Monday, June 29, 2009

- Using information technology for national transformation

Just two months ago, Lal K. Advani had entertained hopes of becoming prime minister. It was not just the seat he had prepared for; he also had an ambition of building a greater India — sorry, Bharat. Hindutva was not all there was to it. He had got his colleagues and devotees to prepare many plans. Amongst them was a plan to use information technology for national transformation. What kind of transformation the Bharatiya Janata Party had in mind is worth a thought even now.
One of the reasons for India’s poor IT coverage is that its electric power industry is in a mess. The BJP was not so ambitious as to sort out power problems. But it proposed to set up special internet zones in the hill states of the North and Northeast where servers would not require so much power to cool. There it wanted to promote internet hosting companies. Why? Because it would save bandwidth charges. That is old-style import substitution. It was not a very good reason; if the idea had been economically rational, entrepreneurs, even those who support the BJP, would have implemented it by now. But improving power supply in a few places is worth trying, since no party has the ambition or the guts to reform power; BJP-ruled states should do it.
The BJP believed that India’s enemies were working to cripple its communications and information networks in the event of war. It said that it had set up an agency to prepare for this eventuality when it was in power last time, and would revive it when it returns to power. Paranoia? Coming from the BJP, it would seem so. But it also wanted to set up a secure information network for the government, like the American justice information sharing network. And there was to be a national emergency service network, which would respond to calls for help and coordinate the police, hospitals and so on. That sounds a good idea if the police can be persuaded to use it. Very often, spying agencies alert the police about terrorist attacks, but the police ignore them.
The BJP wanted to computerize judicial records — pleadings, judgments, calendars, police etc etc. It wanted judges’ assets declarations to go online. All this has been tried already. The obstacle has been a conservative and lackadaisical judiciary; it is doubtful if the BJP could put some life into it.
The BJP wanted to rejuvenate the Survey of India and turn it into a provider of detailed digitized geographical information. It was obviously unaware of the fact that Google proceeded to do it and was promptly stopped by the government of India, which considered such information militarily sensitive. The result is that the Chinese army has free access to information about every inch of India from its satellites, while Indians are denied it. It is obviously a good idea to make available to all Indians data that India’s enemies readily access. The BJP also wanted to digitize all the documents and photographs available with the government and place them online. A great idea, except that digitization is labour-intensive, and that access to such archives on the web is limited by memory and bandwidth. It is probably an idea whose time has not yet arrived.
The BJP wanted to indigenize the internet. So it would force computer makers to manufacture the Indian language Inscript keyboard. It would force makers of mobile phones to promote rendition of SMSs in Indian languages. It would force television programme channels to use Indian languages. It is not enough for Rajnath and Lalkrishna to perorate in Hindi; all those nerds who are always e-mailing and SMSing in between writing software in English must be made to do such things in Hindi.
Plans to give computers to every school are more than a decade old. Advani came up with another idea. He would have got a crore of laptops manufactured and sold them to students at Rs 10,000 each. This is the kind of idea that comes to those who are innocent of economics. It is impossible to set both the price and the demand by policy. If the government offers a laptop for Rs 10,000, either the demand will exceed a crore, in which case a black market will develop, or demand will fall short, in which case the government will be left with unsold laptops. Being nationalist, a BJP government would never think of exporting surplus laptops; so they would rust in government godowns. But Microsoft also has a dream of designing a low-cost laptop for students. If the government had any sense, it would ride piggyback on Microsoft’s plans.
The recipients of those crore laptops would have to be taught to use them. So the BJP government would have employed 25 lakh teachers. A 1:4 teacher-student ratio is extraordinarily favourable. Most of us learnt to use computers without any teacher. The 25 lakh teachers would teach the crore students whatever they needed to learn in a month at the most; after that, the teachers would be unemployed. The BJP would then presumably employ them to write vernacular software. That would surely need some training; and even if the teachers had the expertise, the demand for vernacular software is not limitless. Advani had great ideas; they could be so great only because they were so unrealistic.
Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP had initiated programmes to construct national highways and rural roads. Under Advani, it would lay down digital highways and rural roads. Here too, the BJP did not mention the digital kiosks set up by the Congress government. Nothing the Congress did should be carried forward; it should be annihilated — or at least given a new Sanskrit name.
The BJP planned to increase the number of mobile subscribers from 40 to 100 crore — that is roughly 85 per cent of the population. That would include many of the poorest. How would they pay for the cellphones and their services? The BJP wanted to provide broadband to all who asked — for Rs 200 a month. The costs of providing it would be much higher; who would pay the difference? Advani’s dreams involved giving huge subsidies; they were not mentioned, not conceived, and hence not estimated.
Advani wanted to spread across the nation a rural broadband connection programme that Narendra Modi inaugurated on January 23, Subhas Bose’s birthday, in Haripura. Why Haripura? Because Bose gave a call for Swaraj there in 1938. The BJP mentioned that, but meticulously omitted to mention that he was addressing a session of the Congress. It quoted Rajiv Gandhi as saying, “Of every rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reaches the beneficiary.” But it was too coy to mention his name; it only called him “a former prime minister”.
I put Advani’s IT plan away because I did not want to criticize him before the election. But it did made me think: in this area, the BJP wants to do many things that the Congress has been doing or would agree to do; why can they not work together? Democracy does not require opposing parties to be perpetually at each other’s throats. Advani should hate less and consult more. (The Telegraph)

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