“Democratizing the entire data and making it visible to the public has empowered us.”
A charismatic leader and a youth icon for many, Nara Lokesh, Cabinet Minister for Information Technology, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, Andhra Pradesh has taken the state on an unprecedented developmental path. Taking to Chahat Jain and Manish Arora of BW Smart Cities, the minister talks about leveraging technology and supporting young entrepreneurs as a key to push the Government’s development agenda and guarantee a quality life to the rural population.
Q. You are often termed as a Youth Icon of your State. How has the journey been so far and how difficult is it for you to manage a routine with so many responsibilities on your shoulders?
I think I have been lucky that I have got two extreme portfolios. One is the Ministry for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj and the other one is IT & Electronics which I keep saying is a marriage between Bharat and India. This is an exciting process we are going through. I joined the Government just 14 months back as I have been in the private sector till 2013. I think what we are doing in the Government now is even more exciting and the transition has been very interesting for me and for the state as well.
Q. What according to you are the parameters that drive the digital transformation of a country?
If you look at it, India right now has a lot of data sitting in different sylos, but the challenge is how we can democratize this data and how it can be used with a razor sharp focus to deliver results which right now is not happening. Even in my own portfolio departments- Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, democratizing the data is the biggest challenge. However, we are slowly able to do that and I think if one state does it, the rest states will follow. We are always on a review and improving ourselves.
Q. How does it ensures transparency and time efficiency, transparency for matter is a priority?
Transparency is multifold. One is transparency to the citizens and the other is transparency within the Government. In my departments- Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, we have created a heat map, where in we now have 150 convergence items across 13 districts. We have created a beautiful heat map where collectors themselves can see it and make calculations as to which district is doing better or which one needs improvement. Hence, we have created a self-review mechanism whereby collectors now compete with each other to improve their performances and this is just one example. We have done that for rural water as well, I keep saying that we have uberized the rural drinking water where earlier we did not know where the water tankers would go or water would be given out to the needy or not? But, today we have streamlined that completely. We are able to see on a dashboard as to how many trips have been made by the water tankers and in our conservative belief, we have estimated to contain almost 40 per cent of the leakage that is, out of a Rs. 100 crore budget, I saved around 40 crore for the department. Thus, by just democratizing the entire data, making it visible to the public and also having public interact with the Government has empowered us and cut all the fat in the process.
Q. How difficult you think it is to build an enabling infrastructure to deal with such issues?
It is not difficult at all because India has one of the smartest youngsters. This entire water tanker project was built by kids not older than 24-25 years. I found it to be a brilliant idea and decided to pilot it in Andhra. We have bright young minds and we need to nurture their talent and what I strongly believe is that the Government is an amazing platform for it. We are doing it in Blockchain, drinking water, street lighting etc. We are bringing our entire rural street lighting on an online platform where we can monitor the lights real-time. Hence, the Government can become a platform across multitudes of parameters where private sector players can engage and youngsters and startup companies can pilot their projects with the Government and then scale them across the country and globe.
Q. What are the developmental projects that have been taken up so far in terms of IT and Rural Development in Andhra Pradesh? What are the key projects that will be taken up in the coming months?
There are a lot of projects in the pipeline, however, broadly speaking, in Andhra Pradesh we are doing this project called e-Pragati which is a flagship programme of our Government and will transform the governance in the state. Our agenda is very clear- single source of truth in terms of data. Secondly, we want to create a certificate less Government.
The second project we are doing is pothole detection. Potholes are everywhere but the challenge is their location, percentage and the budget allocation. So, I came across a Bengaluru based startup whereby the company will do the geotagging of the potholes on the Google Maps and we can actually see the location of the potholes and what percentage of roads are potholed. Based on that we have devised a 3-year budget strategy and by the end of these 3 years, there will be no potholes in Andhra Pradesh.
Our third project is providing safe drinking water to our citizens which also is a big problem. Diseases like diarrhea, cholera and malaria etc. are all water borne diseases and looking at gastric issues, 80 per cent of Opportunistic Pathogens (OPs) are all water borne. Now, I came across this company in Australia, again started by an Indian where there is an IoT device that goes in across 60 parameters and I get real-time feedback on drinking water. It is linked to an Ionizer and a UE bulb and kills all the bacteria and also ensures decent quality of water. As a pilot project, we have done this in 5 zones and have managed to reduce the Ops to anywhere between 40-80 per cent.
We are also planning to bring the entire healthcare on to an electronic system which is also a dream of our Chief Minister to predict healthcare outcomes i.e., can the probability of a heart attack be predicted based on one’s family background and active intervention can be done with the particular citizen.
Hence, these are few examples of the pilot projects we are running in Andhra Pradesh at a macro level and through these endeavors alone we are able to show huge and transformative results. What we are trying to achieve in Andhra Pradesh is a basic quality of life we take for granted in urban areas. Our aim is to deliver quality of life and standards available in urban areas to our rural areas as well.
Q. Talking about these projects, you have a lot of belief in young entrepreneurs and you also believe in the PPP model. Thus, directly or indirectly you are contributing to building a smart city as well. How do you think we can take these projects further while you are building projects for Rural Development? How important is the element of sustainability to you?
Sustainability plays a very critical role. If you see historically, what has happened with the Governments is that we are good at building things out, we are good at spending money and build the best hospitals, roads etc. but we never take care of them. There is no action plan around it. Secondly, I strongly believe in supporting the youngsters of our country. They have brilliant ideas. However, the challenge for them to get their projects funded is that a lot of private sector players are risk averse, they do not want to bet on these kids, but the Government can do that. If we can bet on these kids, they have this zeal to turn things around and do not take no for an answer. That is where we can create next generation companies. So, what we are trying to do is facilitate our platform to these kids where they can engage well and by the end of it you will see amazing startups coming about and who know some of them actually end up becoming billion dollar startups. This is what we are quite excited about in Andhra Pradesh and that is why our Chief Minister was very keen about bringing the Rural Development and IT ministries under one minister so that more integration can happen.
Q: Do you think that financials come across as a major challenge in implementing such projects?
A: I keep saying that resources are aplenty but as humans, we have plundered them. We have not given adequate focus and attention to that. Let’s take the example of water, we always take it out but never think of putting it back like water harvesting. Similarly, money is there in the Government but the question is, as ministers, how do we allocate our resources? And this notion that technology is expensive is absolutely wrong. My whole point is if I have reduced OPs by 80 per cent, then look at the implication of this on the entire healthcare system. Another project we are doing is predicting hotspots for Malaria and dengue outbreaks. We are working with Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on this project and it will start soon. Once anyone in a family gets a dengue attack, be rest assured that they are going into poverty, there is enough data to suggest that one dengue attack on one person of a family is enough to send them into poverty as it can easily cost the family around 6-7 lakhs for the treatment. Thus, if you look at all these costs and then quantify, I think technology is actually a lot cheaper. If you look at it from a macro perspective, I think transformation can happen as resources are aplenty and it is all about re-allocating them.