Today’s informational politics

Today’s informational politics: People are becoming more transparent to the state instead of the state to the people:

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A couple of weeks back I received a message with information about a Covid helpdesk being run by some young women in a college, but soon I was alerted not to forward it since the women had been inundated with calls and were struggling to keep up. On the other side, care-givers of patients desperately and chaotically have had to go around in circles to various sources to get some information about medicines, oxygen and hospital beds. This need not have been.

Some state governments have portals to share information about availability of hospital beds, ventilators and ICUs. This is a useful first step. Information about vaccine availability at government and private facilities has been made available by the central government. It should not be too hard for all governments to also share information about oxygen and medicines, if there is the administrative will.

The problem is the prevailing mindset about information. In 2005, India passed the Right to Information Act which gave citizens the right to know about their governments’ functioning. Subsequently, as the IT revolution dazzled, administrators and people got enamoured and we saw the advent of Aadhaar and later the IndiaStack. This, as a part of Digital India, seeks to provide the IT infrastructure for delivery of government and private services.

Aadhaar has subsequently been made ‘voluntarily compulsory’ for several services. Arogya Setu, which is forgotten now, and Co-Win also have the option of sharing one’s Aadhaar number. Such initiatives now seem to be considered more attractive than building boring brick-and-mortar infrastructure of hospitals or training doctors.

It is easy to see why. The Health Stack, which aims to create a centralised repository for information about patients in India by using Aadhaar, can provide business opportunities for tele-medicine or health insurance. The story is the same across sectors. Consider “AgriStack”, where the information collected about farmers will be monetised through giving loans or selling inputs. Or connect to a distant buyer on the electronic National Agriculture Market (eNAM) portal which has been struggling since 2016 as the necessary underlying infrastructure, such as for grading and storing for quality or the supply chain for transport of the produce, has been left for another day.

Private entities and regulated markets have their legitimate space and are necessary and essential. But the state has an equally, if not more, necessary and essential role as well. But instead of making the state more transparent and accountable to the people, the current thrust in informational politics is all about making people more transparent to the state for control and to the private sector for profits.

Aadhaar and India Stack are the digital face of the infamous ‘system’ that is now a part of the public discourse. What goes on behind this digital black-box is unknown to citizens. If one’s fingerprints fail or one’s Aadhaar isn’t linked to the latest mobile number, then good luck availing the service. Supposed gains on corruption, like how much the PAN-Aadhaar linkage has reduced tax evasion and brought in black money, however, continue to remain a mystery.

Meanwhile, existing corruption on the ground has now learned how to make illicit money despite digital gateways and the citizen continues to remain in the same forgotten space as earlier.

What is needed, as the pandemic is tragically showing, is greater transparency from the government so that it can be held accountable not just for the information with it but also for the lack of delivery of governance on the ground that this information reflects. Rather than doing something that might reduce the case backlog plaguing the information commissions, in 2019 the RTI Act was amended to further centralise the appellate infrastructure under it.

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Later that year, speaking as the chief guest at the annual convention of the Central Information Commission, home minister Amit Shah said that the government wants to reduce dependence on the RTI by proactively giving out information. Some states have already done this by sharing their real-time data on online portals but this is the exception rather than the norm. If it were otherwise, in the present circumstances, young women in colleges and countless other individuals need not have done the government’s job of putting out information direly needed by those critically affected by the ongoing pandemic.