Media and IT at the grassroots

Media & Entertainment

by Rahul Razdan

This article had originally appeared in the special issue of Vidura (May-June 2003) the journal of the Press Institute of India.

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Nuclear technology experts often lament that the useful applications of nuclear technology, for example, in the field of medicine and power generation, tend to be ignored. However, when there is a ‘Pokhran’, it becomes an altogether different story. Information technology, pretty much like nuclear technology or for that matter any other technology, catches the attention of the media when there is a spectacular development or when there is bad news to be purveyed – be it about a new virus or cyber terrorism or child pornography.

The media’s coverage of developments in information technology has, in addition, largely focused on its business aspects. This has evidently a lot to do with the fact that quite a few prominent new Indian companies — Wipro and Infosys being prime examples — have performed well, at times spectacularly well, in various stock markets at home and abroad. Even when it has come to these two companies, what is often considered “newsworthy” is Infosys head M R Narayana Murthy’s simple lifestyle. Wipro chief Azim Premji hits the headlines at regular intervals more for being one of the ‘wealthiest’ Indians than for all the work his company does. It is a different matter altogether that Premji himself has pleaded with the media time and again not to describe him in such laudatory terms lest this “notional wealth” should give completely wrong ideas to certain people.

It would be an exaggeration to argue that the media has focused most of its attention on the sensational or trivial aspects of information technology and completely ignored its postive features. At the same time, what cannot also be denied is that the attention of the media on information technology has been directly proportional to the “spectacle value” of the domain in which a particular technology has been applied, rather than the merit or the limitations of the technology per se.

A classic case in point is the use of electronic voting machines. India is the world’s largest democracy and democratic exercises take place through general elections at the Union or federal level as well as the level of states, local bodies down to panchayats. Since the scale of operations are massive by any standard and given the growing frequency with which general elections have taken place in the country in recent years, the benefits of the use of electronic voting machines in the furtherance of democratic processes in India should be obvious to all concerned, including the media. But is it really?

The tangible benefits of the use of EVMs are in terms of saving resources and costs across the entire voting value-chain – from the printing of ballot papers for the electorate to producing ballot boxes to store these subsequently, transporting the bulky boxes to booths located in every nook and corner of the country, guarding the ‘legitimately stuffed’ ballot boxes and finally, the personnel needed to count the votes cast. The costs of carrying out this entire range of activities are dramatically curtailed.

The intangible benefits are less obvious but much more profound. Since the EVMs are by and large tamperproof and hence, prevent rigging, they serve to restore fair play in the whole electoral system which had, over time, been subject to widespread manipulation and abuse. On a cynical note, one could argue that the media would never welcome such a positive development. After all, if there is widespread rigging, booth capturing and forcible stuffing of ballot boxes, it would become “good” news for the media to cover. In fact, such activities had become an inseparable sideshow to the entire election spectacle, particularly since it became “cashable airtime” for the electronic media (especially, television) with election results being announced in a matter of hours against days in the past.

However, there is a positive aspect to this development. Despite the fact it does not constitute “good” news, the media has not just highlighted but also commented most favourably on the use of EVMs. And these electronic voting machines are nothing but microprocessors running a voting programme linked to a database with a user interface that resembles a ballot paper. Microprocessors, programmes, databases and user interfaces are the nuts and bolts of information technology. So the media does, on occasions, highlight the use of information technology that contributes to the empowerment of the ordinary voter in a democracy. At the same time, one should not also forget the fact that elections are indeed the biggest, if not the most spectacular aspect of the working of a democracy.

There is another aspect of the election process that has witnessed considerable value addition through the use of information technology, but has not been given equal prominence by the media. This pertains to electoral rolls that are supposed to diligently document the gross realisable ‘currency’ in the democratic sweepstakes by including the names of all eligible voters – and they number more than 660 million in India

Electoral rolls have often become a bone of contention between various stakeholders in the electoral process with claims and counter-claims being made about whether or not they were tampered with to exclude/include known or perceived political supporters. The use of information technology is the best means through which the compilation of electoral rolls (or voters’ registers) can be made totally transparent, above-board and open to the general public. For example, the voters’ lists in the national capital territory of Delhi are already available to the public online in an electronic (PDF or portable document format) manner. Soon all voters’ lists all over the country would be available in a similar form. The media could certainly do much more to highlight the benefits of electronic electoral rolls and make the public at large aware about what they could do to ensure that such rolls become more accurate. By driving this point home to the electorate, the media could help ordinary voters call the bluff of politicians who cry wolf over this issue (usually after they have lost the elections).

