Entering the information age

By Gail Omvedt

WILL THE computer age bring an era of renewed Brahman dominance? This is not simply a fear of a few pro-Dalit fanatics. It is a possibility that has been expressed, if not hailed, by no less an authority than Mr. Swaminathan S. Ankleswaria Aiyar, who characterises the information age in terms of ''Saraswati'' taking over from ''Laxmi.'' In his words, the ''neoBrahmans'' who had controlled the Nehruvian statist economy but yielded to the ''wretched vaishya culture'' which seemed to have won with liberation, can now smile again. ''The information revolution has enabled the neo-brahman to stage a shining comeback.'' (The Times of India, 2-1-2000). It seems true; the most-lauded Indian company is no longer a Reliance or a Telco but an Infosys, and the richest Indian is no longer an Ambani or a Hinduja or a Birla or even a Tata but a Deshpande.

But if India is entering the computer age on the basis of Brahmanism, this is cause to worry, not only for those concerned for social justice, but even for simple nationalists. In spite of the bursting confidence in the country about the accomplishments of Indians in storming Silicon Valley or creating its equivalents in Hyderabad or Bangalore or Pune, in fact India's place in the world of information technology looks very feeble. According to the 1999 Human Development Report, the country is actually doing quite badly. For every 1000 people there were, in 1996, 15 main telephone lines, 64 televisions, 1.5 personal computers and 0.01 Internet connections. This compares badly with other Asian developing countries. China, for example, has 45 telephone lines, 252 televisions, 3 personal computers and 0.02 Internet connections per 1,000 people. Indonesia, another large Asian country, had 21 main telephone lines, 232 televisions, 4.8 personal computers and 0.1 Internet connections per 1,000 people. The U.S. could be on a different planet altogether, with 640 main telephone lines, 806 televisions, 362.4 personal computers and 88.9 Internet connections! It is not a few Laxmis and Saraswatis, but the acquisition of mass capabilities that makes a country strong - and from this respect it is as if India were trying to compete in the infomation age on the basis of a population of 100 million rather than one billion. The majority of the population appears to remain excluded.

So it has to be asked, not why a few Indians are doing so well, but why the majority are so far behind. The answers are not so complex. There is the caste factor: symbolically the deprivation of the majority from knowledge is stamped into Indian cultural traditions. Shudras forbidden to read the Vedas, Shambuk executed for trying to gain the spiritual knowledge reserved for upper castes, Ekalavya deprived of his thumb for illegitimately acquiring military knowledge. While much has changed in the structures and functioning of caste, old attitudes still persist and affect children of Bahujan and Dalit families - education is not for you. ''In the house of the Brahmans there is knowledge; in the house of the Kunbis grain; in the house of the Mahars songs'' was a traditional Marathi saying that still has its impact. Traditional attitudes coming from without produce active discrimination, and traditional attitudes internalised within the family make it difficult for children of the so-called ''low'' castes to see themselves as people who can be good at intellectual pursuits.

There is also the factor of patriarchy: while some examples such as Tejal Desai in the U.S. show that Indian women can be at the forefront of information and biotechnology, in India the continued havoc of patriarchal social structures keeps them behind. Even upper caste and urban women are in danger of being only word processors and input-ers in the new era.

There is the miserable spread of education, the bureaucratic structure of the schools that do exist, the seeming satisfaction of most of the teaching profession with a system in which they and the children they teach simply do things by rote. Rote forms of education may be suitable to produce soldiers following orders or factory workers doing the same job over and over throughout the day - but are badly counterproductive in producing innovative, thinking individuals capable of the flexibility required in the new era. These old forms of education, of course, can in turn be linked to caste-cultural ideas underlying the elitist, urban and industrial-centred model of development India has followed since Independence.

There is finally, the fact that the rural areas as such, villages and small towns, are getting left behind in terms of access to the world of computers. This interacts with the caste factor in that Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis are all disproportionately rural, but there are also some separate reasons. It is true that there are a few significant efforts: we hear of a village in Punjab which is enthusiastically ''computerising'' and even has a home page on the web; we hear of the Warna cooperative sugar factory in Maharashtra which has ''wired up'' 60 to 70 villages; we hear of Prof. M. S. Swaminathan's village information project. We also hear constant promises from Ministers, words about telephones for every village, turning STD booths into ''information kiosks'' and so on. Yet these are meaningless by themselves as long as the reasons for the marginalisation of rural areas are not addressed.

The most important of these can be summed up in one word: infrastructure. Reliable, stable electricity and efficient telephones are essential to use computers and to access the Internet. This is precisely what is missing. Even when electricity and telephone services do exist, it is bad service. Anyone trying to phone our home in Kasegaon, a highway-side village in the supposedly most advanced rural area of Maharashtra, realises what bad telephone service means: constant repetitions in Hindi and English of ''this line is engaged, please try again after some time''. It takes 15 minutes to half an hour to get a line, and is sometimes simply impossible except before 8 in the morning and after 10-30 at night. This is equally true of small towns, and of some district towns as well, for instance, in the Adivasi areas of northern Maharashtra. But without good phone service, or with constant disconnections from the server, use of the Internet becomes frustrating and expensive.

Electricity shows much the same story. For all the smokescreen about ''free electricity to farmers'', in fact the rural areas get the dregs of power. Scheduled ''loadshedding'' are frequent, and unscheduled ones are even worse. Low voltage and flickering - electricity going off for short periods for inexplicable reasons - may not disturb domestic affairs too much, but they make it difficult to run computers. Discussions with State Electricity Board employees about why the lights went out once again are a lesson in frustration, with responses mostly some version of ''we don't know, it's coming from above...'' Rural people may get supposedly subsidised electricity for their fields (though as many energy experts have noted, losses in transmission and storage by State Electricity Boards are hidden by showing more electricity given to unmetered rural pumps) but they pay as much as other domestic consumers for the unstable, low- voltage electricity in their homes. Many would gladly say: give us Delhi- quality telephone and electricity, don't talk of subsidies.

Without good electricity and telephone service, entry into the information age is impossible. Rural problems of infrastructure are a major obstacle to the ability of the masses to enter the computer age. They hamper efforts to build up production and marketing capacities for agro-related and forest products. Changing this, creating infrastructure, developing genuine universal and quality education, and a full-scale attack on outmoded caste ideas which leave the elite satisfied if only a few Indians storm the world of software, should all be seen as matters of national concern. It is only when the majority of a society acquires capacities that the nation can be said to really be entering the information age. It is not Laxmi or Saraswati, but Shambuk and Ekalavya, Sita and Bali Raja, who will determine the place of India in tomorrow's world.

[Courtesy: The Hindu, February 5, 2000]

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