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Transparent Government, via Webcams in India

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jul 21, 2011 05:41 AM
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India — Little Brother is watching you. That is the premise for the webcam that a top government official here has installed in his office, as an anticorruption experiment. Goings-on in his chamber are viewable to the public, 24/7.
Transparent Government, via Webcams in India

Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of Kerala

Oommen Chandy

The chief minister of Kerala state in India has installed a webcam in his office and puts the feed online as an anticorruption measure.

In an India beset by kickback scandals at the highest reaches of government, and where petty bribes at police stations and motor vehicle departments are often considered a matter of course, Oommen Chandy is making an online stand.

"Instead of taking action against corruption, I believe that we have to create an atmosphere where everything should be in a transparent way," Mr. Chandy, who recently became chief minister of Kerala state after his coalition won a close election, said in an interview in his office. "The people must know everything."

About 100,000 visitors logged in to the video feed on the day it began, July 1. And through last Friday afternoon, it had been visited by 293,586 users.

The chief minister — equivalent to an American governor — gave the interview during a break in negotiations with leaders of the state’s private colleges over the fees they can charge students.

Although the proceedings were being streamed on his office’s Web site, as with everything captured by the webcam there was no audio. (The minister says he wants visitors and aides to speak freely when they meet him.)

Sunil Abraham, the executive director of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore, said he applauded Mr. Chandy’s webcams, even if the effort amounted to no more than tokenism.

"This type of tokenism is also quite useful," said Mr. Abraham, predicting it might check the behavior of not only the chief minister, but also his underlings and the powerful executives and politicians who come to visit him.

Of course, he noted, if people are intent on paying bribes, they could probably still do it outside the office.

Mr. Abraham said webcams might be a far more powerful tool if installed in police stations, drivers’ licenses offices, welfare agencies and other places where Indians interact with officials who sometimes demand bribes to do routine work. A few agencies around the country have started such surveillance, he said, but most have not.

Mr. Chandy’s effort comes as India has been racked by one corruption scandal after another. A former federal telecommunications minister is sitting in jail on charges that he gave cellphone licenses to favored companies, costing the government as much as $40 billion. Several corporate executives, an official involved in planning the Commonwealth Games and the scion of a political family are also behind bars while being tried on various corruption charges.

But transparency is tedious. For most of the day, as the videos stream from the Chandy chambers, the chief minister is either out of the office or sitting with aides and other politicians. The video from a second camera, trained on the outside chamber, shows aides at their desks answering phones or staring into their computer screens.

A career politician and a member of the ruling Congress party, Mr. Chandy, 67, had a webcam in his office when he was chief minister for two years from 2004 to 2006. But his successor, the leader of a communist coalition government, removed the device when he took over. Now in the opposition, the communists deride the webcams as a publicity stunt.

But others see virtue in such efforts, even if the details are still being refined.

In Bangalore, the top executive of a government-owned electricity utility has been using a webcam in his office. The official, P. Manivannan, said he was now installing a "hemispheric" camera that would capture the goings-on in his entire office rather than just show his visitors.

But he said he would no longer broadcast the video stream to the Web site of the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company.

"I have been getting a lot of brickbats because of the cameras,” Mr. Manivannan said in a telephone interview. "My colleagues were telling me, 'What are you trying to prove — that you are the only honest one?' "

Once the new camera is installed, Mr. Manivannan said it would record everything. But anyone interested in viewing segments of the video would have to request the clips, at no cost. That should ease tension in the office, he said, while still keeping things on the up and up.

He said he had success with a similar camera when he was in the city government and some politicians threatened to call a strike unless he reinstated a fired employee. The politicians backed off, Mr. Manivannan said, when he threatened to give a recording of their meeting to local television stations.

"I definitely believe that putting a camera helps you prove that you are accountable," he said. "I would be very happy if tomorrow the government of India decided you must have a camera."

A version of this article appeared in print on July 18, 2011, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Transparent Government, Via Webcams in India.

This news by Vikas Bajaj was published in the New York Times on 17 July 2011. It can be read here. (Photo of Oommen Chandy, the Chief Minister of Kerala taken by Sanjit Das for the New York Times)

The above news was published in other languages as well:

  • Read the news in wprost here [Polish]
  • Read the news in ictnews here [Vietnamese]
  • Read the news in@rret sur images here [French]
Filed under:
ASPI-CIS Partnership


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