There are many advantages that accrue by converting all paper-based records and systems to electronic/digital content. First, the speed of transaction goes up. A computer programme can sift through a database with millions of records in a matter of seconds. Secondly, the reach of such content can be universal, thereby reducing the dependence on physical proximity to the content. Thirdly, the content becomes versatile and adaptable across systems. Therefore, the voters’ lists, the taxpayers’ database, the transport department’s records and other such information could over time become subsets of the census database. Fourthly, the fidelity of the information that resides in such digital/electronic systems is relatively difficult to compromise with, as the different databases can be interlinked, mixed and matched.

All these would eventually form the basis for e-governance. Does this sound too much like a “techie” wanting to stake his claim to become an integral part of the gargantuan political and administrative monolith? This is a point where a number of media professionals become suspicious and start withdrawing. The more bellicose among journalists could raise questions such as: Can a poor country like India, with a large part of its population not having access to basic amenities like food, water and shelter, afford to spend money on information technology? Will e-governance give food to the poor people of Kalahandi or succour to the millions whose lives are adversely impacted each year by natural calamities like droughts and floods? The answers to these questions would, at face value, seem to be an emphatic “NO”. But this viewpoint is too simplistic and a deliberate attempt to make the issue into an “either/or” one, which it is not! If at all it is a “this-versus-that” situation, it is an issue that juxtaposes efficiency, transparency and empowerment on the one hand, with inefficiency, red tape and corruption on the other.

While sections of the media are lukewarm in being convinced about the potential of information technology to benefit the poor, some state governments have already realised the advantages that the entire gamut of information technology brings to society as a whole. There are two aspects to state governments being able to demonstrate the concrete benefits that accrue from the widespread use of information technology. First, is their ability to raise the funds necessary to make the requisite investments in the IT infrastructure. This is easier said than done because initial investments tend to be large and lumpy. The second aspect is a more difficult task but one that costs far less. This is the ability of state governments and local bodies to convince people that they are genuinely committed to the use of IT and sincerely believe in its empowering virtues.

More often than not, the first part of the task becomes easily achievable if the second aspect, that is, commitment and sincerity, becomes apparent. It is not surprising that when representatives of global IT giants like Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, IBM – each of whose turnovers exceeds the gross domestic product of many countries — come a visiting, it is the Chief Ministers of these states who line up to meet them in the hope that such corporations would make investments in their states. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, and Karnataka have certainly been ahead of most other states in this regard, though some others are working overtime in the hope of being able to catch up.

As far back as 1991-92, Karnataka set out to implement the “bhoomi” project. This was one of the first initiatives of its kind in the country to try and computerise all land records. Each and every square inch of land in the state was accounted for. This led to considerable easing of conflict resolution in ownership, land categorization, cultivation details and tax assessment. Moreover, a farmer in any zila or taluka could go to any of the thousands of kiosks in the state and upon entering his plot number, could get a printout certifying the ownership credentials of the plot of land. Such documents have even gained legal validity after the enactment of the Information Technology Act of 2000. This is indeed genuine empowerment.

Similar projects have been undertaken to computerise the transport and revenue departments of several states. Even the legal departments of certain states have not lagged behind. Considering the fact that the judicial system in the country depends heavily on documentation and places a very high priority on ‘case precedents’, it should be just a matter of time before all judicial cases are made available in digital form. Moreover, in a recent landmark decision, the Supreme Court has made it acceptable for court proceedings to be conducted through video-conferencing. This is one area where one could expect the media to play a role similar to what was played with regard to the use of IT in elections. After a few high-profile trials using video-conferencing facilities are conducted, the media’s attitude is certain to change. As mentioned earlier, who does not love a spectacle? The journo certainly does.

The computerisation of the railway reservations started in the eighties and has gone a long way towards alleviating the travails of common travellers. The railway touts of yesteryear have been thrown out of their jobs. But then how much of the reservation system has been computerised in these two decades? The media should have been pushing for faster computerisation of railway operations covering the entire length and breadth of the “lifeline of the nation” but it has not been particularly proactive.

Without getting into the realm of sci-fi, it would not be out of place to suggest that for a country where the literacy rates remain abysmally low, the use of technologies based on biometrics could have far reaching implications. Haven’t fingerprint impressions been the sole means of identification of many Indians? And are information technology professionals not developing cutting-edge security systems using distinct human traits and characteristics like eye measurements and fingerprints? These questions are rhetorical. But imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when the CEO of a large company or the collector of a district would place their thumbs and fingers on a digital pad to identify themselves, just like the farmer, the fisherman, the washerman or the cobbler would. Is this enough empowerment? Or from the point of view of the media, is this spectacular enough?

Till then, let us celebrate the fisherman who uses his mobile phone to gather and share information about the weather and his catch, the farmer who uses the internet to find out the future prices of the crop, the seeds of which he has just sown.

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