The LDF Government who retained power in the state after a historic victory had claimed that ‘Transparency’ is the hallmark of left governance. In Kerala’s fight against the COVID pandemic, transparency has been the state’s biggest weapon against the deadly virus.
Transparency in governance can be understood as “The degree to which information is available to outsiders that enables them to have (an) informed voice in decisions and/or assess the decisions made by insiders” (Florini 2007). Components of transparency include reliability, timeliness, clarity, relevance, impartiality and citizen participation. E-governance is often considered as a key tool to improving transparency.
Kerala has been at the forefront in the country in deploying IT as a tool for fostering governance which gained it the title of the ‘first digital state in the country’. The new government now needs to consider refining and enhancing its existing e-governance initiatives to raise its own bar of ‘transparent’ governance.
Taking the case of issue of licences and permits to start business, we go on to analyse how Kerala is faring in Transparency especially in the context of the ‘entrepreneurial’ sector?
The Kerala government has enabled transparency by significantly reducing procedural requirements and paperwork for procuring various permits to start business. This has been complemented by the setting up of online single-window clearance infrastructure – KSWIFT
(Single-Window Interface for Fast and Transparent Clearance). KSWIFT eliminates the need for multiple NOCs and approval from different departments and instead offers a Common Application Form; unified payment mechanism; time-bound and online clearances etc. (1)During the ongoing pandemic, it is through platforms like KSWIFT that many of the services in this sector were possible.
As per the amendments made in 2020 to the Kerala Micro Small and Medium Enterprises Act (MSME Act), 2019, the government has allowed automatic approvals for a period of three years for green-category MSMEs with investment up to Rs 10 cr. (2) This has also been yielding a good response from the public with an increase in the number of applications.
Issues to be addressed
However, there are issues that remain to be addressed. First and foremost, there is a lack of availability of published and updated information about the work done by the departments. This includes information about the different sectors of businesses promoted by the government, district-wise advantages for setting up a new business, list of subsidies and incentives being offered, clear step by step application processes and requirements for different business sizes, and the success rate of applications.
Timeliness also continues to be an issue with inconsistency between the stipulated time and the actual time taken for issuing clearances. For example: According to the department-wise timeline, licences under the ‘Kerala Shops and Establishments Act 1960’ are given spot approval (3), while the KSWIFT website mentions the actual time taken to be 113 days. Similarly, the number of days required for a building permit is 15 days, but the average time mentioned for on-going applications is 55 days (as on 29th December 2020). (4) This shows two clear issues: that automated approvals only skip issues related to timeliness for MSMEs, but for the larger investors, the problem continues. Second, the Kerala government still requires above-average time to issue the same permits.
Approvals given beyond the time limits are deemed licences, and as per the ‘Ease of Doing Business 2016’ report by KSIDC, they were put in place to ensure smooth facilitation of new businesses and to prevent delays. (5) According to a news article published in 2019, the government issued clearances to 70 projects of which 67 were ‘deemed clearances’. (6) A high percentage of deemed licences defeat its very purpose and instead kicks the stone of responsibility down the road. This may eventually lead to more appeals and grievances, and more grief for businesses.
Lastly, the plethora of information offered under ease of doing business is scattered across the websites of various nodal agencies. This leaves an element of confusion and ambiguity about the rules and regulations for the different investor categories.
Even as various initiatives such as Invest Kerala, Start-up mission, KSWIFT, and Ease in Financing are undertaken to ease the setting up of new businesses, the mechanism facilitating and integrating these initiatives is lacking. This leads to the involvement of consultants and middlemen leaving scope for corruption.
Aim for better
The government could have a single website that provides access to all relevant initiatives,rules and regulations and thus could simplify the process from conceptualisation to the actual setting up of the business.
Also, an online monitoring system that publishes real-time updates about the applications, number of licences approved and those that were issued as deemed licences would help in weeding out the pertinent delays within the system. Subsequently, a monthly and quarterly comparison for various industries, districts, and departments should be published to increase accountability and efficiency. The sustainability of this move relies on having a strong, integrated and automated backend which requires a good level of digital adoption and IT penetration within the system.
Apart from this some general measures like the real-time publishing of information regarding new investment, the current status of investments, the release of funds and incentives and employment statistics can act as confidence-building measures for new investors.
The government should also make its policy goals about employment, investment and GSDP focused and transparent. And most importantly, the government’s initiatives for greater transparency should be backed by clear intent towards developing the business sector of Kerala.
E-governance – The Way forward
Technology can be a great enabler in bringing about greater transparency and citizen centricity in governance, not just in the ‘entrepreneurial’ sector but in providing all municipal services. In Kozhikode Municipal Corporation, the SUVEGA application has been used to successfully bring down the time for approvals from 120 days to 25 days for regular plans and 7 days for simple plans.
Best practises in e-governance can be found in other states too. The website of Tamil Nadu government integrates links to the Greater Chennai Corporation website and industries department for easy navigation for building plan approvals. During the digitisation efforts in the state of Andhra Pradesh, several initiatives like setting of citizen expectations and Citizen charter for service delivery articulating Specific SLAs, messaging services to customers along the lifecycle of the Service delivery etc were activated. The State DMA (Directorate of Municipal Administration) Portal and ULB Portals had links to enable payments
eGovernments Foundation provides an open source platform that enables capacity building of municipal employees aiding transparency and accountability to citizens. Easy to use inboxes display in descending order, the time left to meet SLAs(Service Level Agreements) thus allowing municipal employees to better prioritize their tasks for the day. Open dashboards allow bureaucratic leadership to conduct more productive reviews and take data driven actions.
eGovernance initiatives are key to streamlining of processes to reduce the number of steps, documentation and touch points required for citizens to access any services. Overall, e-governance supported by process reforms and capacity building of the employees can vastly enhance the capability of the government bodies to provide more transparent and timely delivery of services.
7. Florini, Ann Ed. The Right to Know: Transparency for an Open World. Columbia University Press: New York, 2007.
Image Courtesy- PTI
This article was co- authored by Deepali Dewan (Research Assistant), Praseeda Mukundan (Senior Associate, Research) of CPPR and Krishnakumar Thiagarajan (VP- Special Projects), P R Krishnamoorthy (VP- Delivery) of eGovernments Foundation. Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.