Tele-Panchayat is a platform for “direct democracy” in the context of Indian municipalities that leverages ubiquitous public pay-phones to create a referendum mechanism and system.

In a vast and diverse country like India, people often feel disconnected from the act of governance. At the same time, what matters the most to one is his/her own community and locality. We started off by asking the question, how can a community be more involved in local governance?

“Tele-Panchayat” is a platform via which community leaders (elected municipal councilors)  can gather public opinion on issues related to local community planning. It enables citizens to voice their opinion and be sure about it being heard.

The system is developed on public payphones which are ubiquitous in India. This provides users with a familiar interaction and added simplicity for illiterate citizens via audio interfacing.

There are four easy steps which citizens have to follow:

1. Dial a number for the service (which is toll free)
2. Scan the right hand thumb for user identification
3. Listen to the question being asked regarding a proposal or an issue
4. Register their opinion by pressing ’1′ for ‘Yes’ or ’0′ for ‘No’

The topic of the question regarding a proposal is conveyed to the citizens in various forms such as newspapers, leaflets, posters, community blackboards and the radio, along with “pros” and “cons” of the proposal being implemented. Once the question is published, citizens have a particular time period during which they can register their opinion.

All the collected data is archived and published on a webpage open to the public. Citizens could also listen to the results of the question which was asked earlier after answering the current question. The results are not binding to the municipality, it can choose to follow the results or deny them. But since the results are open to the public and if they are not being followed, then the municipality becomes answerable to people and should provide a valid reason for not following the results. This creates transparency and dialogue between citizens and the municipality.

The project is being continued in India by Manas along with colleague Zubin under Frugal Digital section of CIID. They are doing in context research, prototyping and testing to explore possibilities and opportunities for the project. The Frugal Digital project page can be found here and you can follow the process blog here.