On my recent visit to India, a colleague narrated this tale of a villager dealing with the district-level government bureaucracy. In this particular district of Madhya Pradesh, a large state in the center of India, the enlightened district collector had converted a lot of government records into electronic formats. With such conversion, it had become possible to deliver a variety of government services using the Internet. E-government had made inroads into this remote tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh.
As happens often in developing nations like India, the newly available systems -- while efficient -- were too complex for most of the rural users. In this district, a few "agents" -- essentially go-between shopkeepers, helping the users negotiate the complex field of e-government services -- had sprung up. For a small and reasonable fee, these "e-touts" helped the villagers fill out web-enabled forms, send emails, and receive and print confirmatory documents.
On the day my professional colleague was in the district headquarter town, he visited the storefront of one of these e-touts. Along with vending of typical sundries and provisions, and operating the long distance pay phone booths, now the store owner had become an "e-tout" and offered e-government services.
A villager walked in, and wanted help with a parcel of agricultural land that he had purchased. The land records were computerized and web-enabled, so the transfer and recording of the deed for the land could now be done electronically. The villager provided the relevant details, and the e-tout pulled up the web-enabled records, and filled the web-enabled forms. Once the request for deed transfer was submitted electronically, the villager was asked to come back a week later, to collect the printed copy of the new deed.
My colleague was curious. He asked the villager how far his village was. The villager replied it was 10 kilometers from the district town. There was no bus; he had to walk.
"Since your village is so far, aren't you better off just coming in the morning, get the work done face-to-face at the district office, and then go back to your village in the evening?" asked my colleague.
"No, Sir," replied the villager. "If I go to the offices, there would be endless problems. First, no one would give me straight answers as to who I should see. Then, everyone from the peon to the clerks would demand a bribe. And on top of all this, they would probably make me come again and again. So instead of two trips to town, I may end up making 4-5 trips to get my land transfer done, and pay out a lot of money. I am much better off going through this shopkeeper... he charges only a small fee, and I have to make just two trips to town."
This is clearly an instance where e-touting trumps face-to-face government services, by a wide margin.
The institution of the e-tout, if managed well, may provide solutions to multiple problems in developing countries. In India as well as in many other developing countries, laws exist to provide government services in a fair manner. But corrupt bureaucracies subvert such laws. Delays become the
mechanism for extracting bribes.
Consider, now, how the political economy of e-touting can change this state of affairs.
If a particular transaction, such as the land transfer by our villager, is candidate for Rs. 500 in bribes under the conventional face-to-face system, the e-tout may offer the services at a fee of merely Rs. 100 and get the work done via e-government systems. Since e-government systems are highly automated and efficient, let us assume that ten
land transfer transactions can be done in the same time that it took to get one
transaction done in the old system. Keep in mind that "delay", under the old system, was mainly a mechanism for extracting bribies -- there were probably no systemic reasons for delay.
The e-touting fee for ten transactions would amount to Rs. 1000. Now, if a way can be found to split this fee -- Rs. 500 for the e-tout and Rs. 500 as an "incentive pay" for the bureaucracy for being so efficient in processing of transactions, then everyone might be happy.
The villagers would pay a fee of Rs. 100 per transaction and save a lot ot time and hassles of running from pillar to post, to move their files. The e-touting shopkeepers would have a lucrative additional revenue stream to supplement their income from other sources. And the bureaucracy would get their "cut", not as a bribe, but as some type of legitimate incentive pay. Would the bureaucrats have to work harder for the incentive pay than for the bribe? Probably not. Information technology would simplify and automate tasks. Besides, the elaborate charades and games needed for bribe collection -- and the ever-present risk of getting caught in a sting operation -- would be gone.
I am sure there are many elements of wishful thinking in the analysis of e-touting that I have just presented. But if the basic political and economic factors operate in roughly the way I have sketched out, then e-government -- intermediated via helpful storefront private sector e-touts -- may offer many solutions to multiple problems of developing nations.