You could be easily excused for not noticing the meteoric rise of Estonia — a small nation situated in Europe, bordering Finland. After all, this 1.3 million people strong nation hasn’t been involved in any international conflict or has given any earth shattering discovery to the world. But what Estonia has done is perhaps much more special and enviable.
Estonia’s economic revival following independence from Russia in 1991 is a case-study in itself. Having seen its economy destroyed by the period of communist rule of Soviets, Estonia rose from rubbles when, led by Prime Minister Mart Laar, it adopted a free-market economy model. Today, Estonia is classified as a developed nation and one of the most wired countries in the world.
In 2013, the United Nations hailed Estonia for boasting of ‘decade’s best e-Governance content’. Estonia isn’t exactly the leading nation that comes to mind while talking of superior technology. This, perhaps, is the most interesting aspect of Estonia’s e-governance model. There are hardly any better examples of simple technology being put to exceptional use. This small European nation has had a difficult past with a prominent history of colonial invasions. The country was under the occupation of Soviet military until 1991. From gaining complete Independence in 1991 to emerging as the most efficient e-governance society in the world, Estonia has come a long way and left many lessons for everyone to copy and emerge as a better society.
The idea of building a distributed digital cable network across the country came out in 2001 from the mind of Arne Ansper, a programmer from the capital city of Tallinn. This distributed network was planned to ensure secure and efficient information exchange among the private organizations, individuals and the Government departments. The network also offers other impressive features including optional internet voting during elections and tax filing within minutes. The model of e-governance is so highly developed that citizens do all the government related tasks online. Each citizen is allotted a personal ID code that he/she uses in all walks of life. Similarly, Digital Signature Act of 2000 has further eased the process of e-transactions and e-documentation.
Close to 99% of the 1.2 lakh registered companies in Estonia submit their annual reports to the Government using this network. All the data goes into one central database, from where all the government departments can retrieve it for their use. The companies aren’t required to submit separate data to different departments, which is very much the case in India and several other nations. Apart from killing corruption, this also makes the entire system much more time and cost efficient, when compared to the mechanism followed in most other countries.
Lessons from Estonia for India
Considering India’s humungous size, duplicating the entire Estonian model in India would take a lot of time, efficiency and political will. But Delhi state, with less than 1/30th of the total area of Estonia, can certainly take inspiration from Estonia’s commitment towards e-governance. As Aam Aadmi Party approaches its 100th day of governance in Delhi, it is time to bring back the focus on its promise of e-governance and how much can be achieved by the digital revolution.
Some of the most interesting promises made by the Aam Aadmi Party in its election manifesto were simplification of value added tax (VAT) and other taxes for the merchants, mass wi-fi availability , increased efficiency in Government departments and Delhi’s make over as a ‘world class smart city’. All these ambitious projects fall well within the range of Estonia’s e-governance model. Emulating Estonia’s mass-scale e-governance practices would bring much needed relief to the public, cut down on red tape and bring transparency in administration.
One counter point to this argument can be the lower digital literacy rate in Delhi as compared to Estonia. The program won’t be a success until the people are trained to use the digital infrastructure. Even if we forget about the Estonian model for a moment, the Government, on its part, can and must take up measures to increase digital literacy in the capital since this would be in line with their goal of making Delhi a ‘world class smart city’. Once the people start witnessing the impact of an increased use of technology in their lives, they can be expected to push themselves harder to gain mastery over the use of technology.
Estonia boasts of rapid internet connections at over 1,000 public places across the country. Most of these places provide free of cost Wi-Fi. This has resulted in use of Internet for many daily activities. In Estonia, close to 98% banking transactions and 94% of income tax declarations took place through Internet in 2012. The Government’s expenditures can be tracked in real time by anyone using the internet. Such measures seem reminiscent of Aam Aadmi Party’s working which allows anyone to view the donations made to the Party or the recent decision of the Delhi government to upload land titles online for public viewing. The Delhi Government’s idea of offering free Wi-Fi services across the capital can surely bring it a step closer to Estonian model where people resort to their computers for filing taxes and making Banking transactions, rather than leaving their home and standing in a queue.
If the AAP’s plans to make Delhi one of the top 5 cities in the World in the next 5 years are to come true, an imminent shift towards e-governance is imperative. The city-state has the potential to show the way to the rest of the country. And fortunately, it has a well settled, already proven model in front to take inspiration – the Estonia model of e-governance.
The author is a Chicago-based columnist. Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @drMunishRaizada