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E-governance: For India or Bharat?

Sharad Joshi

ON July 23, even casual Internet surfers were surprised to find some confidential and secret files of the External Affairs Ministry scattered all over cyberspace. Normally, it would require the wily tricks-in-trade of a James Bond to be able to catch eve n a glimpse of these `For your eyes only' documents. Why was the Ministry suddenly handing over its secrets even to those who were not interested? It came out to that it was not the bosses in the Ministry but a minuscule virus, nicknamed w32.sircom, that had got into the Government's computer system and was pilfering and scattering the state secrets.

The information wizards rushed to initiate the damage control operations. They disabled the servers in the Government network from sending any attached files whatsoever. The problem stands resolved for the time being. Till a new virus that can pierce thr ough this disability comes along, there will be no unauthorised pilfering of government files. The trouble is, till then, that those on the governmental networks will not be able to send or receive even normal attachments as e-mail.

Cyberspace has become the battlefield of hostilities between the evil spirits and the good fairies. Every day, the evil demons are inventing new viruses that play havoc with the databases of all those who pick up the contagion; every day the good fairies devise antidotes for the ever-expanding platoons of viruses.

Even the computer literate, familiar with the mayhem digital virus can perpetrate, were shocked to see the most confidential and secret documents of the Ministry literally out on the streets. Computerisation is the name of the current administrative game . The process is supposed to be good and in keeping with the times. The only argument heard against computerisation and e-governance is made by the employees who fear that, with computerisation, machines will replace men and cause widespread and rampant unemployment.

How could a disaster such as sircom happen? Those who prepared the blueprints of e-governance through computers could have easily foreseen a contingency of this kind of mishap and made arrangements to have all critical files marked to protect them agains t mischief. It would appear that the occurrence of a mishap such as this was considered too far-fetched and improbable to merit attention at that time. Clearly, the authorities were in such a hurry to get on to the IT bandwagon that they threw their char acteristic caution to winds.

It could appear that they had already made up their minds to give the green signal to e-governance -- risk or no risk -- and were disinclined to lend a ear to warnings of possible dangers and to prudent counsel on the need to provide adequate safety meas ures. A question arises: Had the decision-makers not already made up their minds to go in for e-governance, would they have examined the matter of the threat of data pilferage and virus havoc more attentively?

One gets a fairly clear idea as to what they would have done if one sees how those in power are handing the clearance of the same information technology to provide Internet access in far-off villages. All kinds of subterfuge and barricades are being pitc hed, and prohibitive charges and huge deposits of money imposed, on those proposing to take the Internet to the countryside. The net consequence is that the digital divide has added yet another dimension to the India-Bharat divide.

Is there something behind the over-enthusiasm in bringing the new technologies to `India' and the staunch opposition in any new technology coming to `Bharat'? Historical evidence, even in recent times, shows there is substantial difference in policies an d attitudes when it comes to bringing technologies to `India' on the one hand, and to `Bharat' on the other.

In the early years after Independence, when the country suffered from an acute shortage of foodgrains, recourse to high-yielding variety seeds and chemical fertilisers and pesticides was stoutly opposed and effectively blocked by a powerful lobby that in cluded such diverse schools as the Gandhians, the Marxists and sundry environmentalists who had substantial clout in the centres of power.

The opposition to Green Revolution technology was made in the name of the poor and the landless. ``The new package will benefit only the rich farmers and impoverish the small and the marginal ones; the class conflict will widen and the Green Revolution w ill soon turn into a bloody red one'', it was argued. The result was that the new technology was late in coming, and India was reduced to a `ship-to-mouth' existence. It took a war with Pakistan and the undaunted courage of the then prime minister, Lal B ahadur Shastri, and the dogged pursuit by C. Subramaniam to bulldoze through the opposition to the Green Revolution. The rest -- India's rapid march to self-sufficiency in food -- is history.

What happened to those who opposed the Green Revolution in the 1960s? They are certainly not apologising for prolonging the hunger pangs of the Indian poor in the 1960s. They are quite happy to be feeding themselves on the `rotis' made out of the Mexican wheat. They are now campaigning for non-chemical agriculture. Not that they are not aware that agriculture in India has been free of all chemicals for centuries together and that through that period, millions perished in famines that visited with monoto nous regularity; it is just that they dislike the idea of modernised Indian agriculture and of `Bharat' taking its place in the comity of nations side by side with the elite `India'.

As with the Green Revolution, so with the gene revolution. The Green Revolution held out the promise of warding off hunger and poverty in the countryside. The gene revolution might actually give the agricultural sector an upper hand over the urban second ary and tertiary activities. This evidently cannot be allowed to happen! Those opposed to modernisation of agriculture have taken the government in their hands and are trying a `no-holds-barred' onslaught to stop even the trials of the new technology in India, in spite of the fact that other countries have drawn massive benefits from the new technology.

It cannot be that the new obstructionists are opposed to biotechnology per se. The application of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals faces few, if any, obstacles. Quite a few urban firms are putting on the market a series of new products and drugs.

It is only the application of genetic engineering in agriculture that is being stopped by raising various bogies about environmental effects, broadcasting effects, effects on non-targeted insects, development of immunity in the targeted pests, and effect s on animals and fauna who may ingest products derived out of genetically modified crop. All these apprehensions have been addressed fully, time and time again. That makes no difference. In IT, the authorities failed to provide for sircom; in BT, it is c reating phantoms of imaginary sircoms.

The same government that winked at the risks involved in e-governance through information technology and cleared it without bothering to build in adequate safety measures, delayed the introduction of Green Revolution technology in agriculture decades aft er the world adopted it. It is now fully determined not to let genetic engineering benefit Indian agriculture.

`Bharat' will need to break through the `India' curtain to gain access not only to the world market but also to frontier technologies.

(The author is Chairman of the Task Force on Agriculture, Government of India. The views expressed, however, are his own).

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