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February 9, 1998


N Vittal

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Rebooting democracy

Can the Age of Information help India
discover a truly popular government?

Information is the lifeblood of a society. Just like good blood circulation is essential for the body's health, so is the free flow of information crucial to the development of society.

Rebooting democracy
The Andhra initiative
The Vittal game plan
People have to communicate with each other. A simple testimony to this truth is the evolution of languages from the time the ape first spoke to the complexity of modern day syntax.

Methods of communication have also given human colonies a sense of identity and ultimately culture. To maximise these developments we have to maximise the speed and reach of communication.

Palm leaves to palmtops

But the speed and reach of communication depends on technology. Face-to-face oral communication of our ancient ancestors was largely limited, geographically at least.

Then writing was invented. It introduced the concept of asynchronicity. For the first time, the storyteller did not have to be present for his story to be told. He could even be dead and yet his story would be retold repeatedly with perfection that the author himself would not be capable of.

The technology of writing had made thought immortal.

But early writing technologies like clay tablets and palm leaves were inefficient and time consuming. Not all could afford the luxury. It was like the world of handmade clothes and footwear.

Mass production of writing (and thought) came with Gutenburg's invention of the movable printing type nearly 500 years ago.

Power flows from the leaves of the book

The power of the printed page revolutionised societies. The printed page first spread literacy, which led to greater communication, which triggered a rapid exchange of views and the vigorous development of democracy.

We can clearly trace a direct link between communications technology and democracy.

In out times, the invention of the computer is often compared in importance to that of Gutenburg's press. But such similes only gained currency once the computers began to talk to each other.

Enter the network

The reach of computers expanded enormously because of developments in communication technology and the inventions that have made computers talk to each other efficiently over a network of cables.

Consequently, we are now living in the age of the Internet which is growing explosively, covering over 50 million people and 50,000 networks across the world.

Thanks to the Internet and other communications technologies, people are today challenging national boundaries. In fact, the 1989 success of the student movement in China was possible partly because of information technology tools like the fax, the telephone and the television.

Snapping the umbilical cord

Some of the electronic carriers of information were significant in the sense that they broke away from the tradition of the written word. Radio and television became the first tools to reach the millions of illiterate people who still account for nearly half the population of India.

This great power of the medium, unfortunately, has also been its undoing in many cases. Political leaders were quick to recognise the influence of broadcasting. And wireless services were treated very differently from other commercial services.

The trouble that the Broadcasting Bill is facing and the fact that the Prasar Bharati Bill was put on ice for nearly seven years till it was revived by Minister Jaipal Reddy, shows that the government is careful about who controls the electronic media.

When speed's the need

With computes came the capability of accessing any information readily and much faster than in the traditional printed world.

In fact, computers have been an enormously powerful force in moving towards a situation where vast amounts of information can be stored electronically in a very compact manner. The 200,000 pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica can be stored on a few CD-ROMs.

But more significant is the ease and speed with which the information can be retrieved. Further, the growth of the multimedia on computers has made the process of learning more exciting.

Democracy goes online

We can now talk about online democracy and online governments. When we use such expressions what we mean is that, the citizen has a ready and direct access to a lot of official information via a network of computers.

Normally, as far as the government is concerned we are accustomed to delays and red tape. Greater and wider introduction of information technology can be one method by which the inherent delays in the government systems can be substantially reduced.

When it comes to democracy there are interesting aspects to be gone into. We should explore the issue of online democracy first from the point of view of opportunities, problems and policies.

We have accepted the democratic form of government after independence. This involves political parties and their leaders carrying the message of the party to the people and trying to persuade them to vote in their favour.

Until we had the electronic media, the major means of communication and party propaganda was a face-to-face election meeting. However, with the introduction of radio and television and the technology of carrying videotaped speeches in vans across the countryside (the video rath), in the last two elections we have seen the increasing role of the electronic media to influence the people.

The electronic media plays a very significant role in elections. The document role of the electronic media, especially in the US Presidential elections, is well known.

Only now is India contemplating liberalisation of the broadcasting business. Once the changes come about, the electronic media is bound to become more crucial to the democratic process.

It is believed that in television debates between presidential candidates John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the camera's favour for the young won Kennedy the president's job. Nixon suffered from the 5 'O clock shadow. Since then, we have had a new generation of telegenic politicians in modern democracies.

But to see electronics at work in a democracy we don't have to wait for election time. The multiplicity of channels has also meant programmes like 'Aap Ki Adalat' which grills politicians between two distant elections.

