By Rajendra Prabhu
As I write our people have begun the first phase of electing a new government for themselves. India is announcing to the world that the largest ever electorate is pressing button on an electronic voting machine to record its choice. Not even the United States is using an electronic voting machine so extensively as India is.
The so called illiterate Indian voter who presses the EVM button to record his vote is giving a Thumbs Up sign to the world. As one who has reported political processes and scientific progress for decades, I have reason to believe history is in the making.
The application of science and technology by the common man, even illiterate women and schoolgoing kids to human welfare is one of the most distinguishing features of the last few years. ?Can we eat the telephone? some political leaders asked when in 1999 it became an official policy to create a communication revolution in the country, an affordable communication revolution.
Over 5000 fishermen on the Kerala coast are using mobile phones while fishing in the sea. That keeps them in touch with the coast upto a distance of 60 km. When they land a catch they send out the message back to the coast. By the time they row back to the coast, the buyers have lines up as the message has spread and the fishermen get far better price for their catch as buyers haggle for the catch. In case of a sudden danger or freak weather, they get the message from the coast and rush back home. Their lives are safer today because of the mobile phone.
Much the same story on the east coast. In Vellinore village in Pondicherry a center set up by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation regularly broadcasts weather conditions including sea wave height to the coastal villages. Since these broadcasts became regular not one life has been lost in the sea due to the sea turning rough. Farmers in the area get regular information on market trends and availability of services. There are centers manned entirely by women, six of these women, only semi-literate or with education upto eighth class, were recently invited by the World Summit on Information Society to present their experience of applying Information and Communication Technologies to social and economic processes. Amidst government ministers and business executives from over160 countries, they made a debut. The core of their experience was the formation of self-help groups of similar lower middle class and poor women. Not one of them was asking for government largesse.
If so, what is the Government claiming the shine when people are applying science, technology and spirit of independence to change their own destinies? Last five years have been marked by government policies that have promoted this application in a myriad ways. At the IIT in Chennai, over a dozen companies are being incubated that are bent on developing low cost devices for the bringing low cost communication benefits to rural areas-devices like an ATM for delivering money, a diagnostic panel that would monitor heartbeat, blood pressure, ECG etc remotely and enable a doctor to examine a patient from some 100 km away, local language Internet and so on. nLog, a company sponsored by Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues at the IIT is already reaching out to rural communities with kiosks that pay for themselves by providing services like market reports, government applications, information including daily position of stars and planets for a small fee. Again, no one is asking government for subsidies or doles of any kind.
Vajpayee has taken many who knew him for long by surprise by his determination to weave into the warp of governance these new patterns. Frankly, many of them expected him to sing a different tune. Somewhere there is a disconnect that historians would have to unravel later. But every true leader outgrows his past to metamorphose into a statesman and create a niche for his country in the whirligig of history. Many before him had sunk in the intricacies of coalition politics. Vajpayee has grown in his office.
Such experiments are multiplying all across the country. In some of them large corporations like ITC have participated building self-paying Internet kiosks in villages for promoting large transactions. Elite institutions like IITs and research foundations are working with the disadvantaged sections of society teaching them how to stand on their own feet and get into the 21st century. IGNOU in Delhi is reaching out to some million construction workers across the country in a bid to raise their level of technical skills, enable them to read drawings, upgrade their understanding of the construction processes etc. and then issue them trade certificate-most of them illiterate or semi-literate.
This has been made possible through a deliberate policy of competition that made communication affordable to the low-income groups through state of the art networks. This is possibly a most significant contribution of the NDA government over the last five years made possible through a courageous process of breaking the conventional box thinking. In 1999, it let the telecom operators off the hook of paying upfront license fees and agreed to a share of their revenues. Those who worked out an uproar over the decision are now regretting their shortsightedness.
That is the word: shortsight-edness. The NDA Government might have faltered, sometime failed, at times even displayed incompetence, but the contours of this Vision of India have emerged over the last five years even before the coalition came out a fortnight back with its vision in a glossy print. No political formation before this has dedicated so much to applying latest developments of science and technology like Information technology, biotechnology and promotion of learning processes (as distinct from mere literacy) to socio-economic transformation as an integral part of its vision for the country. No political formation had before this offered an integral vision encompassing roads, railways, airports and seaports and rivers. Thirty crore telephone connections and countrywide broadband at affordable price is a big leap forward. Much bolder is the promise to face globalization and ride on it to the front rather than run away from it with high tariff walls as many in his own party would have liked. The distinction is between political courage and pusillanimity.
One radical development: The very process of government is now going on line compelling the staid old bureaucracy to respond to the call of the modern age in transparency, accountability, openness and make governance citizen-centric. These are words of recent coinage. Not many expected Vajpayee and his party to adopt them.
Prime Minister Vajpayee has taken many who knew him for long by surprise by his determination to weave into the warp of governance these new patterns. Frankly, many of them expected him to sing a different tune. Somewhere there is a disconnect that historians would have to unravel later. But every true leader outgrows his past to metamorphose into a statesman and create a niche for his country in the whirligig of history. Many before him had sunk in the intricacies of coalition politics. Vajpayee has grown in his office beyond the framework of coalition politics.
His party also grows with him. Ridiculed in the media and among liberals as temple-centric, backward looking, fond of the old world, is now the most technology savvy-look at the use it makes of modern gadgets and technologies in raining mails and messages, reaching out to every single voter. By the time next election comes, such reach out would even be interactive enabling every one to call up the Prime Minister. Already the Fax machine is nailing the MLAs and MPs to respond to their constituents? pleas. Soon interactive systems would compel them to talk wherever they are. Let the new MPs take note.
Over 5000 fishermen on the Kerala coast are using mobile phones while fishing in the sea. That keeps them in touch with the coast upto a distance of 60 km. When they land a catch they send out the message back to the coast.
The resilience of democracy is that it promotes competitive politics. Competition could be in pandering to the lowest common denominator or in aspiring for the highest common good. If it is the latter, change is the outcome. The NDA'sVision has also forced the other claimant, the Congress, to come out with its Vision of the country. That should be a welcome a development. Whoever the people chose, has to work with the one who loses. So both the contestants are important. Both must have visions otherwise, the pace would slow down. The Congress party'slatest entrant Sam Pitroda himself has proclaimed that the party needs to reinvent itself.
The Thums Up sign from the million EVMs would be the poor man'sproclamation to the world that through Vajpayee'sVision and others? counter vision, it is India that would be taking the step of faith into the 21st century'spromise of prosperity for all.
(The writer is a senior journalist and expert of information technology and communicatin and writes for many national and international journals. Contact him at [email protected])