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On regular days, ideas like using artificial intelligence (AI) to execute a scheme in a remote town in Karnataka or replacing officials with technology don’t spiral from the corridors of Vidhana Soudha, the State Secretariat building. But again, it’s not very often that ministers like Priyank Kharge sit at the helm of Commissionerate of Social Welfare Department. Less than four months into the ministry, former IT/BT minister Kharge is venturing to do what his predecessors didn’t, and his ideas for ‘social innovation’ could possibly change the way ‘Sarkari babus’ work. In an elaborate conversation with Entrepreneur India, the dynamic minister divulges details of his roadmap to social innovation, what people expect of him and how his ministry will be armoured with technology to meet people’s expectations. Excerpts:
Many industry stakeholders, policymakers and even technocrats have this question. On behalf of them all, I want to ask you this: Do you miss the IT/BT industry as much as its stakeholders in the state miss you? And how’s the new journey so far been?
Well, it’s too early to talk about my new stint since it’s been just three months and I am trying to learn the ropes. But it’s been a great shift from IT/BT to Social Welfare and they are two ends of a spectrum. I am indebted to the IT/BT industry players for their support because of which we could achieve a lot quicker more than the usual. And of course our approach to openness also helped us. It was a great journey; now I have a bigger responsibility.
Are there any takeaways that you have brought from IT/BT to Social Welfare?
Technology is always seamless and I have firmly believed that IT is not about BPO jobs anymore. Innovation could happen anywhere, in any sector- whether IT or Social Welfare. We are trying to reinvent certain things and a lot of people have expectations that I would be doing something with technology in this space as well, and I don’t want to let them down.
So how do you plan to use technology to leverage the operations in your department?
Firstly, we will be using technology within the department, so we are having a lot of standard operating procedures overhauled. Also, we are trying to bring in more transparency within the department through technology. Whether it’s policy, intervention or a scheme that needs an overhaul, we want to reach out to more people and understand their needs. Also, we are trying to understand how we can encourage technology in social innovation, innovations that have a social impact. For instance, manual scavenging needs to be addressed. And if any tech company could solve real-life problems, we would be happy to adopt the solutions. In fact, we will give the company the testing ground and if the innovation works, we will give them grants and walk the whole nine yards if the solution addresses real-life problems.
What according to you has been the biggest challenge in the last three months?
I would definitely say the biggest challenge is we are not talking to enough stakeholders. We could maybe understand better what they expect us.
But do you think the department has not been able to achieve much in the past because your predecessors have neglected it?
I beg to differ, well see, we are a population of close to 6 crore and close to 2 crore people come under this department and we cannot neglect or ignore a department this big. As much as 24.1 per cent of the total budget allocation is dedicated to this department, it’s just that the funds have to be utilized better.
Has a lack of ground reports or data been a challenge in any way?
Luckily, no. Data has been accurate in this department because you need certificates to avail any benefits and data has been well-documented. Of course, we could use it better and we are trying to do that with technology. So, for example, we are using AI to understand what we have been doing in the last five years, has one part of Karnataka been neglected compared to the other, or are beneficiaries concentrated in only certain pockets.
You are talking about advanced technology like AI in a government system. Do you think officials at the lower rung will carry forward your mission?
So this is where technology takes over. When a computer can do your work, why do you need an official to approve it? Look at the classic example of a unified student portal, earlier students had to run pillar to post to get scholarships. Now with the portal, students can just give their aadhar details and the scholarship money will go to their bank accounts directly, without the intervention of any official. The same technology will be adopted to give admissions to students in hostels and the whole process will be automated. These things are small interventions but have a huge impact.
Are you collaborating with any corporate firms to implement any schemes?
We have hired KPMG, E&Y and PwC they are working in different things like livelihood and entrepreneurship program, PMU and other things. So one of the consultants is trying to build an e-marketplace for tribal products, while the other is working on upgrading LIDKAR, the government’s agency for leather products. We want to be relevant to the millennia.
Have you identified any startup or an agency that could execute your plans?
Encouraging social innovation is my priority and anybody who could solve a real-life problem is welcome here. For instance, there’s a suggestion that a robotics company could use robotics to do manual scavenging and we are willing to let them experiment.
What’s your vision for the department?
Three things we are concentrating on at the moment- education infrastructure, employability & entrepreneurship and infrastructure. We want to provide soft skills, life skills, communication skills to students at government hostels. Further, we will send students abroad for higher studies and it will be a structured program where the government will look after a student one year before the course and one year after the course. Also, we will soon launch India’s biggest rural entrepreneurship program. And lastly, we want to fill the gaps in the infrastructure with strategic budgeting.