Varnas only celebrate their intelligence

 

Chandra Bhan Prasad

A few years ago, a former foreign secretary had said, "Dalits don't fit into the Indian Civil Services' culture." What the retired (Varna) civil servant seemed to be saying was: a civil servant is meant to govern people and not serve them.  This seems to be the culture of the Varna order. But even then, some of them do defy Varna morality and serve the people: they distribute contraceptives, organise yoga classes for prisoners, turn into national heroes and walk away with a Magsasay. The Dalits, on the other hand, have served society for ages and even when they do get into the civil services, don't learn the culture of governing. They keep serving.

I know of stories about the commendable intelligence and concern shown by three Dalit IAS officers, who have even been able to use new age technology to their benefit. Training in formal knowledge has eluded Dalits since time immemorial. The systematic exclusion of the Dalits by the petrified Varna systems was more perfect than any computer programme. Computer programmes have bugs but the Varna system does not. The Varna system's juggernaut rolled on until Vasco da Gama's discovery of India.

Western ideas about democracy and rational thinking derailed the bandwagon of the Varna order during British rule and the wheels of that cannot be turned back. The democratising ability of technology is now denting the Varna-driven remote control systems of exclusion. Few Dalits have been able to use this new technology to bridge the digital divide. While a Varna officer tends to turn IT into a profitable venture rather than addressing welfare concerns of the Indian Republic, Dalits tend to do what their job requires of them.

The three Dalits in question have made history in the IT field by coming up with unprecedented models of public administration. Rajesh Rajora, district collector of Dhar, MP, set up the Gyandoot Project on January 1, 2000. The project involved the setting up of information kiosks or Soochanalyas in villages which provided information from intranet. Caste/birth certificates, land records, online grievance registration, agricultural prices, rural e-mail and government schemes through kiosks on a user-charge basis help save the common man's time, money and energy.

The project went on to win the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award. The jury, in its citation, said, "Gyandoot is a breakthrough in e-governance, demonstrating a paradigm shift." It won the coveted award from among 107 competing projects and also bagged the Computer Society of India-TCS National IT Award in 2000.

C Umashankar, district collector of Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, created the first e-district within the country. He philosophised, "The level of e-governance will remain directly proportional to the level of database content in the overall computerisation process and its updating." He believed that interface should come either in native languages or should be bilingual (with English). By December 1999, Tiruvarur district developed more than 20 packages of software and even created standards for e-governance software to follow. And with Tamil interface on the computers, the common man flocked to the machines.

While Rajora and Umashankar were creating history in their respective districts, another computer savvy Dalit, Raja Sekhar Vundru, the district collector at Fatehabad, Haryana, was busy bringing people nearer to the IT revolution. Vundru turned his district into the first in the country to have a District Computer Network linking all sub-divisions, towns, tehsils, municipalities, blocks and collectorate offices. Fatehabad also became the first district to digitise revenue records on CDs and set up a district website. Vundru later turned Mahendragarh into the first Interactive Voice Response System district in India. He pioneered district websites, put service rules onto the web and involved people in District Computer Societies. He was later appointed director of IT, Haryana and launched video conferencing facilities for the State in 2001.

The most astounding fact is that none of these young IT savvy Dalit civil servants have computer backgrounds. Rajora has done his MBBS, Umashankar is a commerce graduate and Vundru an MSc in life sciences. All of them joined the IAS in 1990 and are currently engaged in experimenting with newer ideas. While Rajora is looking after Balaghat District, Umashankar is in Chennai and Raja Sekhar is a deputy secretary in Delhi. They are all called Digital Dalits and the systems and softwares they have developed are being used by most state governments. They are the pioneers of e-governance in India - but have any one of them ever been featured on the cover pages of magazines which often celebrate "achievers," have any one of them been featured on TV channels or have any of them been recommended for the Magsasay?

The IT revolution sprung out of America and brought with its expansion the digital divide. The same American society is now ridding itself of that divide. Can Indian society also learn from these three pioneering Dalits and celebrate their intelligence?

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 [Courtesy: Ambedkar.org, November 5, 2001]