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India and the Information Age by Subhash Kak

Sacrificer           Subhash Kak
Sacrifice code       wfor0119
Sacrifice date       25 march 2009

Source: www.ghen.net and www.hindu.net

  • www.ghen.net
  • www.hindu.net

  • Title:
    India and the Information Age

    Author: Subhash Kak

    As the world enters the information age, success of nations---as of individuals---depends on the exploitation of knowledge and innovation of
    ideas. In business and industry, the focus is shifting to computers and software. The marketplace itself is changing with the advent of the World
    Wide Web. New technologies could either increase the gap between the rich and the poor nations or, if harnessed properly, they could provide
    the means for the poor nations to catch up with the developed ones.

    The central significance of information in the modern world was pointed out in the 1920s by the philosopher, Richard von Mises, who argued that
    a command system of the kind envisioned by the Marxists would eventually collapse in a sea of files, because its high officers, no matter how
    efficient or competent, could never deal with the flood of information being generated. The Soviets endured only so long as the strength of the
    State rested on just a few big, aggregated industrial projects. By the early 80s, with the
    increasing importance of computer and information technology, the writing was on the wall. The Soviets tried to control access to telephones and
    electronic mail, but to no avail.

    The recent onion-price crisis in India, which decided the result of an election, was the result of a similar information overload. The failure of the
    onion crop in 1997 had not been factored in the decisions of the ministry and so India was exporting onions even as the local prices were
    skyrocketing. When import and export of commodities is controlled by a single authority, it is quite unlikely that all the implications of the
    decisions will be anticipated.

    It is also being recognized that information cannot be looked at objectively, in isolation, since it is interpreted by a culture. A mediating class
    must transform ideas into a form that would be meaningful in the receptive
    culture. This is brought out most clearly in the new book by Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to
    Eastern Europe 1989-1998 (St. Martin's Press). She argues that it is wrong to consider
    information and aid as being delivered by a transmission belt. In reality, information and even material aid is more like a series of chemical
    reactions, ``transformed by the agendas, interests, and interactions'' of the donors and
    the recipients---often with unexpected results. The failure to recognize these details is the explanation why, despite more than $80-billion in aid,
    Eastern Europe's transition to free economies has been relatively unsuccessful.

    In this essay, I take a brief look at the Indian situation from the perspective of information to analyze and suggest prescriptions.

    The last fifty years in India were a twilight age of transition from the imperial British Raj. Not just the ideology of divide-and-rule, dressed up in
    the phraseology of ``identity politics'', but also pervasive bureaucratic controls remain. The Indian system was born of the Raj but nursed on the
    milk of the socialist ideology. A modern
    system of government is yet to emerge.

    The bureaucratic controls go beyond industry's license-raj, including, as they do, the regulation of religion to the extent that many temples are
    run by government-appointed boards. But more than physical control of organizations,
    what characterized the old dispensation was its subtle control of the media. The reason why India persisted with socialism for nearly half a
    century is because ideas were not freely debated. Even now emotive calls for economic
    nationalism emanate not only from the left, but also from the right.

    Information technology works best when individuals work within an open system where initiatives are encouraged, where ideas and information
    are allowed to travel freely. In a bureaucratic system, information technology can
    become an instrument of oppression. Since Indian administration remains overly bureaucratized, India will reap full benefits of information
    technology only with basic reforms.

    India's self-image has been principally moulded by colonial and orientalist constructs. The basic argument, devised by the Indologists of the 19th
    century, is racist: Indians are the descendents of invaders who, in order to control the population, devised a complex, caste-based social
    organization. Perceiving themselves at the bottom of the racial totem-pole, Indians developed an acute sense of inferiority, which they tried to
    mitigate by seeking approval from Western ``masters'' for their acts of self-transformation. The Indian intellectual was a participant in a symbolic
    theatre where to demonstrate allegiance to the new ideas was paramount.

    Anthropologists no longer believe in the 19th century idea of pure races. That there is nothing wrong with the Indian has been proved by the
    enormous success individual Indians have had as scientists, engineers, businessmen, and other
    professionals around the world. It is also being realized that a self-definition in terms of any neat ideological categories is simplistic and useless.
    The search for a true identity has been made difficult by the fact that the public discourse is still dominated by an elite in whose opinion the
    question of identity was settled by the indologists of the last century! By freezing its self-definition either to the prescriptions of the
    schoolbooks or to a mythic past, the Indian finds himself shackled to false histories.

    The economic policies of the Nehruvian system were based on the logic that India's poverty was primarily from the loss of its raw materials to the
    factories in Britain. This led to a closed economic system ruled with strong central controls. It took several decades to learn that progress is a
    result not just of resources but information and commerce.

    If the Indian polity is to make more than just a few symbolic changes, it must recognize the centrality of the issue of free ideas. It is common for
    Indian politicians to instigate the banning of books, films, and plays because such controversies provide political advantage. But sanctity of free
    speech is more important than the inconvenience it may bring from time to time. In order to take these issues out of the ambit of political
    discourse, Article 30 of the Constitution, that has led to much sectarian disaffection, must be amended so that it does not
    discriminate on the basis of religion or community.

