Yashomati Ghosh — Deployment of ICT in Support of India’s Rural Poor (February 1, 2011)

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Yashomati Ghosh, Berkman Center Fellow and professor at the National Law School of India University, spoke on February 1, 2011 about efforts by the Indians federal government to deploy technology in support of an initiative to empower India’s rural poor.

[My apologies to Yashomati for failing to post this write-up sooner.  Brad A.]

At the outset, Yashomati said she was unsure whether the presentation would fit the Fellows Hour “web exceptionalism” theme, except perhaps by suggesting digital media and Internet technologies as tools of empowerment.  Yashomati noted that at present less than 7% of the Indian population has Internet access.

The occasion for the introduction of significant Internet access in rural India has been the federal government’s implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (“Gandhi Act” — my term, not Yashomati’s).  Yashomati explained that the Gandhi Act is globally significant legislation.  Its expressed objective is to provide work to rural people for a minimum of 100 days in a particular area, and the object of the work guarantees is to “bootstrap economic development.”

Yashomati stated that the Gandhi Act reflects Gandhi’s own ideals.  Gandhi was wont to observe that a country that focuses on rural development will develop itself.  The law represents a significant policy shift in India away from its previous emphasis on urban development.  The Gandhi Act hopes to bring India in line with UN Millennium Development Guarantees.  Finally, the Gandhi Act advances India’s constitutional commitment to human dignity.

At present, employment in rural areas is seasonal, because of the agricultural cycle.  On the downside of the cycle, many of India’s rural laborers simply aren’t working — a fact that contributes to the growing problem of mass migration into urban areas.  By providing 100 days’ work to rural poor who would otherwise be idle in the off-season, India expects to increase the rural population’s spending capacity on food, health, and education.  Moreover, Yashomati explained, securing minimum wages will exert upward pressure on the rural labor market and open up better job opportunities for vulnerable communities, including low-caste rurals and women.  The hope is to kick-start rural development, which will then proceed — it is hoped — without government intervention.

Yashomati emphasized that the Gandhi Act does not mean to create a system of public employment, so much as to subsidize wages for rural workers taking up other off-cycle work projects.  The law will guarantee each person 100 days per year of minimum wage.

So much for the law’s promise.  Yashomati went on to discuss the problems the federal government has encountered in implementing it.

Most importantly, the law’s implementation is impaired by corruption.  The legislation requires rural households to register locally and obtain a job card.  Then the beneficiaries must apply for work, after which work will be provided within 14 days.  Work sites are selected on basis of local need.  Timely payment of wages is promised, with compensation due for untimely payment.  If there is no work available, then the government arranges for payment of unemployment allowances.  At each phase of this process, there are opportunities for corrupt officials to frustrate the law: officials may fail to issue job cards, delay or deny receipt of the acknowledgment required for obtaining the work, select work sites based on their own vested interests, delay payment of wages or make an improper accounting of the work done.  Corrupt officials may also fudge the muster rolls (local officials overstate work days and pocket the difference), work site records, or withhold unemployment allowances for themselves.

Rural populations depend upon local officials to advise them of the Gandhi Act’s provisions and their rights thereunder.  The people lack awareness and understanding of the Act, and for that matter, a mechanism to enforce it.

Yashomati reported that ideas have been floated to correct the problems.  One preferred method is to initiate communication using information technology.  The government has created a central Digital Knowledge Repository — a public website that tries to give details about the kinds of work initiated by the government.  Links on the site display pictorial representations of the work, along with audio explanations, so that content is accessible to illiterate users.  The site is about two years old.

The website alone is ultimately not of much use to the people in rural areas, Yashomati pointed out.  As she earlier noted, a mere 7% of Indians have access to the Internet, and those who do reside primarily in the urban areas.  People also don’t have the necessary computer literacy.

Accordingly, the government has introduced “Info Kiosks” into rural communities.  An Info Kiosk is a touch-screen, voice-enabled device that supplies information about the Gandhi Act, workers’ entitlements, work site options, and unemployment allowances.  The kiosks also feature help and grievance platforms and job application platforms; they issue job receipts and payment slip receipts, and record individuals’ work history.

In addition to Info Kiosks, the government has deployed Unified Hand Held Devices at work sites.  The UHHDs feature a biometric- and GPS-verified attendance tracking system.  An “e-muster” is generated based on biometric measures of workers’ presence at work sites.  A UHHD can issue work receipts, photograph work that has been performed, and so enable assessments of its progress.  At the point of setting up the computers, the Indian federal government obtains biometric information from program participants; the information ties fingerprint and eyeball (retinal scan?) information to unique ID numbers.

Q: doesn’t the biometric information gathering raise privacy concerns?  Yashomati answered that a recent proposal to issue national ID cards did trigger a privacy backlash.  Not so much for this program, which is seen to provide an improvement of living conditions, notwithstanding the detriment to privacy — that is, a net gain.  Yashomati added that the Indian people regard the state with much less suspicion than, say, Americans do, due to the less significant social role of private corporations.  Yashomati explained that in India, unlike in the West, political democracy was achieved in advance of economic development, with the result that, for example, India railways are nationalized and heavily subsidized.  The Indian constitution does not specify a right of privacy.  Privacy rights are indeed recognized by the Supreme Court of India, but always balanced against/qualified by the public good.

Q: How does the federal effort to open up work opportunities jibe with the rural caste system’s strict division of labor?

Yashomati said that castism is prohibited in India, as a matter of law.  Indeed, in urban settings caste consciousness is already outmoded, as it cannot be strictly observed.  The constitution carries a clause calling for the support of people in the “backward communities.”  The government has substantial latitude to legislate in this area, and the Gandhi Act strictly forbids any gestures to accommodate caste-based restrictions.

Q: How much does the technology-based answer to implementation issues reflect the influence of the “Bangalore Billionaires” on government policy?

Yashomati acknowledged that this is “a bit of a deal with the Devil, but they meet an area of need.”  It is encouraging that public/private partnerships have been recognized as avenues to efficiency and quality.  Yashomati noted that Indians pay a high tax rate, but they expect results, too.  Although there is an opportunity for corruption in these partnerships, people see and accept so much baseline corruption that they are pleased to tolerate the sort that brings with it facility and convenience (and empowerment).

A third implemented technology is a system that enables program participants to retrieve their job cards by SMS texting.  One method of communication that has penetrated into rural areas is mobile phone usage: India has some 660 million mobile phone subscribers.

Yashomati identified factors hindering the expansion of information and communications technology into rural India, specifically — and the success of the Gandhi Act, generally.  These include the vast financial expenditure necessary to deploy the technologies, inadequate and irregular computer training of rural citizens, the lack of a computer-knowledgeable workforce ready and willing to work in rural areas, the mindset of government functionaries, and deficiencies in initiating prompt penal actions against corrupt officials.

“If technology helps to fulfill the basic human right to work for 22 percent of the world’s poor population,” Yashomati pronounced, “it will be an ‘exceptional’ event.”

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