A History of Transparency, Politics and Information Technologies in India

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Mar 28, 2011 11:30 AM |
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In this blog post, Zainab Bawa reviews the different spectrums of information, transparency and politics.

Politics has always been fashioned by information, a friend1 pointed out when I mentioned to her about this blog post I was writing to summarize my research on the CIS-RAW monograph about the history of Transparency, Politics and Information Technologies in India.

The question that then arises is what kinds of information and subsequently, what kinds of politics (and vice-versa) are we referring to? I want to begin this blog post by reviewing the different spectrums of information and the contexts within which these different kinds of information become important/unimportant/valuable/invaluable for which groups in our polity? Consequently, how are our own notions of politics informed and how does politics, in terms of ideals such as democracy, equity, access, rights and justice, evolve/perpetuate in practice?

We, as individuals and as part of various groups in society, thrive on information for sustaining and enhancing different aspects of our lives, be they social, political, economic, cultural or historical. The criticality of information, especially information networks, has been revealed to us starkly in recent times by the 3G licensing scam where major corporations were vying for ‘insider’ information that would make it easier for them to obtain the requisite telecom licenses. Clearly, the 3G scam is not the first (and neither will it be the last) instance of the politics of lobbying, aligning with individuals and networks which provide ‘the’ ‘insider’ information and the capitalization of this information. We have known about the politics of ‘insider information’ in the context of stock markets and through Hamish McDonald’s explication of the way corporate giants such as Reliance and then Bombay Dyeing (aka the Wadia clan) have been ‘cultivating’ their ‘insider’ sources in the central government cabinets and ministries. The secrecy and more importantly the exclusiveness that underlies this kind of ‘insider’ information angers a certain strand of public and deepens the cynicism that pervades across a large section of the citizenry. The nature of this secrecy and exclusiveness gets compounded by the fact that there are phenomenally vast sums of money that are involved in this form of ‘insider’ information and the ensuing scams, thereby agitating different people because had there been ‘fair play’ and ‘true competition’, the monies could have benefitted the targeted beneficiaries in a ‘proper’ manner.

There is another kind of ‘insider’ information which exists on this spectrum of ‘insider’ information in particular and information in general, which I want to bring to your attention here. In 2008, I was researching the practices and reach of microfinance in Mumbai 2My research led me, for the first time, to the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) housing colonies of Mumbai.  

These R & R colonies had been built to rehabilitate slum dwellers and squatters (occupying lands owned by different government agencies and private individuals/parties) whose possessions (claims over land and built structures were coming in the way of widening roads and railway tracks and building flyovers and rail over bridges under two mega infrastructure projects in Mumbai city then. Policies were formulated to compensate and rehabilitate persons and households who would be affected by these mega projects (PAPs and PAHs). I interviewed some of the PAPs and PAHs in an effort to understand the R&R process and the impact that the process had had on their lives and their relationship with the city and its governance. 
During many of these interviews, the issue of ‘insider information’ repeatedly came up. PAPs and PAHs explained to me that as part of the R&R policies, surveys had been conducted to identify persons and households who would be eligible for compensation and resettlement. During the surveys, surveyors tried to determine since when the individuals and households had been residing in their houses/on the land, whether they owned the lands/built structures, and whether the structure was to be enumerated as a single unit or more and accordingly what should be the corresponding compensation awarded to the affected person/household. One form of ‘insider information’ in this context pertained to the knowledge of when the surveys would be carried out in the different settlements/squatted spaces so that people would make arrangements accordingly to claim entitlements under the R&R policies. For instance, in many cases, more than one family resided in the same built structure and consequently, only one house would be allotted in lieu of that structure irrespective of the number of families residing in it. Prior knowledge of the surveys, which was usually just a day or two before, would enable these families/households to determine how they would articulate their claim for more than one housing unit, either through appeal to the surveyor’s moral rationalities, or through graft and subversive strategies such as putting up makeshift structures, etc. 
 
