Seva No More

The state’s clo­sure of its ru­ral ser­vice cen­tres leaves vil­lagers in the lurch

India Today - - STATES - By Asit Jolly

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

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