Indian democracy faces many challenges today given it’s vast and diverse population and its large and unwieldy bureaucracy. Currently, a public representative is elected who takes decisions for the society on the constituent’s behalf for five years. The decisions taken by these representatives are not always in the best interest of people and given the lack of checks and balances, people often feel disconnected from the act of governance. There are many tools available for reporting the problems to be fixed but there is no way to be a direct part of the decision making, strategy and planning of the community. Tele-panchayat explores how people could participate in the decision making process of the government more consistently, with greater impact and with minimum effort.
There are many tools available today to communicate with the government such as email or written letters to council members. The audience for this project is primarily from the rural parts of India. People there have limited access to computers, smartphones and the internet. Written communication is also difficult as illiteracy levels are around 30% on average. People often rely on others to get letters written and read to them and often do not have easy access to government officials or council members. They are afraid of approaching them and have a feeling that their opinion does not count. The representatives often have other full-time jobs and they attend to people’s concerns as needs arise. These public officials do not have any objective tool to gauge people’s demands and there little or no numbers involved in understanding which are the major concerns of the people and scant effort to prioritize them. The project tries to provide a platform which will help the people communicate their needs better to the government. It utilizes and appropriates technologies that are easily available and are not difficult to use or re-engineer.
After we built the prototype, we started testing it with different groups of people. On engaging with the prototype, people started debating the issues in their community that were directly impacting them. There seemed to be a genuine interest in playing a greater role in deciding what was best for their community. The act of stepping up and being counted was something to look forward to.
We gathered a lot of feedback on how to make the system work better from locality to locality and there was a genuine interest in the technology behind the system and how to safeguard people’s privacy etc. NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations which work in public interest) such as AGNI have shown interest in adopting the system for deciding on questions and taking ownership to make sure that the results are conveyed to the government. Displaying the results publicly was also discussed as a way to create greater impact as people would then see what the general opinion of the community was on an issue. We are currently working out a plan that involves producing a limited number of Tele-Panchayat systems to share with NGOs that are interested in the prototype.
Our process was highly iterative and prototypes were tested at different fidelity. The first concept was of a community board. We wrote down our grievances and everyone voted on them so that they could be prioritized. The next used the newspaper as a medium for gathering public opinion. On one page was published the proposed municipal plan and people could answer the questions posed about the plan by marking “Yes” or “No”. The answers were read by an Optical Mark Reader and stored online. The third was a referendum box which would play the question using audio and people could respond by pressing a “Yes” or “No” button. This made it usable for people who couldn’t read but had a high cost.
We settled on using public payphones that one finds all over India which are often lying unused. We hacked into one using an Arduino and engineered it to play the relevant question in audio and people could vote by pressing the buttons for a “Yes” or “No” reply. People already know how to interact with these, there is a short learning curve . A fingerprint sensor was used to ensure that a person was allowed only one vote.