Despite all the efforts and money the government has invested in inclusive growth through various policy initiatives, the results have not been promising. Rural India has not seen the kind of prosperity growth that urban India has. We still have to rely on convoluted and opaque processes to receive and utilize information. This has resulted in long queues at government offices and rampant corruption that robs the system of any credibility and its participants of any accountability. Development programmes become scams when the beneficiary has no idea of the funding and the ways it has been allocated and used. Information, therefore, becomes the key to empowerment which, in turn, will lead to good governance.
It is ironical that the government is the richest source of information, and yet it is stifling its very flow from reaching the common man through mismanagement.
The Public Distribution System (PDS) is one initiative being robbed of its value by lack of information and the subsequent corruption it brings. Research conducted a year ago by the Centre for Media Studies and Transparency International showed that corruption and fraudulent practices were rendering PDS totally ineffective. The survey found that “60% of the households using PDS do not get ration supplies; in high poverty states, ‘out-of-stock’ scenarios were as high as 80%; and, 34% of those visiting PDS offices had to make four or more visits before they were heard and action was taken; finally, nearly 50% of them paid bribe for obtaining a new and legitimate ration card”.
One of the reasons why citizens get exploited is that the service provider withholds information. Establishing information parity between the service provider and the beneficiary can be a significant step in empowering citizens. For example, customers relying on fair price shops must have three kinds of information—when the grains arrived, the quantity of grains available at any given time and the price. Citizens can then demand what is due to them. The fair price shop owner, in turn, will demand the same from the wholesale provider, thereby creating a reverse ripple effect, cleaning up the entire system.
The top-down approach only works well as policy and good governance does not happen by providing politicians a rule book. Instead of thinking about how to increase the government’s efficiency and capacity to plan and implement programmes for rural development, can’t we provide relevant information to rural citizens and evoke their self-interest to insist on better quality of services? For visible impact, we need the bottom-up approach where citizens push for reform.
Information exists. But it is not accessible or available in a format for easy consumption. Rural citizens are at the mercy of the officialdom. Most of the time, it is not misinformation or the lack of it but the convoluted and obfuscating processes that dissuade citizens from seeking information. It is possible to replicate Google’s model of making information available and accessible to rural consumers so they can make informed decisions. The consequences will be exciting and farreaching. Innovative information and communication technologies can be leveraged for this. It must be noted that while technology plays a key role in enhancing governance, it is information that is the core. In time, we will reach a tipping point, where there will be enough information providers or enough ways for citizens to get information.
That information empowers is unquestionable. If we are to come close to the vision of becoming a developed nation, truly liberal and democratic, provision for accessible information to rural citizens becomes an imperative.
The time is right for the information revolution to sweep across the hinterland. The time is right for those exposed to the power of information to pass on the benefits to the underserved. The time is right to create empowered communities for active participation in the governance of the world’s largest democracy.
Sriram Raghavan is CEO, Comat Technologies. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org