Seva No More
The state’s closure of its rural service centres leaves villagers in the lurch
In a decision that went under the radar, the Punjab government has quietly ordered the closure of 1,647 of the 2,147 seva kendras or service centres opened by the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP regime.
Inaugurated in August-September 2016, then deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal had held up the seva kendras as one of the government’s significant achievements over two terms (20072017). Badal had promised “efficient delivery of citizen-centric services while wiping out corruption through minimising contact between the masses and government offices”. The state spent close to Rs 500 crore on constructing 2,147 computerised centres to provide a range of services, from water and power bills to birth and death certificates.
But it evidently fell short of the promise. With one seva kendra for a cluster of seven villages, state revenue officials say there just weren’t enough footfalls to justify the steep expense of keeping the centres going. Emerging from a cabinet meeting where it was decided to shutter most of the rural seva kendras, finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal told reporters that Rs 220 crore was being spent annually as payment to a private vendor contracted to operate the centres for five years.
While SAD has predictably criticised the decision as a “huge blow to direly needed governance reforms”, others say that well-meaning as it was, the model adopted to run the centres was flawed.
Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development & Communication (IDC), Chandigarh, who helped plan the seva kendras, says choosing the vendor route to run the centres was a mistake. He and others, then part of the Governance Reforms Commission, had favoured handing over the seva kendras, particularly in remote locations, to the unemployed youth of the state.
“Employing educated local youth at decent salaries to run the centres would have cost less than half the sum eventually contracted with the vendor,” says Kumar, adding that the “significantly higher revenues from urban seva kendras (with higher footfalls) was expected to cover the cost of bringing services to the doorsteps in remote locations”.
But all that is now passé. Unanimously endorsing finance minister Badal’s advice, the cabinet has okayed the issue of a mandatory 180-day (threemonth) notice of closure to the vendor operating 1,647 rural seva kendras.
“Everyone is happy,” says a senior civil servant, pointing to the fact that while government officials will have a lighter workload with fewer centres to keep tabs on, there will be greater profits for the vendor, who will now have 500 of the most profitable (mostly urban) seva kendras to run.
For Punjab’s villagers, though, it’ll be back to trekking to the nearest town for something as mundane as paying the bijli bill.
SHUTTERS DOWN A seva kendra on the Tarn Taran road in Amritsar; (inset) Manpreet Badal