The televising of Parliament debates has been a milestone. For the first time, the ordinary Indian could see his representative at his worst behaviour while the house was in session.

The impact of such broadcasts cannot be easily measured because even an illiterate voter gets educated about what exactly are the elected representatives doing and how a democracy is operating. In a way, the TV can also strip the myths that shroud political leaders.

When it comes to election results, thanks to NICNET and sophisticated analysis techniques, information is readily available to the broadcaster and people all over the country can follow the progress of the election results in real time.

Similarly, the electronic media is indispensable during annual events like the presentation of the national budget.

In fact, India must be one of the very free countries as far as information dissemination is concerned. To that extent, our democracy is vigorous.

Two-way ticket

Largely, broadcasting is a one-way communication channel but with progress in digital technology, we are set to overcome it soon. Already people are combining technologies of their own and are hosting dial-in TV programmes. This has a tremendous potential as far as direct democracy is concerned. Imagine Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats during the war effort on a two-way communication channel!

The electronic media has brought a new dimension to the democratic process. In the United States, the concept of the electronic town meeting is growing. Churchill's Great War speeches inspired whole nations and sustained the war effort. Perhaps, it is high time that our political leaders try it.

Chandrababu Naidu, the energetic technology savvy chief minister of Andhra Pradesh has already started the process of using the All India Radio and Doordarshan for communicating with the people of Andhra Pradesh every Monday. These are healthy developments.

The opportunities for using information technology in India's democracy are obvious. What are the problems? And what policies can be adopted to overcome them?

In a population of 950 million, the number of people who have television sets may not be more than 70 million. There is still a lot of ground to cover. We will have to make the product affordable.

Another important aspect is that with greater technological progress many of the regional languages and dialects which are not reflected in the Doordarshan and All India Radio programmes will have an opportunity to flourish.

The setting up of the Broadcast Authority of India and the new Broadcasting Bill will go a long way in helping this process by making the business of broadcasting more palatable.

Explosive growth of such media has led to concerns of adverse influence on Indian culture and the rise of consumerism. It is true that satellite communication, surviving by advertising products, is increasing the people's aspirations. A certain amount of social tension can be attributed to TV. But as Alexis de Tocqueville said the "inevitable becomes intolerable the moment it is seen to be no more inevitable".

Advertisements on the TV as well as on the radio are having a tremendous impact on the poor. An equally, important issue is that of the programme content. Several programmes may jar with traditional Indian values. But is control the only solution?

The Broadcasting Bill is going to lay down standards and automatically technological solutions will perhaps be found to ensure that the basic code of ethics and standards are observed as far as content is concerned.

Government goes online

An individual interacts with the government for his business purposes or for meeting his individual requirements like acquiring a ration card or seeking permission for converting his agricultural land to non-agricultural land. In fact, here, apart from the electronic media, computer network can be of immense use.

The Andhra Pradesh government seems to be taking a lead in this matter. An article written by Randeep Sudan, special assistant to the chief minister of the state outlines the effort.

When a government goes online, it has to shed its culture of secrecy. This often becomes the biggest hurdle in the transition.

In the context of today's open democracy, we should have a Freedom of Information Act instead of the Official Secrets Act. Fortunately, the government does seem to be taking this line of thought. The effort has given rise to the concept of 'sunshine laws'.

The information network should be easily accessible to the public. The ideal would be to have information kiosks, like the PCO, which is seen on every street corner throughout the country.

In Singapore, the time taken for handling port formalities was reduced from three days to fifteen minutes by using the 'electronic data interchange' technology. Such technologies must be applied in most of the government's functioning. The life of the common man can then be rendered much easier.

When the reservation system of the railways was computerised, it also helped in providing online information about trains available and their schedules.

I suspect that the government is not able to make the digital leap because it lacks champions; people who can push the process through.

The challenge

I chaired a committee in the government, which submitted its report on July 4, 1997. It gives an idea of the types of problems that would be faced in computerising government operations and suggests solutions.

One important area where the government has already begun some work is that of cyber laws. If the Indian government is to make the transition from an office full of papers to the one which will only store computer files, the courts of the law and other authorities would have to accept information and documents from databases.

Laws to make this happen will have to be framed.

Rebooting democracy
The Andhra initiative
The Vittal game plan
Similarly, the use of information technology itself may lead to new types of frauds. It is necessary that the public interest be protected. This will call for a whole new set of cyber laws.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum

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