Indian innovation attacks the corruption problem

Steve Hamm

So far, most of the labor and ingenuity of the Indian tech services industry has been directed toward serving clients, most of whom are in the United States and Europe. But industry leaders are socially conscious, and they're beginning to use their tech know-how to help solve some of their country's persistent social and economic problems. Corruption, for instance, has been an unpleasant fact of life since independence. Now Tata Consultancy Services has come up with a software package designed to make it more difficult for government officials and citizens to cheat the system.

One of the biggest problems in India is the number of layers of bureaucracy built into the government. The path of money allocated for social or infrastructure improvements leads from central government agencies, to state agencies, to district agencies, to village agencies. There are typically 5-6 steps along the way, and each step is an opportunity for somebody to siphon off some of the money. "One study has shown that for every $100 allocated, only $10 reaches the people it's intended for," says Sudhakar Bhaskaruni V.S., delivery head for the company's global government industry group.

When the National Rural Guarantee Act went into effect a year ago, a lot of people spotted it as another huge opportunity for graft. The law provides for 100 days of guaranteed work for every rural household. Wary of the potential for abuse, lawmakers also said the cost of administering the program should be no more than 6% of the total expenditure.

The idea of using monitoring software to cut down on cheating came from TCS chairman "Ram" Ramadorai himself. TCS' engineers went to work and came up with a Web-based solution last April. Government officials are piloting the program in 200 districts scattered around the country. The software monitors every aspect of the welfare program, from job seekers registering in their village council offices, to work proposals being generated and approved, to jobs being done and workers being paid. The entire process and all payments made are posted real-time on a Web site so anybody can see what is being done. TCS has also worked with local banks to help get workers to open bank accounts for their money, and to encourage savings. "A major revolution has happened," says Bhaskaruni.

Unfortunately, while the state of Andhra Pradesh has formally adopted the software, the central government has not mandated its use. Other states haven't followed AP's lead. It would be a shame if this brilliant software innovation--not to mention much of that welfare money--goes to waste.