGNREGA, for instance, there have been a lot of learnings through this process which have helped us improve the implementation,” he added.
Sinha said this technology hadn’t been used on such a large scale for government schemes in any country, adding that a lot of “hand-holding by ISRO and NRA” had gone a long way in making this easier.
According to government officials, around “3 lakh frontline workers across the country” have now been trained to use geo-tagging and digital payments.
Interestingly, geo-tagging is also being used to establish what the government believes is more transparency in functioning.
For example, under the Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s Gram Panchayat Development Plan, all panchayats have to ensure geo-tagged photographs of meetings, to establish the meeting did take place, the number of people who attended, and other details.
Like every initiative, geo-tagging doesn’t come without its set of problems, challenges and criticism.
The biggest among them is that geo-tagging, along with the electronic fund management system, has made these schemes excessively dependent on technology.
Erratic internet connections and lack of knowledge on the ground prove to be big hurdles. Similarly, in states where there is a shortage of ground functionaries, adding this extra technological intervention means greater burden on them.
The complexity of this process and its use, along with lack of adequate information dissemination, often ends up confusing the worker or beneficiary on the ground, instead of necessarily aiding them.
(With inputs from Moushumi Dasgupta and Mohana Basu)
Also read: MGNREGA survived Modi govt’s neglect and derision, it will be up to new regime to fix it
Fabulousl decision to stop corruption in schemes…..
A great deal of transparency has brought about verifiable on ground progress. This is satisfying because it enhances credibility of govt, and its efforts at overall accountability.
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