Deepmala 21 – Information Technology & Indian Democracy

The wide impact of IT on economically, education, health, governance, etc. is frequently discussed. However, what is not often discussed is the role of IT on democracy.

We are in the early stages of a digital revolution that is changing the way information is generated, owned and used. The speed with which information moves is breathtaking. As you read this line, in the next minute, 12 million e-mail messages will be sent. By this time tomorrow, 37 million people would have logged on the net. The internet traffic will double by this time next year. One, therefore, feels that this revolution will enable democracy to be more integral to all human endeavors, our government, our business and our personal lives.

The basis for democracy and a prerequisite for its long-term success, is an informed public. The fundamental political changes in Eastern Europe, Ireland, East Timor, and South Africa were all possible because, try as they might, those governments were unable to control the generation and distribution of economic, political and social information within their societies. Once that control is lost, democracy is inevitable. Chinese students found that fax machines were more powerful than rifles.

First the people must be literate enough to be able to read and understand the information that is relevant to their lives. Television and radio have been revolutionary tools in this sense. Secondly, democracy requires that people have open access to certain basic economic and political data and to a diversity of opinions. This requirement means an access of information to all.

Thirdly, people must be able to share their ideas with others. Information technology is making it possible to reach beyond time and place to a wider community of citizens. The content creation is, therefore, going to be a crucial part of the strategy, since information could be now used for a variety of purposes, from propaganda to enlightenment.

A monitoring system to measure the quantity, quality, and impact of different kinds of information upon the economy and society is needed. We have such information with regard to literacy today but not with regard to the issues of access and interaction. In India, we need a set of indicators to serve as a basis for regular monitoring and reporting on the state of our information systems.

We in India should create and implement a development strategy for information technologies that is supportive of democratic processes. Such a system should explicitly address the three goals of literacy, access and interaction and the roles of the private and public sectors in promoting those processes.

Finally, it is important to note that the advance of information technology will not only force a review of the legal and practical meaning of the notion of individual privacy, but also that of the ‘privacy’ of nations. Furthermore, the existence of inexpensive, multiple and worldwide network for communicating information will shift power from government to individuals. The netizens will have a world of their own. While information technology will vastly increase the power of a government to monitor its people, the government’s control over the information distribution will be diminished. Information will still be power – but it will be a shared power. The increased worldwide distribution of information will also lead to increased awareness in less developed countries of how the people with superior life styles live. This will provide interesting driving forces, both nationally and globally. The availability of information network will diminish the reliance on elected representatives and technical experts to make decisions on behalf of the public at large. The forum of public opinion rather than ministerial negotiation will control the final decision. This will also mean that greater attention to ‘quality’ of information available to electorate will be important. As the largest democracy in the world, it will be interesting to see what information technology will have, when it starts ‘reaching the unreached’ and ‘connecting the unconnected’.