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For India’s complaints department, visit Facebook Live

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jan 25, 2017 02:03 AM
Notebook: Social media cuts through red tape in a country beset by inertia.

The article by Amy Kazmin was published in the Financial Times on January 23, 2017. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

Rarely has a soldier’s lament about bad food received such attention. But Tej Bahadur Yadav, of India’s Border Security Force, made national headlines with Facebook videos complaining about his rations along India’s tense line-of-control with neighbouring Pakistan.

Standing against a landscape of desolate, snow-covered mountains, Mr Yadav bemoaned the fried flatbread and tea that constitutes breakfast, and the watery lentils, seasoned only with salt and turmeric, of his lunch. It was unclear whether his main complaint was about the poor cooking quality or limited food quantity but the video of the offending meals, including a burnt chapati, suggested both.

“I do not want to blame the government,” he said calmly in Hindi. “The government provides everything for us but these higher officers sell everything. Sometimes, we soldiers go hungry.”

Reaction to the videos, which were covered widely by the mainstream media, came fast and furious. The BSF publicly accused Mr Yadav of indiscipline, saying he was a chronic malcontent previously subjected to a court martial for aiming his weapon at a superior. It also noted he was taking voluntary retirement soon.

But many Indians found it easy to believe that their country’s troops are short-changed on food and they rallied to the disgruntled soldier as a courageous whistleblower. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered an investigation, and a dietitian was reportedly sent to the border to assess the soldiers’ food.

Analysts pointed out that Mr Yadav’s gripe echoed official critiques of deficiencies in the army’s food procurement. “One can imagine the toil our jawans [junior soldiers] go through while guarding the border in chilling conditions. And the least they can expect is a good meal after long hours of hard duty,” an Indian Express editorial declared.

That a soldier posted in a remote border area could unleash such a kerfuffle via a video highlights how Indians armed with mobile phones are taking to social media to hold to account the traditionally non-responsive political and bureaucratic establishment.

Smartphones make up nearly 30 per cent of phones in use in India and that number is rising fast, according to the Asian research group CLSA. Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, has garnered attention for her rapid responses to individual Twitter pleas for help — whether from Indians in trouble abroad or those struggling to renew a passport or secure a visa for a visitor.

Now other ministers and government agencies, including local police forces, have begun to respond personally to pleas for help and public complaints on Twitter. It’s a big change from a time I recall well, when Indians tangled in red tape had no option but to find those with connections to try to influence, or prod, the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy.

“Bureaucrats and politicians are now active and available on social media — ordinary citizens tweet politicians and there is a spectacle of immediate redress of complaints,” Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, told me. When New Delhi’s police department set up an office to receive complaints against corrupt officers, for example, many citizens provided audio or visual recordings of the alleged wrongdoing. It’s only a matter of time before such footage finds its way to social media — or beyond. Ironically, those whose plights gain traction on social media, and are then amplified by mainstream media, are sometimes low-ranking civil servants harassed by their superiors.

This week brought news of a female railway clerk punished for dereliction of duty after she refused to sing “one particular” duet with her senior manager at his farewell party. A friend who works for a major western social media platform here in India (who ironically can’t be identified as he wasn’t authorised to speak to me), tells me that “the power structures that governed who used to be heard and who wouldn’t be heard have changed”. As technology spreads further and deeper in India, we can expect that noise to amplify.