Aarati Krishnan

The Government at your beck and call

Aarati Krishnan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 08, 2016


Digital democracy is a fascinating idea, but it cannot be achieved without more widespread internet access

You may admire the Narendra Modi government or dislike it. But you cannot deny that it is one of the most digitally savvy administrations we have had in India. The digital smarts and social media popularity of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are now being actively leveraged to establish a direct connect between the Government and its citizens.

Think of it as a modern-day version of Akbar’s Diwan-i-Aam where any aggrieved citizen, however lowly, could ring the palace bell, and report injustices to the sovereign. The e-governance initiatives of the Modi regime seek to achieve precisely this, through digital connectivity.

So you have Union ministers such as Sushma Swaraj and Suresh Prabhu responding promptly to consumer grievances with respect to their portfolios via their Twitter handles.

Major ministerial statements and policy decisions of the Centre are conveyed not just on the PIB website, but also through ministerial Twitter handles. When a new rule is densely drafted, the departmental secretary is at hand on Twitter to clarify. If you didn’t catch the Prime Minister’s demonetisation address on November 8, no worries, you could log on to the Reserve Bank of India website for FAQs. The Centre is also actively soliciting the citizen’s participation in policymaking through three distinct digital initiatives. One, if you’re keen to receive regular updates on what the Government is up to, all you need to do is to sign up on the My Government portal (https://www.mygov.in).

This puts you on the mailing list to receive regular updates on new announcements, participate in government surveys and discussion boards, and even offer your services or suggestions to upcoming government projects or policy announcements.

Good response

If you’re wondering if this is getting any response from us lazy Indians, it’s getting plenty. As the time of writing, some 39 lakh citizens were registered with the MyGov portal and had posted 35 lakh comments on various discussions live on the site. The invitation for Union Budget 2017 ideas had received 2,500 suggestions. Revenue ideas for the Indian Railways elicited 3,500 posts — ranging from fixing solar panels on the roofs of trains to ferrying fruits and vegetables in AC coaches!

Two, there’s a concerted push to transform the Twitter handles of different ministries into e-Sewa or grievance redressal platforms for citizens. So if you’re on Twitter and face a problem with any of these public services, you can tweet your complaint straight to the ministry. The ministries of railways, external affairs and communications are already on this platform, as are the police forces of a few States.

Three, many government entities, including Prime Minister Modi in his personal capacity, now have smartphone apps where you can participate in polls and surveys. The most visible instance of this was the survey on demonetisation conducted via the Narendra Modi app, when 90 per cent of the 5 lakh subscribers gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the controversial move.

Ambitious plans are afoot to expand the scope of this government-citizen interface to more areas of governance.

People power

This digital outreach empowers citizens in three ways. One, it enhances the accountability of elected representatives. After casting one’s vote, one need not be a passive spectator to the whims and fancies of the ruling regime until the next election crops up.

Two, by cutting out the vast army of bureaucrats that stands between the Government and us, it reduces the scope for corruption.

Three, to be heard by the government of the day on events such as the Union Budget, you no longer need to belong to a powerful lobby group or be a crony capitalist. You just need to be on the internet.

But powerful as the idea of e-governance is, it presently suffers from one big flaw. It assumes that the voice of the citizens on social media or the internet, is also the voice of the aam aadmi. That is far from the truth, given that digital access in India is as yet restricted to an elite few.

What numbers say

Just consider the numbers. To post one’s thoughts on the MyGov portal, one needs uninterrupted internet access. As of June 2016, India was home to 35 crore internet subscribers (source: TRAI), with nearly 18 crore of those subscribers still on narrowband; we all know how dodgy that can be. Broadband internet connections stood at 16 crore, just 12 per cent of the Indian population. Only a fraction of those users own a Twitter handle (about 3 per cent of the population) or Facebook account (about 15 per cent).

City folk may think mobile data connections are as ubiquitous as the air they breathe. But actual numbers tell us that well less than a third of the 103-crore mobile phone connections in India are enabled for (either 2G or 3G) internet, at 33 crore.

These may still seem like healthy numbers. But that’s because of double counting. Businesses and well-to-do households in the metros own multiple internet connections — my own residence has five. To arrive at the real number of households with internet access or social media accounts, such duplication will need to be removed.

A survey by Pew Research Center in April this year found that internet usage in India varied widely based on age, gender and income levels. It showed that about 22 per cent of Indians use the net, but usage is much lower for women (17 per cent), people in the 35-plus age group (12 per cent) and those in lower-income groups (11 per cent).

Clearly, given the high cost of owning smartphones or accessing data plans, the slice of the population that is constantly on the internet, is a pretty elite one.

This government is aware of the challenge and is working on multiple mega-projects to make internet access more inclusive — from the rollout of pan-India optic fibre networks to the opening of wifi hotspots at gram panchayats.

If these make good progress, in a few years, the Prime Minister will be able to gauge the public response to a big policy move through a snap poll on his app.

But as of now, we are still some way away from that happy situation.

Until then, allowing this affluent sliver of the internet-accessing population to wield a big influence on policymaking will result in skewed and inequitable decisions.

Published on December 08, 2016
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