A second aspect of ‘insider’ information pertained to the number of units that would be allotted to different households/individuals i.e., those groups, leaders, NGOs (non-government organizations), CBOs (community based organizations), individuals and actors who were directly responsible for the allotment of housing and shops units under the R&R policies allotted more than the ‘fair’ share of entitlements to their favoured constituencies/households. Such actors even traded i.e., sold, the housing unit allotments to persons who were eager to buy these ‘low-income’ units, thus, giving rise to a form of property market around R&R policies and this kind of state intervention. Also, those who had direct/indirect access to actors making such allotments used their influence to obtain at least the compensation that should have accrued to them or more and, as mentioned above, persons interested in purchasing housing units despite not being from the settlement or even the same economic and social milieu influenced the ‘decision-makers’ in this case. An interesting outcome of this kind of ‘insider information’ was that those who had struggled to receive their due R&R compensations perceived these ‘extra legal’ (in this context) allotments as kabza (capture) of the resources (and space which is a premium in Mumbai city) offered under government policies. This notion of ‘kabza’ has now become part of the vocabulary of parties aggrieved by the allotment process and is being mobilized for fulfilling certain kinds of claims advanced before planning agencies in Mumbai, municipalities and the Maharashtra state government.
 
A third highly interesting form of ‘insider information’ in this R&R process was the prior knowledge that R&R would take place in due course of time, surveys would be conducted and there would be compensations awarded in the form of housing units and commercial spaces. This prior knowledge fuelled an atmosphere of intense speculation in some settlements where many individuals and households began to sell their possessions, built structures, shop spaces, etc., to newcomers (who would then be entitled to compensation under R&R) and the sellers moved out of the settlement to other areas, probably those that would not be marked for R&R or to neighbouring areas. Property values rose in such cases because newcomers were eager to be enumerated for a ‘secure’ entitlement, in this case a house/shop. Apart from the speculation which ensued from this form of ‘insider information’, ambiguity was also created, mainly related to determining who were the ‘original’ inhabitants and who were the ‘fake/newcomers’. There were no easy answers to resolving this ambiguity and interestingly, this ambiguity now resides (and may be legitimated in due course of time) in the survey records of the NGOs which were responsible for conducting the surveys, in the government’s entitlements’ records and now, in the property registries of the planning department and municipality that are being created as part of legalization of ownership of the R&R housing and commercial units. 
 
What I have tried to explain through the examples of the 3G scam and the R&R process in Mumbai is that there is a spectrum of contexts and situations across which information gets created, circulated/percolated and transmitted in particular forms and through exclusive networks and circuits. The spectrum of information gets created through this variety of contexts and the spectrum gets defined and redefined, time and again, in terms of the value and the criticality attributed to different kinds of information and therefore, the implications that are perceived to stem from hiding such information(s) and excluding different groups of people from accessing it. Assessing the implications of transparency, opacity and secrecy of information in different contexts becomes more complex when we understand how and why different actors and institutions within the state, in between the state-civil society complex, and a variety of other actors advocate for transparency and the vocabulary and manner in which they articulate claims and projects for transparency.
 
There is also the issue of scale of exposure of a particular scam or some other act of secrecy/‘insider’ information which leads us to assess transparency or the lack of it in highly normative and morally laden ways. For instance, the 3G scam acquired the issue of national importance because of the involvement of the national government in Delhi and a handful of corporations who gained vast sums of money in direct and indirect ways; the fact that the scam appeared as an act of cheating to several cell phone users in India and especially to the tax-paying publics who have already been articulating complaints about their entitlements with respect to poor quality or complete lack of government and municipal resources; the manner in  which this scam was interpreted, analyzed and then communicated to the public through different media (newspapers, television, blogs, protests, etc). Whereas, the lack of transparency in the housing allotment process under the R&R policies’ implementation does not get the same kind of reactions and outcry by the same set of tax payers and citizenry base because of the scale of the issue and therefore, the exposure (something to think about), the disdain that exists among tax payers and citizens against slum dwellers, squatters and such ‘illegal’ groups and the widespread cynicism that resettled or rehabilitated squatters and slum dwellers will eventually go back to squatting and occupying public lands because this is their ‘inherent’ nature. The other, more important question, is whether the different kinds of ‘insider’ information(s) involved in the R&R implementation process should be made public because if these were made public, would the unfairness and ‘corruption’ in the process and the ambiguities that have emerged from the implementation be reversed? Even more importantly, do government agencies have the resources and the grasp to deal with reversing the survey and allotment process given that information concerning land is not only fuzzy but by nature is both incomplete and contested? And, following from the question of correcting wrongs and setting right the rights, does it imply that my analyses of the lack of transparency and the forms of ‘insider’ information in the R&R process actually legitimizes the corruption and inequities involved in allotments? (I deal with this question in a more detailed manner in the monograph.)
 
