The dramatic growth of IT and ITeS has led to policies heavily skewed in favour of big corporations
In isolation, the success story of India’s IT and IT-enabled services sector appears remarkable in terms of economic indicators and the adulation that the national and the international media heaps on it. But academician and researcher Pradip Ninan Thomas’ book ‘Digital India’ attempts to take a holistic view of the information technology era in the second most populous country, and analyses the cross-links between information, communication and social change.
It is a difficult story to narrate, the author admits in the introductory chapter, when he states the challenges in putting together all the pieces of the jigsaw: “The digital exists in myriad forms, as product and process and is the common language for multiple projects across numerous productive sectors — in education as much in agriculture and in manufacturing”.
There is the even bigger challenge in trying to catch the zeitgeist of the digital. A book on the topic can become obsolete between the time it is finished and hits the shelves. But it is to the author’s credit here that most information presented in the book remains relevant. Some chapters quote newspaper reports and analysis from as recent as the first half of 2012. There are references to the 2G spectrum allocation scandal and the Satyam Computers saga finds mention as a story that is nearly erased from public memory.
Government and IT
The book is divided into four sections: Information Technology in a Liberalised Economy, Government 1.0 and Information Technology, Government 2.0 and Information Technology and Contested Information Technology. Each section is divided into chapters featuring in-depth essays that examine a wide array of subjects ranging from the software industry to mobile telephony to use of ICT for development to public sector software in India.
In his summation of the growth of the software industry in the country, Thomas points out that the State’s approach towards the sector has varied dramatically in the pre-New Computer Policy (NCP) era before 1984, until which governments considered software exports as low priority, and the post-NCP since which the sector has been showered with benefits ranging from tax exemptions to land acquisitions at undervalued prices. Prior to neo-liberalisation and during the heydays of the socialist economy, MNCs were welcomed only grudgingly.
But the dramatic growth of the IT and ITeS has seen policies and decisions taken by the government heavily skewed in favour of the big corporations and this has led to inequitable development. There have been very negligible spill-over effects to other sectors like manufacturing or agricultural, and the heavy dependence of the IT services sector on the economies of U.S. and some countries of Europe has been a negative factor.
The author sees the irony of the SEZs (special economic zones) created for the software services industries, and points at one instance where the farmers, whose lands were acquired by the government to set up the infrastructure for the big corporations, ended up as gardeners for the IT parks working on the picture perfect lawns. Sometimes the state’s identity itself is being formed by the aspirational logic of serving the IT industry, the author writes, and points out as an example the visit of Bill Gates to the Amethi constituency of Congress MP and leader-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi in May 2010 as if he is capable of doing a ‘Houdini Act’. Bill Gates himself has been quoted as saying “you can’t eat computers”.
Role of ICT
The book also critiques the role of ICT in development and in a passage looks elaborately at the Bhoomi Project in Karnataka that worked towards digitising the land records of the revenue department. It is widely regarded as one of the more successful digitisation projects in the country. There are accounts that state that the farmers may have found the Bhoomi land record information kiosks at the district headquarters and taluk centers easy to use. But that is just one part of the story. Thomas points out that several records had been continuously mutated by corrupt practices and were not checked and corrected prior to the digitisation. In effect, the Bhoomi project may have inadvertently ended up legitimising some cases of records that have had years of corruption carried out by accountants in favour of the rich farmers against the word of the poor.
Digital India is a much needed critique on the information technology and related sectors and its ripple effects, some of which are already happening, and some of which have not really happened. Take for example, the case of the dramatic increase in the number of mobile phone subscribers in the country. Questions still remain on whether or not it has led to the kind of social change that should have taken place to warrant the slew of benefits the private players in the sectors received from the government.
One of the big handicaps that Thomas faced while telling the story of Digital India was the lack of credible published research and media reports on the topic. This has some bearing as a few chapters conclude with rather abrupt summations. But ‘Digital India’ is a book worth reading to get a bird’s eye view of an industry that has built itself over the past three decades and a nation that is figuring out ways to reap benefits from the assets created.
DIGITAL INDIA: Pradip Ninan Thomas; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 650.