The grand delusion of Digital India

The idea of attacking poverty by increasing mobile connectivity in a country that ranks 55 in the Global Hunger Index is just fantasy

October 06, 2015 12:54 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Interviewer: What would you regard as the most outstanding and significant event of the last decade?

Siddhartha: The… war in Vietnam, sir.

Interviewer: More significant than landing on the moon?

Siddhartha: I think so, sir.

— “Pratidwandi” (The Adversary), 1970

The most fundamental debate for our youth is the choice between Android, iOS or Windows. — Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A glib modernity has perpetrated the belief that technology can bring about the liberation of human beings. Therefore, it is not surprising that the post-colonial history of colonised nations is also largely a history of this unrealisable fantasy. Digital India is the latest enchantment. The irony is that what goes missing in the search of a “technological fix” is human beings themselves. What should worry us is not the digital divide, but the fundamental divide between a rapidly growing technological capability and a snail-like growth in eliminating human deprivation.

>Mr. Modi’s Digital India speech at Silicon Valley showed his remarkable continuity with the policies of post-independence governments, which grievously ignored the fundamental bases of development, health and education, leading to colossal failures in eliminating deprivation. Is it of any surprise that in 2011, 50 per cent of rural India was illiterate or semiliterate? Or that dengue overwhelms New Delhi now? All this is the result of an impoverished understanding of development as merely economic growth and progress in science and technology, rather than ensuring basic human capacities and dignity. Hence, we are in a conjuncture in which 71 per cent of rural India owns mobile phones while 75 per cent of it lives on Rs. 33 per day.

Nissim Mannathukkaren

Technocratic development But Mr. Modi’s Digital India adds a crucial distinction: even the fig leaf of palliative attempts made by previous regimes in dealing with the great rural dislocation has been dispensed with. Socialism, which is still formally a part of the Indian Constitution, becomes a dirty word where a market-led vision of society has supposedly triumphed. Thus the substantial reduction of the already abysmal social sector spending, especially in health and education, is not just a policy decision but part of a larger philosophy. The central characteristic of technocratic development is that it is immune to pain; for instance, the agriculture minister attributes farmer suicides to “impotency” and failed “love affairs”.

In the technocratic vision, democracy is a result of technology. That is why for Mr. Modi, “ >technology is advancing citizen empowerment and democracy, that once drew their strength from Constitutions .” This is a remarkable statement — no democratic revolution in the world has been brought about by technology, but by human beings willing to sacrifice themselves for equality and liberty. Here, technology might be an instrument, just as it might equally be a tool in the hands of oppressors. Perhaps, it is not ironic that in the Information Age, governments and corporations have the most vital information about people’s private and public lives.

Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden threatened global power structures through the power of information technology, but as they were not backed by mass democratic movements, they have been condemned to imprisonment or political asylum. The fact that India has been flooded with more than a billion mobile phones in the last ten years has not made it a deeper or stronger democracy. Technology such as WhatsApp can mobilise people for democratic struggles or to kill a person for eating beef.

Mr. Modi also claims that “we have attacked poverty by using the power of networks and mobile phones to launch a new era of empowerment and inclusion.” The idea of attacking poverty in a country where 50 per cent of the people are still dependent on agriculture and where agriculture grew at 1.1 per cent last year simply by increasing mobile connectivity sounds phantasmic! The gargantuan scale of structural inequities based on class and caste in land ownership, along with the declining public investment in agriculture under neoliberalism, which fuels agrarian distress, is glossed over here.

India’s economy finally grew faster than China’s in 2014. But >on a variety of social indicators, it is decades behind China because the latter, as Amartya Sen has repeatedly emphasised, invested heavily in health and education under communism before it turned to market-led growth.

India’s fast growth rates since 1991 have been the product of a privileged few. The benefits too have primarily gone to them. The denouement of Digital India will be no different. But the opacity of technocratic development prevents it from seeing this reality. Thus, the Indian middle class thinks it is really “middle”, having expanded greatly by pulling up vast numbers from the poor classes in the last 25 years. But in a revealing statistic which will prick this delusion, the Pew Research Center points out that in the period from 2001 to 2011, while poverty was reduced both in China and India, the middle class grew from 3 per cent to 18 per cent in China, while it expanded from 1 per cent to 3 per cent in India. Though the measurement of the middle class numbers is contentious, even other assessments, like that of the Center for Global Development, put the number at 5.88 per cent.

The hollowness of Digital India, Start-up India and Make in India cannot ring louder for those who will access the Internet, start business ventures and produce goods, but do not have basic facilities as human beings. India ranked 55 out of 76 countries in the Global Hunger Index last year, behind Nepal. Half of rural India lives in kuccha houses and works as casual manual labour. And these lives are supposedly going to be transformed by the magic wand of broadband access (which stands at 1.2 per cent of the population now).

In the film Pratidwandi, the answers proffered by the protagonist Siddhartha Chowdhury did not bag him the job at the Botanical Survey of India interview. To the utter incredulity of his interviewers, Siddhartha went on to say that the moon landing was remarkable but not unpredictable, given the state of technology. But what was unpredictable about the Vietnam War was “the extraordinary power of resistance” mounted by the poor peasants: “This isn’t a matter of technology; it’s just plain human courage.”

If these answers did not get space in the imagination of the “socialist” India of the 60s, they seem to have been completely banished from the present-day capitalist India. It is time to realise that the future of India is not in the “fundamental debate” about the “choice between Android, iOS or Windows”, as Mr. Modi thinks. It lies in the building of a radically democratic society, which will not sacrifice human beings for technological utopias and which will ensure that the benefits of technology are harnessed in the most socially and ecologically just manner. It is time to believe that Siddhartha’s answers were not obsolete, neither then nor now.

(Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada. Email:

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