Information and Communication Technologies for Consolidating Democracy: A Case Study from India

AUTHOR
Sunil Kumar, Manju Dhariwal, Arun K Pujari and Raghubir Sharan

ABSTRACT

Within a very short period of time, ICTs have become increasingly ubiquitous in the world. In fact, these are getting interwoven in our lives. In this process, ICTs have created a good deal of expectation that these can be employed to enhance the welfare of all mankind. The important word here is all -all mankind. A technology necessarily may not help all mankind; it may privilege one section of mankind and deprive the other. Our aim should be to overcome this limitation and shape and design ICT in such a way that the number of privileged is increased and the number of deprived is decreased. It is worth mentioning here that this is not the prevailing way of looking at technology.

Before proceeding further, let us clarify what we mean by privileged and deprived people. We do it by noting some of the synonyms (attributes) of privileged that come to mind. These are, haves, masters, colonizers, oppressors. Similarly, the synonyms of deprived can be taken as have-nots, slaves, colonized, oppressed. With this in mind, let us denote privileged as class A and deprived as class B. One immediately observes that class A and class B appear at several levels- between nations, between communities of the same nation, between genders, and finally in the two sides inside the same human being. In other words, one is overwhelmed by inter-class and intra-class divides.

Technologies are generally built on existing technologies to add affluence to existing affluence. ICTs must strive for narrowing the gap in any society. Many feel that ICTs have grown beyond their initial assumptions and all facets of ICTs do not contribute towards narrowing the gap even for the society that developed ICTs. Some components of ICTs do intentionally cause widening the gap between class A and class B. In this competition, a section of mankind is left behind and gets deprived. It is treated as collateral damage.

This was a major objection of Mahatma Gandhi to large scale deployment of technology. It is generally believed that unlike technology, democracy, if properly used, has potential to reduce this gap. It appears then that use of ICT to strengthen democratic processes may turn out to be beneficial. This should be of special interest to developing countries like India which are experimenting with democracy under adverse circumstances.

Our limited concern in this paper is to look afresh on ICT so that it is of help in reducing the number of deprived (class B) in the desert province of Rajasthan, which is located in the western part of India. Rajasthan has a population of approximately 57 million which is almost equal to the population of Italy. The per capita income in this province is approximately US $ 400. The state of economic affluence as well as the state of technology in Rajasthan is indeed very different from those of America and Western Europe (where ICT was originally developed). Assumptions which are taken for granted in latter societies may not hold at all in the former society. Under the circumstances, a thoughtless hype on potentiality of ICT to enhance the welfare of all mankind may cause serious despair. This calls for a different way of looking at ICT.

This can be done in three different ways: i) by using existing ICT tools, ii) by making minor extensions and modifications to existing tools and iii) by thinking of totally new ways in which technology and social concern will cooperate to enhance the welfare of all mankind. This last one is, obviously, the most difficult one and there are no ready answers. We are struggling to develop an attack on this problem. For the present, some successful examples of deployment of technology in India, which have proven to be beneficial to deprived, are presented here.

  1. Institutional structure which enables each eligible voter to cast his/her vote is essential for democracy to survive. This structure is stretched to its limit in vast countries with large population like India. The sheer volume of printing of ballot papers, their transportation, counting and so on, becomes marathon operation. This provides scope for corruption (which hurts the deprived more then it hurts the privileged). To obviate this, in the last decade, electronic voting machines (EVM) have been deployed in India. Initially this task appeared unsolvable. But the election commission of India persevered with the help of two public sector units and successfully overcame enormous difficulties. Use of EVMs has provided more efficient governance of election process; thereby it has empowered the have-nots to cast their votes and get their candidates elected.
  2. The technology of EVM needs several refinements. At the present, these operate as isolated units. It should be possible to use networking to qualitatively improve data transfer from EVM to a central nodal point. For it to be possible ICT has to become qualitatively more secure and reliable; also very different Human-Computer Interfaces have to be developed. This has to be done with realistically assessed conditions of technology and affluence of developing countries. A requirement sheet, along with the ensuing specification sheet has been prepared by our research group. Implementation of this design is under consideration. Progress in this regard will be reported in the conference.

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