Neeta Hemant Nikam, a resident of Dattawadi in Akurdi area, called the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation’s new helpline on December 21, 2013, to report a missing drain cover and overflowing sewage on the street near Adarsh Mitra Mandal in her locality. She feared the open drains might prove a deathtrap for unsuspecting passersby and drivers on the street, especially in the dark.

No sooner was her call recorded and complaint registered than a team of civic officers from the concerned ‘A’ Ward was at the site for spot inspection. Within six hours the repair work was done, and adequate safety measures put in place until a new cover was fixed on the drain on December 26.

Similarly, Sudhir Ransubhe of Rupee Nagar at Talawde complained of non-functioning streetlights in his area on December 24 and got the civic electrical department to fix the problem within two days.

The municipal administration for the twin industrial township of Pimpri-Chinchwad launched the SARATHI helpline in August 2013, to help citizens collect information on various civic services, rules and regulations, and to register their complaints online.

Within two months of its launch, calls to the helpline number (8888006666) started pouring in – nearly 10,000 calls were received and more than 25,000 hits registered on the helpline’s website, which means an average of 150 calls and 400 hits per day from the 19 lakh residents of Pimpri–Chinchwad, the adjacent planned township of Pradhikaran which is administered by the Pimpri Chinchwad New Township Development Area (PCNTDA), and the new industrial area of Chakan.

SARATHI or System for Assisting Residents and Tourists through Helpline Information, a brainchild of former PCMC municipal commissioner Shrikar Pardeshi, was instituted to provide information and services to citizens and bring speed and uniformity to the functioning and response of the municipal corporation’s ward offices.

PCMC additional commissioner Uday Tekale, who heads the project, said: “The civic chief initiated the project after observing that the four ward offices were not functioning in tandem. With SARATHI we have successfully brought uniformity to the functioning of the civic administration.”

Even before SARATHI commenced, the PCMC’s e-governance initiative had ensured that all information related to water, education, health, drainage, street lighting, civic taxes, building activities, disaster management etc in all 28 sectors under the municipal corporation, was uploaded on the website. “The call centre services are based on the website and divided into two sections, e-Suvidha and the helpline,” according to Tekale.

The second phase was launched in November with services extended to the Zilla Parishad (ZP), Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) and Pradhikaran. Some FAQs related to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and District Collectorate were also uploaded on the website. Calls are now coming from rural parts around PCMC, Pradhikaran, Chakan MIDC and even the cantonment areas adjacent to the municipal limits, though to the latter SARATHI only provides telephone numbers of the cantonment administrators.

The e-governance initiative is an efficient service for information and grievance redressal of citizens. The ‘Dissemination of Information’ page on the website features as many as 589 FAQs related to 39 different departments. Each new query that is not listed in FAQs is taken up, addressed and then added to the page. The municipal commissioner reviews the functioning of SARATHI on Tuesdays, followed by a review meeting with senior officers.

Citizens can register their complaints online, or through text messages or simply make a call to the designated number. Each one gets a token number and is forwarded to the concerned department heads for action. Complaints related to birth and death registration, water supply, non-functioning street lamps, missing drainage covers or overflowing garbage, dead animals, cleaning of roads, are solved immediately.

“People prefer to call the helpline instead of locating the concerned officer at the PCMC office. As a result, the number of visitors to the PCMC main building has come down to an average of 300 per day from 800 or so three months ago. Now officers get more time to concentrate on the job and other important tasks,” Tekale said.

The call centre now logs 250 calls per day, 70% of them seeking information while 30% are civic complaints. However, the majority of the calls are made by middle class and upper-middle class residents, say call centre employees. They are a team of seven working in two shifts between 7 am to 10 pm under the supervision of two senior civic officers. Each information query is attended to right away, while the complaints are registered (typed online), voice-recorded and forwarded to the concerned department head for action. After fixing the problem the civic officials call the complainants.  A flowchart of each call is maintained and monitored online by the senior officers.

Pardeshi’s idea of introducing a negative marking or negative point system is said to be the reason why the concerned departments and their heads act so promptly. If an officer takes more than the stipulated time period to fix problems, he accumulates  ‘penal points’ and is liable to get memos and show cause notices and, in the worst case, invite adverse remarks on the service register.

According to Tekale, “The back-up server is located at PCMC headquarters and at Hinjewadi. The municipal commissioner can access any complaint in voice or written format anytime on his laptop.”  Since August, two officers have received show cause notices for laxity in their work, while some 30 junior employees have received memos for dereliction of duty. At the same time, about 50,000 citizens  have called in for information and complaints.

By early-January 2014 SARATHI had received 7,325 complaints, of which 6,741 have been addressed while 584 are being redressed. This means a success rate of 92%, says Tekale. “The success is such that the local corporators have now demanded that their grievances which are raised during General Body meetings and Standing Committee meetings should be treated as citizens’ complaints under the services of SARATHI in order to get immediate results,” he said.

Going a step further, the services will now be introduced in Hindi and English. “We are also moving towards m-governance and have introduced an android application for users so that they can use the services while on the move,” Tekale said.

The success of SARATHI has prompted eight municipal corporations in Punjab to study the model and implement it in their jurisdiction. In December, IT secretaries and other top government officials from 12 states visited PCMC to study SARATHI at the suggestion of Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Innovation Council, the Indian Express reports.

Though PCMC corporators have reportedly been unhappy that their clout has been undermined by the success of the SARATHI model, the new municipal commissioner Rajeev Jadhav has made it clear that the initiative will continue.

Gitesh Shelke is a Pune-based reporter.