“I firmly believe that the digital age can change our country for the good, if digital tools are used with a citizen-centric strategy. Information poverty is the most sustained and perennial misery that a vast majority of the population is still subjected to.
Digital tools and applications can largely solve this problem through information empowerment and entitlement gains till the last mile. Little did I know that within one-and-a-half decade of the advent of the digital revolution in our country, political representatives and governments would use electronic devices and digital media as welfare doles to derive electoral gains. Votes are garnered not merely by offering schemes like jobs, health cards, identity cards, scholarships, cycles for school girls and reservations, but lately state after state have been in the news for the distribution of laptops, tablets, mobile phones and broadband connections.
According to news reports, Bihar is planning a Rs.8,000-crore scheme to provide Internet-enabled tablets to digitally illiterate women. The plan is to launch the scheme before the next general election. In another report, the central government is planning to provide 25 million mobile phones and nine million tablets to targeted beneficiaries. Last year, Tamil Nadu distribnuted almost 7 million laptops to government-aided schools and colleges. In Uttar Pradesh, the government has two websites for its free laptop distribution scheme. While one appears to be for politically advocacy, the other is an official website where the beneficiary has to get registered to claim the laptop.
News emanating from across Uttar Pradesh is that many of these laptops were sold by the recipients rather than being used for educational purposes. Likewise, in other states also, if one surveys the beneficiaries to find what purpose the tools are used for, quite often than not, we may find that the use of the given digital tools may not have been used as appropriately as it would have been intended.
I overheard some experts discussing, “What’s the meaning of giving a laptop or hardware if we cannot provide adequate software, content, connectivity and power to even charge the digital devices?” Another expert commented, “It is like providing a car to some one who may not know how to drive and also without providing fuel and road to drive the car.”
Looking at these government schemes, especially during elections, it raises several questions on the wider political wisdom and maturity of the Indian society, its leadership and their vision. Considering that any popular scheme meant for gaining people’s attention and their favour in terms of votes cannot be a long-term strategy as the expectation to get vote is to rule a state or the nation. The objective is this raises a question mark on the people and our collective democratic maturity as a nation when voters appreciate and buy such short-term doles from political parties rather than seeking a permanent solution to their immediate and long-term problems. The gravest problem in our education system is that more than 40% of the teachers either do not go the school or do not take classes.
The national agenda in the above context is and must be very clear at the execution level. The political exigencies to announce and roll out welfare schemes must match national urgency to address educational goals. The launch of laptop distribution or mobile devices must be linked to whether it can stem school dropouts, teachers attendance can be ensured, or the technology has assisted in improving teaching and learning in government schools. Cutting across political fault lines, what is desired are that the people’s representatives and political parties agree on national priorities on key areas, including education. These connected with politically necessitated welfare measures will then gain much common ground with people’s needs and aspirations. Technology can be a great boon in this game to serve citizens better.”
-Osama Manzar
Founder-Director, Digital Empowerment Foundation,
New Delhi