    New Ideas

    There is a mistaken belief that if only there was less corruption India would be on the way to rapid progress. But what is needed in not just the
    reform of old institutions but the creation of new ones to deal with the problems of urban decay, poverty, infrastructure, environment, and
    resource development. Corruption should be eliminated but new ideas are also needed.

    Corruption in India cannot be fought just by getting a fresh set of people who have clean pasts. Indian corruption is systemic, because there is
    no proper framework of checks and balances. Without such a framework, anyone in authority will soon be stealing and cheating.

    Two hopeful things that have emerged out of India in the last few years are the activism of the high courts and the Election Commission. But the
    oversight by these institutions just scratches the surface of the problems.

    The legal system is a great mess. Laws to deal with the regulation of civic issues in a modern city have not even been drafted. No wonder Indian
    cities are the most polluted and filthy in the world; the buildings are run down and the
    roads are pot-holed.

    Perceptive observers have said that India's independence is still only in name. Democracy has not yet percolated down to levels below that of the
    parliament and the state legislatures. The British ruled India through its bureaucracy, which has only strengthened itself in the last
    five decades. The system was meant to hold down a potentially rebellious populace by increasing their dependence on the instruments of the
    state; it wasn't meant to facilitate material progress.

    The Administrative System

    The phrase that the ``IAS is the iron-frame of India'' has been repeated so often that the service has become a blind spot of public debate. The
    IAS culture, mimicked by other
    bureaucracies in India, is responsible for much is what is wrong with the India state.

    The IAS culture has no place for innovation and reform. Promotions are determined by seniority and not by ability or performance. The postings
    expect that the officer will manage to keep the organization running without any thought given to the goals of the organization. The
    administrators are themselves so loath to take responsibility that the decisions are normally based on the note on the files which starts up at the
    level of the office clerk.

    The rules are byzantine; using common-sense could lead any officer into trouble. The administrative review systems and the legal systems are
    dysfunctional so a really honest
    officer could spend a lifetime clearing his name. To be safe, officers just go along with the recommendations that arise from the bottom of the

    Ironically, it is the corrupt who are decisive. Just the making of a decision may be worth a large bribe. In government purchases, a certain
    percentage goes as bribe to the purchasing officer which is shared by other officers. For the honest, the most prudent thing to do is to look the
    other way, and forgo one's share. Officials and ministers are known to have amassed fortunes worth hundreds of millions of rupees.

    Corruption pervades all levels of life in the twin forms of bribes and extortion. It is even effecting the manner in which technology is used. For
    example, most people illingly get their long-distance telephoning privileges revoked so that the telephone exchange staff will not put someone
    else's phone charges on the bill. The other way to ensure there are no bogus charges is to pay protection money to the lineman.


    India needs enormous resources to build its infrastructure. Why don't the NRIs, who are patriotic and also perhaps the richest community in the
    world, invest? Simply because the laws in India don't guarantee that their investments will
    be secure. If one owns land and property, squatters can occupy it and there is no real recourse in the courts. The lower courts are so corrupt that
    one cannot be sure that contracts will be legally enforceable. It is easy to get
    the consideration of a case delayed by giving a bribe. The judge may be honest but what oversight is there of the clerks in the courts?

    In the purchase and sale of real estate, half or more of the transaction is made in cash. To cleanse this cancer in the economy should be one of
    the highest priorities of the government. Such cleansing will attract large new investments which will lift the economy.


    Here are some other structural reforms that are absolutely essential at this time:

    *Restructure and scale down the IAS system. Let each district elect its administrating bodies and let they be given financial authority. The
    district administration should directly receive an outlay from the state according to some clear rules.

    *Provide authority to the states, districts, and cities to levy taxes if so voted by the citizens.

    *Build a wall between the affairs of the state and religion. The state should get out of the business of management of temples and mosques and
    stop subsidies to religious schools and pilgrimages.

    *Reform tort law so that the bureaucracy is held accountable for its errors in matters of civil law.

    *Develop a system of oversight at all levels, in all operations. Use sting operations to nab corrupt ministers and officials.

    Rather than deal with substantive issues, the Indian polity continues to be enthralled with the theatre of symbols. The complexity of the old
    religious ritual is nothing compared to this theatre. In this theatre, as in any other, posturing counts for more than convictions.

    Where are the energies of the polity concentrated? On quotas, smaller states, swadeshi! The issue of quota for women is degenerating into
    further quotas within this for
    women of different castes. Once this is granted, would quotas for religious affiliation be far behind? Lacking vision, the politicians merely address
    the symptoms, and not the systemic problems of governance and social justice.

    Inevitably, India is opening up to increasing use of information technology. But it remains stuck in the colonial paradigm of the Raj where,
    instead of grants and concessions to this Maharaja or that, problems are being ``solved'' by quotas and new administrative arrangements. No
    thought is being given to changes that will facilitate information becoming the vehicle for transformation of attitudes and structures. Wanting
    these systemic reforms, it appears that India will remain ill-equipped to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the information age.

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