India Insight

Technology – India’s quiet anti-corruption crusader

Technology, not protest marches, might be the biggest eradicator of corruption in India where under-the-table bribes thrive in the world of face-to-face transactions. Many facets of India’s government still operate in Dickensian offices where floor-to-ceiling stacks of paper files can provide good cover and easy excuses for “delays” that only a sweetener of a few hundred rupees can cut through.

Anger over this reached fever-pitch when thousands of protesters across the country recently took to the streets for days demanding tougher anti-corruption legislation.

But a less vociferous, potentially as potent march is also underway – the computerisation of India’s vast government network, which when completed at all levels of administration could strip away much of the power that individuals have to elicit bribes or take cuts from others. 

Social commentator Madhu Kishwar recently wrote of a classic example in the Indian Express: Municipal officials all over India systematically fleece citizens by sending highly inflated house tax bills. I recall that several years ago, one of my neighbours, let us call him Mr X, received a house tax bill of Rs 1.65 lakh for a small, two-bedroom flat in South Delhi. In sheer panic, he approached a local political worker who claimed “good connections” with municipal officials. This man then went and brokered a deal with the concerned babus. Mr X was asked to pay Rs 25,000 in order to get the 1.65-lakh demand reduced to Rs 7,000 per year. He accepted the deal gladly because it appeared to him as if he was receiving a big favour, even though the falsely inflated bill was actually just a device to frighten him into paying a bribe.

With the introduction of online property tax portals in some municipalities several years ago, where fees are clearly stated and can be paid directly, this kind of manipulation has been eradicated in one stroke. But there are still areas where this service is not available.

XXX domain poses headache for Indian regulators

By Neha Arha

People use computers at an internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in China November 13, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer/FilesIndia is proposing to block .xxx-registered websites after a global agency governing the web approved the suffix for pornography websites last week, risking confrontation between a fast-liberalising youth and strong traditionalist values.

The government’s move followed a decade-long dialogue within the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that resulted in the approval for .xxx suffix for pornography websites. Sales of .xxx domains should begin soon in Q2 2011.

Taking a cue from .com, .org, .nic and others, the creation of .xxx would identify adult content and services and could be used by governments for mass censorship of adult content.

Women in technology – “unmarketable product in marriage market?”

I moderated a panel discussion for an in-house ‘Women in Technology’ event in Bangalore this month.

A generic picture of a woman using the computer. REUTERS/Catherine Benson/FilesThe three women on the panel were an impressive lot — a former defence scientist, a renowned mathematician currently on the Prime Minister’s panel and a former-CEO-turned-entrepreneur.

But there was one common thread that bound them together — their fight against society, among other odds, to gain their glories.

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Trick or Tweet? Can politicians have an online life?

I recently came across this article on the Washington Post.

GERMANY BOOK FAIRBeing a part of a generation that gradually, if with cautious unease, learnt to adjust to the Internet, I could not help but compare India’s policymakers with those of developed nations based on their level of acceptance of changing media.

Frankly, it is difficult to imagine our lawmakers in the same position as described in the article.

For years, when social networking meant visiting friends and family at Christmas and New Year, and Facebook was still a concept, representatives of our democracy would depend on traditional ways to reach out to their electorate.

Bangalore: Teething troubles on path to globalisation

It has been a rather uneasy transition for Bangalore from “pensioner’s paradise” or “garden city” to the information technology capital of India.

Longtime residents often complain of immigrants from other parts of the country ruining their paradise. Such complaints have been common in Mumbai, which has witnessed waves of immigration since the 1950s, but Bangalore old-timers tend to blame the city’s problems on the “IT fellows”.

It’s fair to say the city’s infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the growing population. Traffic jams, as everywhere in the world, are incredibly annoying and travelling in Bangalore makes one wonder what exactly inspired Thomas Friedman to sing praises of this city in “The World is Flat”.

Playing spoilsport with Formula One?

Despite the Force India team taking second place at the podium at the Belgian Grand Prix there is no rethinking in the sports ministry on its view that Formula One is not enough of a sport.

Sports minister M.S. Gill congratulated Vijay Mallya on his team’s win but labelled Formula One as ‘expensive entertainment’.

The sports ministry has refused approval to the promoters of Formula 1 in India, JPSK Sports, to pay 1.7 billion rupees to the Formula One Administration for the proposed Indian Grand Prix of 2011.

The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?

There was a television ad some time back where a village leader played by Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan cutely decrees that feuding villagers would be known by their mobile numbers rather than names denoting caste or community.

It’s an idea that no longer seems far-fetched.

This week, the finance minister allocated 1200 million rupees to  the Unique Identification Authority of India, headed by former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani.

The project provides a unique identity number, something like the U.S. social security number, to India’s billion-plus citizens.

Voting via SMS in the election: reality or fantasy?

A politician asks people to vote via SMS whether they want malls in villages. ‘No way’ — comes their response. 

“What an idea, Sirji,” says a beaming Abhishek Bachchan, appearing as the politician’s tech-savvy secretary in the popular TV campaign for mobile operator Idea Cellular.

‘What an idea’ indeed if people across India can vote for candidates via SMS in the April/May general election.

The iPhone 3G dilemma: To buy or not to buy?

iPhone 3GWell, if you use your mobile phone just to make calls, send text messages or click photographs — the iPhone 3G is not for you.But in case you are a tech freak who loves tinkering with gadgets, this Apple smartphone might be your dream come true.

Downloadable GPS, games, AIM, Facebook on the go and of course 24-hour access to the iTunes store are just some of its pluses, but at 30,000 rupees (give or take a few hundred) for the 8GB model, the iPhone certainly doesn’t come cheap.

Slight problem though. Added applications are great on a phone that provides basic features like message and business card forwarding and video recording.

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