Meet Surinder Pal Singh Location: Rayya, 37kms from Amritsar
Surinder Pal (name changed) is a Bill Distributor in his 60s at the Jandiala Guru municipal corporation in Punjab. If one goes by his designation, his job involves taking a copy of property tax bills to residents and encouraging them to pay up. But he does a lot more. He mans the property tax desk at the corporation office and facilitates collection while also maintaining physical records. A class 10 graduate, he started out as a ‘fourth class’ government employee and rose through the ranks, joining the property tax department in the 90s. Back then it was called the ‘house tax’ department. The state of Punjab moved to property tax in 2013.
Before & After DIGIT
“Jameen asmaan da farak ya, there’s a world of a difference.”
Surinder Pal explained how, earlier, there was high scope for error. “Let’s say the tax rate was two rupees per square foot, and the employee has charged the citizen only one rupee. That’s a loss for the government.”, he said. Earlier, it would take him about 25-30 minutes to calculate property tax, account for arrears, add construction rate, subtract rebate and fill the form out. “Now we just type in the property ID, computer calculates the total tax, and it takes less than 5 minutes”, he said.
While he appreciates the positive impact technology has had, he admits that he can’t operate the mSeva portal. He relies on his colleague Sat Pal, a young BTech graduate, who was hired by a third party on contract few years ago, to handle the digital side of things. “I should also learn how to use it”, he mused.
“I feel employment in government jobs has taken a hit with the digitisation trend. Older employees are retiring but no new jobs are advertised.”, he said. “Earlier, jobs that would require a team of 20 or 30 people are now being done by one computer”, he added.
It is almost as if this anxiety mirrored in a poster on his left. ‘Kamre andar fijool baithna mna hai’, sitting idle inside the room is prohibited, it read.
He asked if we are students or professionals. The latter, we tell him. “So, your work is related to google search?”. Yes, we use google, we told him.
He showed us a rack full of files and ledgers they had to maintain before mSeva was introduced. They still ask people to fill out forms though. “I am not clear on whether the form is also needed now that we have gone digital. I think it is important to have the form. It acts as a self-declaration”, he added.
Awareness about online transactions through payment links is limited, he said. “Only a few businessmen, and some younger, educated people do it. But the number is limited to 4-5% only,” he added. “Digital adoption will take time”, he said. Given his strong community connect, he goes to residents’ properties on his bike to collect property tax if the payment is a big amount of, say, rupees 25,000.
“Many lack trust in the online payment system. Some fear losing money too. Only those who are confident about their digital skills pay online.” he said. “People who live outside of the town tend to make payments online. For example, a man who owns property here in Rayya but lives in Bengaluru made an online payment.”, he said. At the branch, they don’t accept cards. Only cash and cheque payments are allowed.
We asked him how he ensures that people are declaring the right amount of area when they file for self-assessment of tax. “There are roughly 8800 properties in this municipality. I have an idea of who owns how much property in this area. If someone pays less tax online, we can also cancel their payment” he said. “I also go door-to-door, if required, to recover tax dues” he added.
Sat Pal, his colleague, tells us how he is comfortable using mSeva. If he faces any technical issue, he calls up the PMIDC officials in Chandigarh to sort it out.
As we were leaving, Surinder Pal showed us his physical log of tax payments. While the same information is captured online, he still maintains a physical record in case someone asks him for data. This is his version of an online dashboard.