Friends at a crossroads

Friends Janasevana Kendrams, which brought a public-friendly interface to the delivery of government services, have fallen out of favour with the introduction of online payment systems in most departments and the proliferation of Akshaya centres. But, with some timely changes and focus on newer areas, the centres are staying afloat even in a challenging environment

The first sight that welcomes one on opening the doors to the Friends Janasevana Kendram located at Palayam in the capital city conveys quite a representative picture of its current state.

The first few counters are vacant, due to lack of enough staff, while there are only a few customers at the counters that are functioning.

But a visit the very next day presents a deceptive picture, as the hall is filled with students under various colleges of Kerala University waiting to remit their examination fee.

It is the kind of image that was common during the heydays of Friends, from its beginnings in 2000 till about 2010, when the tide turned. Now, university students are one of the mainstays for Friends, other than commercial customers who pay huge power bills.

Launched in 2000

Friends began its journey on June 25, 2000 providing service for different departments and agencies such as the Motor Vehicles Department, Revenue Department, Civil Supplies Department, Kerala State Electricity Board, Kerala Water Authority, universities, local bodies, Electrical Inspectorate, and the BSNL.

For the public, it introduced an easier, ‘friendlier’ interface between them and the government offices they used to frequent. The employees were all deployed here from one or the other departments. There was the aim of inculcating a new work culture too, with the hope that they will take back the learnings from here to their respective departments.

Douglas is one of the employees who has been working here from the first day onwards, having been deputed here from the Kerala Water Authority, his original department.

“In those days, when there was no online payment facility for any department, people had to queue up at the respective offices. Most of these counters used to open only after 10.30 a.m. and were shut before evening. But, since Friends was open from 9 a.m to 7 p.m, many depended on us. Quite a few of them shared a great rapport with the staff in the counters too, because they were regular visitors. Some of those long-time customers still remain because they can pay all the bills together here and are not comfortable paying them online,” says Mr. Douglas.

In those days, each of the 20 counters had enough staff to occupy them in two shifts. The number of visitors started dwindling when the online payment systems of the departments became popular. By 2010, Akshaya centres began to pop up at almost every other junction, offering all the services available at Friends and many others in addition to it.

Matter on convenience

Though there was a service charge at these centres, unlike the free-of-charge service at Friends, many who were not staying close to the city centre began choosing it, as it was convenient.

The current staff strength at the Thiruvananthapuram centre is 12, in place of the original strength of 40. Other than replacements for those who are moving back to their respective department, there have been no new appointments in the past several years.

“Every six months, we send requests to the departments to send us staff, but there has been no response. We used to have staff and help desk of Kerala University, Electrical Inspectorate, Motor Vehicles Department and Civil Supplies. But, currently none of them are there. The MVD has also not cared to update our software after they revised the fees. Now, we can collect only vehicle taxes, but even that have come down from around 70 per day to two or three. The Electrical Inspectorate payments, for industrial purposes, was another source of revenue, but now most of it has shifted to the treasury,” says Ratheesh, project manager of the Thiruvananthapuram centre.

But, the introduction of a new software Friends Re-engineered and Enterprise Enabled Software (FREES), integrated to the online systems of most departments, and the addition of new services in 2012 led to a jump in revenue. Even though the number of visitors has fallen, the total revenue continued to rise till 2015 due to commercial customers paying bulk bills. From that point, there has been a marginal fall in the past three years as services such as the MVD and the Electrical Inspectorate moved out.

More services on anvil

“Since the introduction of FREES, the revenue has gone up. Recent additions like the motor welfare board has also helped. This year, we have completed renovation of almost all the Friends offices, with new computers, ACs and chairs. There was no budget allocation for Friends in the past few years but this has now changed in the last two budgets. We are also planning to integrate more services like Norka and a few others in the coming months,” says K.Santhosh Kumar, Mission Coordinator, Kerala State IT Mission.

There have also been proposals for the introduction of services like vehicle insurance and the KSFE. Railway ticket booking has been integrated in Malappuram and Wayanad.

The police petition desk, introduced six years back, which saves vulnerable sections from the trouble of going to a police station to lodge a complaint, has been another much appreciated initiative.

With more such services being integrated in the future, Friends might just manage to stay afloat, despite all predictions of doom.

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