The other question that is connected with both the 3G scam and the problems with the R&R policy implementation process (and also the recent WikiLeaks and cablegate controversy surrounding the buying of elected representatives for the vote of confidence) is who are the people controlling information and what resources do they have at their disposal to hide or reveal some things to which publics? This question is not simply a matter of the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) having the financial and other resources at its disposal to engineer a plot for destabilizing the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government. It is also a matter of say a licensing department in a municipality or a land and estates department in an urban governance set-up which is mired, by both default and design[3], in histories and presents of information inadequacies, information controls, claims (made by claimants from among citizens and state) and the corresponding access and/or lack of it to government resources and land/space. How do we evaluate/assess these departments’ acts of transparency and the lack of it as well as their strategies of information percolation, control and dissemination given their institutional and political context as well as the histories and the very kinds and nature of information that define and redefine their functioning?

 Clearly then, we are talking about power – power relations and equations – here, and in this respect one would wonder what more does this monograph do other than discuss these power dynamics. But the monograph really does more than this. It tries to read these power dynamics in the context of how they inform and shape our understandings of information per se i.e., what constitutes information and how certain forms of information are made legitimate or illegitimate. The monograph also tries to analyze the notions and practices of authentication and certification of information that have come into being either directly or indirectly through mobilizations around access to information, use of information and rights of citizens, and how these efforts of authentication and certification shape the very nature of information and the politics around its production and transmission in different contexts. I must add here, therefore, that the monograph uses the term information technologies in a very broad sense even when it is covering a history of information technologies, mainly digital ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) such as databases, websites and e-governance. The monograph also looks at how these digital technologies get embedded within the existing and emerging technologies and institutions of governance and information production, circulation and percolation. Such an approach, I argue in the monograph, broadens the manner in which we view and evaluate digital technologies and their power as well as its appropriations (a term and practice discussed in much greater detail in the monograph) by different actors within the state and among the public.

There are two questions that I have to address before I close down this blog post. The first question is how I understand and define transparency and second is how I conceive politics. Transparency resides within the domain of information – the way in which information is produced (materially and symbolically), accessed, used, circulated, reproduced, appropriated, subverted and transmitted through various channels and mediums. I do not work with a single definition of transparency because as much as transparency is a desired norm, it is also a double-edged sword where the act of making something transparent has various kinds of repercussions, direct and indirect, on different strands of society. What I bring through this monograph is an urge to review transparency in more critical and thicker ways. This does not mean that we have to abandon the project of transparency altogether. Rather, we need to critically examine the emerging relationship between transparency, information and data and the increasing emphasis on ‘rational’ and ‘scientific data sets’ (such as budgetary analyses, certified information under the Right to Information (RTI) act, etc.) as the means of enforcing transparency and therefore, accountability – would not such transparency come with certain political costs for our society and who bears these costs and at what expense? This monograph therefore, examines transparency as a practice that has to be abstracted from the different contexts in which it is being applied, advocated and the manner in which claims for transparency are being advocated.

Politics – phew! Shall we get started on this? Of course! I will try and keep this brief. I started with explaining how there is a spectrum across which information exists. Politics also exists on a spectrum, and that spectrum is beyond one of ‘from petty corruption to high corruption’, from extortion of bribes by cops to 2G and 3G scams. At the moment, not only states within India and its central government, all parts of the globe are mired in various kinds of scandals and scams that are increasingly moving our thinking and even our faith into revolutions and radical overthrow of governments. At another end of the spectrum of our thinking and conception of politics is a strand of thinkers who have forced us to think about “quiet” (Bayat, 1997) and “insurgent” (Holston, 2008) politics, one that is articulated through very complex claims that arise and diminish in different contexts (Chatterjee, 2004; Benjamin, 1996, 2005, 2008). My task in this monograph is to explain this spectrum of politics, especially how it plays out in the context of transparency and information technologies. I will discuss the complexities of claims, autonomy, institutional politics and norms/ideals. The challenge of this monograph is to convince different stakeholders and the public to interrogate our notions of politics, and to instill a sense of optimism in a time which is an one interesting one for all of our lives and aspirations.

 

2Research conducted under the aegis of Delphi Research Services, Bangalore, and for the purposes of my doctoral dissertation.

I am grateful to Narayana Gatty, faculty at Azim Premji University, for raising this issue of ‘default and design’ in the context of his research on e-governance and its impact on citizens and state agents.

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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.