July 2005

Information Revolution and India – A Critique

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Technology and the society have a symbiotic and interdependent relationship. Though the   technology by itself could work as a panacea to create the ever-elusive digital bridge, its perpetrators are not immune to that ancient human trait we call ‘greed’. Amidst the ongoing  tug of war for the control and the freedom of Internet, it is worth reminding that information control is inherently linked with vesting of, and wrestling for power. Retired civil servant S S Gill had two specific close encounters with the IT revolution in India – firstly, when he served as the Secretary of Information & Broadcasting in the mid eighties and secondly, when he was the first CEO of Prasar Bharti more than a decade later in 1997-98. Besides, he has been  interacting with a plethora of visionaries, government officials and academicians while writing this Critique. This is a comprehensive book starting with a primer on IT (for the lay  readers) and then, goes on to develop the theme of its growth story interlinked inevitably with the globalisation, work and employment, information warfare and its impact on democracy.

Being a bureaucrat, the author had a ringside view of the slow and easy pace of working in the government. The key motivation for computerisation is well described as “Each ministry is an empire in itself…During colonial times, life moved at a slow and easy pace, so delay in taking decisions did not matter much…what could [be] better … than computerisation of information contained in thousands and thousands of files, and its instant retrieval and manipulation by the click of a mouse…And above all, there was the Internet to provide immediate horizontal linkages across the whole country and the world.”

There are chapters like IT and the People, IT and the Business but the best is IT and the Government. Herein, he describes the monolithic government machinery, history of NIC (National Informatics Centre) and PRS (Passenger Railway Reservation System) of Railways. One comes to know that PRS actually handled a plethora of variables, which no other railway  could even imagine – just think about all sorts of quotas & classes and the possible combinations. Similarly, NIC developed its own network connecting the Districts and the Courts. The book does suffer from little emphasis on redesigning the whole governmental process using IT – an area where the impact could be much more tangible and meaningful than the automation alone.

According to the famed Quantum physicist Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty both momentum and location of a particle cannot be determined very accurately. Similar is the  dilemma of anyone trying to put a finger on the pulse of ICT sector by measuring the relevant quantitative parameters with respect to a specific point in time. The author veers clear of this  by attributing and rightly so, that the changes in the sector would ensure that the figures in  the book are almost always wrong! At the same time, developments till mid-2003 have been  recorded rather well.

Of course, there is mention of Naidu, Krishna, GE but so are the oft-forgotten yet important moves like setting up of IT Task Force in 1998 by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari  Vajpayee. All the same, the language is authoritative and shows the mastery on the Queen’s  lingua franca, albeit tampered with the obviously Americanised spellings – thanks to the  word processing software’s default settings.True to its name, the book lives up to its name and  ends with a stark reality “man’s insatiable greed is turning [Information Technology] into  nightmares”.

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