Interview

WSIS is about development and a level playing field : Subbiah Arunachalam, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation

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How does WSIS impact the developing world?
We live in a divided world. The chasm between rich and poor nations is increasing all the time. Every new technology has exacerbated the rich-poor divide. It was mastery over technology that helped one set of people to colonise the rest of humanity.

But some people believe ICTs have the potential to be different from the earlier technologies and if we use them intelligently can make the world a better place for all of us. Remember, everyone does not share this view. Certainly, the new technologies, especially the Internet and the Web, can make a big difference, but they are just tools and what difference they actually make depends not on them but on the people who wield them.

WSIS events, and the process leading up to them, offer a framework in which to argue for “pro-poor” policies that extend access to information and communication technologies.

Access to information via ICTs can bring knowledge and empowerment, and thus can help solve the practical life-problems (economic, social, health, environmental, etc.) faced by communities around the world which are challenged by poverty. WSIS should deal with how to create a level playing field; how to enable everyone gain access to ICTs and the information it can disseminate; how to deploy ICTs intelligently to make the world a more liveable place, etc. But given human nature what it is and knowing the way governments of different countries work for their own interests, these are high hopes.

Still, I think we should try to use this opportunity – provided at such huge cost – to gain at least a small part of these goals. Better communication, improved livelihood opportunities, better entertainment, greater comfort, better governance, greater transparency, better education and healthcare and so on.

In my own area of interest the Internet and the Web can be used to help scientists gain access to research papers relevant to their work at no or very low cost as well as help scientists in poor countries gain greater visibility by posting their work on open archives. The technology is available, but not much progress is being made.

India does not seem to be involved with the WSIS process. Why is that so despite India being an IT power house and having a strong civil society?
I have not really followed the role of the Indian government in WSIS. But a number of individuals and NGOs from India seem to be active in many discussion lists. As far as I know, a few Indians are invited to some important sessions in Geneva. But, Africa seems to have a better presence. That has been the case for some years now. Tanzania, Senegel and Mali seem to take much interest both in creating an information infrastructure in their countries and in taking part in such events.

The fact that India is an IT powerhouse has nothing to do with the WSIS. May be marginally as far as trade in software is concerned. But that is not the main thrust of WSIS.

What role can the Indian civil society play in the WSIS process? And what issues should it highlight in the process? The answer is simple. The civil society should try to get out of WSIS what they want in their programmes – integrated development, gender equity, transparency, human rights, freedom from censorship, free flow of knowledge, ethical practices in trade, nature conservation, debt relief for poor countries and so on.

Civil societies should fight for their rightful place in decision-making and implementation, should offer to partner with governments and other institutions in planning and executing programmes.

What benefits accrue if India participates in the WSIS?
It is a world event with the backing of the Secretary General of the UN and we are a large country and a regional power. As a leader of the developing world we should take part and play our legitimate role in WSIS. We can voice our views strongly and put our weight behind proposals that we would like to be accepted and implemented.

The most important point about the Information Society is to create equal opportunities for all countries. India can mobilise the support of all developing countries (as it happened at the WTO Cancun meet) and help put forth a united front.

India may also offer the undoubted strength we have in software development and space technology for any internationally funded programmes that may result out of WSIS (not just the technology part but also the services part, e.g. education, healthcare delivery, entertainment and development initiatives).

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