Critical Podium Dewanand India
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
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
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
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
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
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
run by government-appointed boards. But more than physical control of
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
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
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
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
factories in Britain. This led to a closed economic system ruled with
strong central controls. It took several decades to learn that progress
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
Indian politicians to instigate the banning of books, films, and plays
because such controversies provide political advantage. But sanctity of
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
world, invest? Simply because the laws in India don't guarantee that their
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
one cannot be sure that contracts will be legally enforceable. It is easy
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.
Critical Podium Dewanand India
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