Most of us experts were above 40, not really the nation’s median age. None of us represented the villages that made up 70% of India’s society. Nearly all spoke English, used by a mere 5% of the country. And critically, none of the stakeholders could be called a digital native.
Yet there we were, at a seminar called to gather ideas for a university on communications for a nation as vast and diverse as ours.
The seminar was organized by the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) last week. The university would come under the information and broadcasting ministry; so, discussions were led by Arun Jaitley, who holds that portfolio besides heading the finance ministry. The gathering was a mix of people from all walks of life, but heavily dominated by journalists, mostly from the print media.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the government’s intention to start a communications university. I love the idea and I see a huge potential. If planned and executed well, it can help lead the information economy. I am also passionate about the role of communication in people’s lives. Communication can open the door to happiness. I know many individuals, families and communities who have lived in misery only because they could not communicate well.
Besides, communication is not just about the media and journalism but also about how we communicate individually, bilaterally, within families, within communities, across institutions and organizations and across government and administration, and of course, across countries.
India is an inherently oral society. We have been perennially communicating orally and our knowledge has been shared through oral communication—here I am talking about the masses—and yet, we have passed through several centuries of being known and treated as illiterate as far as writing as a formal medium of communication is concerned.
It would be extremely important for the government to study how people communicate in India while planning and designing the communications university; there is an indicative analysis that can be found regarding this, which was published in Mint on 9 March.
On the other hand, it would be worthwhile to think of the university as an opportunity that will look at communication in its true meaning and not as media or content or technology. We should look at the definition of communications, one that says it is “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium”. There’s another definition that says, “communication is the activity of conveying meaning through a shared system of signs and semiotic rules.”
According to both definitions, the current media and tools of communication is mobile and digital. The mobile phone in our hand, incidentally, is oral, written, audio, visual, uses signs and symbols, responsive, instant, real time, and is mass media.
If we compare all communication media used to share information, print and television would be near the bottom of the table, and mobile phones, social media and word of mouth would be at the top of the table. Needless to mention, the future of mass communication media will be digital. Therefore, we need to plan the communications university totally from the perspective where the orientation should in no way be just in the written medium. Besides, considering that it is a university that the government is planning, all strata of people, lives and institutions must be seen as targeted beneficiaries, if not stakeholders.
For example, you need to think how we train our millions of village councillors to communicate; how our millions of frontline health workers could be trained to communicate; how our several million teachers learn to communicate and further teach children how to communicate; how hundreds of millions of micro-entrepreneurs and farmers would communicate; and how more than half-a-billion women would communicate when they all will have a communication tool in their hands.
How India communicates tomorrow would be the biggest challenge for the country considering that each and every person would be media-equipped. The planned communications university could provide answers to these knotty questions. In short, the communications university should be a place for open learning, open innovation, open technology, open media, open society and open communities.
This university should be instrumental in making our country communicate well, clearly, with everybody, and bring people together through communication, using whatever tools the people would like to use.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication and IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar