Technological Inclusion – Infrastructural Inclusion Essay

As teachers, we observe many things which are cyclical /repetitive every academic year, even though the batches of students are always different. One of these recurring phenomena is that we have to struggle with individual students who are at various stages of learning/grasping even though the academic year begins for the entire batch at one single point of time. Just as the participants of the marathon who never finish the distance together, these students also, inevitably, seem to lag behind or fall by the way side.

Either they neglect the basic duty of a student as to revising the previous sessions before stepping into the next session or they ignore the assignments/projects given to enhance their understanding of the subject or they just don’t care a damn about the academics at all. This predicament is indeed reminiscent of one of the most vividly remembered childhood stories, that of the Hare and the Tortoise, both protagonists representing the attitudes of the students, a vast majority falling in the first category – having talent but woefully wasted.

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Once a gap develops between the student and the teacher, very soon the gap becomes a void and eventually the taught find themselves stranded on a different planet vis-a-vis the teacher. A somewhat similar drama can be witnessed in the world of technology. Ever since the industrial revolution, technology has always been the privilege and private pleasure of the upper most strata of the population. With passage of time since the day of an innovation, mass production techniques of the industrial revolution ensured that these technologies reached the middle strata of the population.

The world has witnessed an explosion of discoveries and inventions over the past five hundred years but even now, just as then, the bottom of the pyramid continues to be left behind in reaping the benefits of this technological revolution. Of course, those of these discoveries and inventions meant for industrial applications automatically permeate the lives of all the strata of the population in the form of better products and services. Furthermore, management thinkers such as late C K Prahlad have focused on ‘the bottom of the pyramid’ and advocated that there is a ‘fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’.

Modern day marketing strategies of almost all corporate, be it the obvious FMCG companies or the banking and non-banking financial companies [NBFC] or insurance and financial services companies or extremely competitive telecom companies, are being developed with a vigorous focus on rural consumers. Consequently, one aspect of technology is able to reach out to the rural masses and the urban poor, thanks to the profit motive of businesses and not owing to philanthropic initiatives.

There is another aspect of technology which needs, in fact demands, certain skills on the part of the consumers. A consumer enjoying a can of Coke can be forgiven for being blissfully unaware of the state of the art technology behind the manufacture of the tin can or its contents. Similarly, he may be utterly ignorant of the magic behind the billing software’s pertaining to the myriad tariff plans of the mobile services he uses.

But then there many instances one comes across pertaining to applications of technology which a consumer cannot afford to be ignorant except at a disadvantage to himself. There is a technological barrier between computer literate consumers and those who are not so literate, creating a kind of second class citizens out of the latter. The severity of the handicap can be easily observed in case of services where both online and offline queues are allowed, like the railway ticketing for example.

While the folk who stand in the physical line have to wait till the counters are thrown open to public and then have to patiently await their turn, the tech savvy consumers simply have to just log in and get their reservations made from the comfort of their offices/houses with the aid of a credit card and internet connection. And then there several circumstances which involve all of the citizens of the nation, irrespective of their technological orientation, such as the usage of EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] and UIDs [Unique Identity Card] etc.

When it comes to the varying degrees of expertise possessed by the so-called computer literate people, there is a deep fissure between the most tech savvy geek / nurd and an average computer literate guy. It is indeed no science fiction that there are prodigious geniuses who can hack into any data base, with bonafide /malafide intentions depending on who they work for, such as the characters shown in the movie ‘Die Hard 4. 0’ etc. On the other extreme, there are lesser mortals like myself and many like me who can barely operate a computer.

And then there are hoards of illiterate people who cannot read/write at all. If we can say that the ‘geeks’ and ‘the average guy’ are living on different planets, then we have to admit that these millions of illiterate people must be definitely living in another galaxy itself. In the following paragraphs, I bring to the fore some of the curious circumstances which occurred in the recent past, circumstances highlighting the technological divide that exists not only in our rapidly developing nation but also plaguing the so-called developed nations.

On October 3, 2010 the Andhra Pradesh government conducted an entrance exam for Group IV vacancies, amidst vocal protests by the Telangana separatists. The newspapers reported a surprisingly low attendance of around 45%. A visit to the concerned web site reveals that this web site is described as a ‘light weight’ landing site specially designed for access from rural areas where people are likely to have problems with band width. A cursory glance at the stats for this exam are as follows : more than 12 lakh applications were made for this exam out of which about 10. lakh applications were cleared; out of the cleared applications, only 7. 4 lakh applicants managed to down load their hall tickets; eventually, only 45% of these candidates actually attended the exam. Out of the above stats quoted in the newspapers on October 4, 2010, the data crying out hoarsely for attention is the yawning gap between the cleared applications and the down loaded hall tickets. A preliminary observation points to the inability of the candidates in downloading their hall tickets or did they intend not to write the exam anyway?

The matter needs a thorough evaluation, for, if the reason was the former, the government must not repeat such a fiasco respecting future examinations. The Indian banks, both private sector and public sector, have become a tad arrogant over the past few years. Whether it is a bitter competition among themselves or a race for higher NIMs [Net Interest Margin] as compared to their MNC counterparts, they have become greedy, the evidence glaringly visible in the form of charges for almost everything.

In spite of the fact that NIMs are mainly dependent on the CASA [Current Account Saving Account] deposits, banks have began to charge, or should we say penalize, their depositors for visiting their branches more than four times in a month, for exceeding 100 transactions in a period of six months, etc. It is obvious that the banks are hard-selling their internet banking facilities. If one were to set aside one’s fears and doubts about the safety of net banking, how many of the so-called computer literate folk can actually use net banking for their day-to-day banking transactions?

While India has just concluded the auction of 3G [Third Generation] licenses’, APEL Computers of USA had just launched its 4G I-phones. It is said that a mind blowing two lakh apps [applications] are loaded on to these present day tech toys of corporate honchos and teenage geeks. Barring a few tech savvy nurds, a vast majority of the owners of these high-end gadgets cannot use most of these apps. For that matter, a vast majority of the cell phone users cannot make full use of the umpteen features built in their hand sets.

And yet banks are advertizing ‘mobile banking’ and many companies in India are pressing ahead with ‘M-commerce’ as the next level of ‘e-commerce’. Let us now take another instance of technology wreaking havoc in spite of the high level of literacy of the people involved. On May 6, 2010,at a time when the financial markets world over were jittery owing to the impending banking crisis among the PIGS [Portugal Ireland Greece Spain] and other nations of the EU [European Union], the Dow Jones index of NYSE [New York Stock Exchange] suddenly plunged a thousand points in a matter of minutes but recovered most of the losses within a short time.

Dubbed as the ‘flash crash’ or ‘the crash of 2. 45’, it sent shock waves among the officials of SEC [Securities Exchange Commission] of the United States and also severely dented the confidence of the investor community. Several reasons were put forward for the plunge. A big AMC [Asset Management Company] may have off loaded its portfolio, a hedge fund may have shorted the market heavily, some securities trading executive may have pressed/given a wrong command, HFT [High Frequency Trading] etc etc. The SEC took nearly five months and finally came up with an explanation for the ‘flash crash’.

They concluded that the flash crash was the result of HFT, a certain hedge fund having placed a mammoth sell order for 4. 2 billion dollars. The opportunistic trade of some tech savvy people who took advantage of the lacuna in the software which matches the buy and sell orders has coasted the US investors more than one trillion dollars. A similar drama also played out on our Indian bourses with respect to the share price of RIL [Reliance Industries Limited] when its share price plunged more than 30% and then recovered almost all the loss within a short time.

SEBI [Securities Exchange Board of India] didn’t however take much time like their US counterparts in finding an explanation to the sharp drop in the SENSEX of the BSE [Bombay Stock Exchange] which coincided with this dip of share price of RIL. In what is described as ‘the fat finger phenomenon’, a certain trader has placed a large sell order on RIL instead of a sell order in ICICI bank. Since the order was at a substantially low price on an index heavy weight, the SENSEX plunged more than 600 points and very shortly regained the losses as the trader squared off his wrong order.

In an obvious post mortem analysis, the US SEC has come up with new regulations on circuit breakers/filters which, it is hoped, will avert such free falls in future. Both of the foregoing examples high light the fact that even though people are computer literate, they are not skilled enough to react to such a freak situation, nor are they smart enough to understand it. But of course, can we speak of technological inclusion at all in circumstances such as these?

For that matter, how many of us so-called computer literate folk can put our hands up and say with confidence that we know most, if not all, of the operations of our popular application softwares such as MS Word and Excel ? Thankfully, for those developers, there is a trade dictum which has stood the test of time – ‘caveat emptor’. Consequently, we semi-literates cannot sue the Microsoft of the world for losses/damages arising out of our ignorance. However, these are situations into which one places oneself with eyes wide open and therefore, cannot claim ignorance/innocence.

But then there are circumstances in which a citizen is being placed forcibly by the government, circumstances which are demanding the usage of technology. At a time when many of the matured democracies of the world are deciding against the use of EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines], the CEC [Central Election Commission] is pushing ahead full steam in its implementation of voting by EVMs. The CEC has lent a deaf ear to umpteen complaints of various political parties and activist groups. It dismissed claims that EVMs can be tampered / programmed to suit some party of choice.

Hari K Prasad, the MD of a Hyderabad based tech firm, has even risked his career by sneaking out four EVMs from a Mumbai office for conducting tests on the integrity of these machines. Mr. Prasad claims that these machines are not at all tamper proof. By tampering with the minute components of these machines, they can easily be tampered, he stated. Meanwhile, the TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi] has come up with a novel idea of winning the argument over the EVMs. It discovered that these EVMs cannot be used if the number of applicants exceeded 64 per constituency.

But of course, instead of an EVM, if a computer itself can be placed in every polling booth, there would be no restriction on the number of candidates. Simply by pressing the down arrow, one can browse as many candidates as there can be. But the whole point of our discussion is the technological inclusion. In a country plagued by illiteracy even after 63 years of independence, can we trust these masses to vote on a computer screen, even assuming that the party symbols are enlarged to full screen and also described in vernacular languages?

Tampering or no tampering, is it not the technological divide which is preventing the government from a full-scale implementation of EVMs? The state elections of Andhra Pradesh [AP] in 2009 saw the next level of welfare schemes being sold to the voters. Modelled on a successful implementation in Brazil, the main opposition party of AP, the TDP [Telugu Desam Party] had announced a cash transfer scheme wherein Rs 2,000/- will be credited directly in the bank accounts of the target groups of individuals. Just as in the case of EVMs, here too the problem is very much the same.

Can we say with certainty that these illiterate masses who cannot read or write in their mother tongue even will be able to take advantage of such a scheme ? Every now and then we read in the newspapers that some elderly/illiterate person was swindled out of their hard earned money because they had to depend upon someone to operate their ATM card. How could it end up any different in the case of this scheme? In addition to the usual vulnerability of the recipients of government schemes in the form of bribes etc, this technological barrier is likely to deprive them furthermore.

The UIDAI [Unique Identity Authority of India] was constituted by the finance minister Sri P. Chidambaram during his budget speech of 2009. Nandan Nilekani, the poster boy of Indian tech industry, was appointed as the chair person for this purpose. Using a combination of facial image [photo], retina scan and finger printing, its mandate is to provide credible identity to at least 60 crore Indians in the coming five years. Christened project ‘AADHAR’, [a 12 digit unique identity number] the mission statement, inter alia, is to fulfill the government’s stated goal of achieving ‘inclusive growth’.

A visit to the web site of UIDAI will lead us to a ‘discussion paper’ setting out the agenda for achieving ‘financial inclusion’. Presently, we are grappling with several pieces of personal identification documents such as PAN [Permanent Account Number] card, driving licence, voter ID card, ration card issued by PDS [Public Distribution System] etc. With the nationwide rollout of UID [Unique Identity] cards, the government hopes to link up all the different IDs being used currently under one data base.

This would ensure that people cannot get away with multiple identities, the government opines. If a person tries to maintain multiple IDs, he/she would be caught easily and all of his/her IDs would be blocked until it is properly established as to his/her true identity. In such a scenario where it would be impossible to dupe the disbursing authorities, the various welfare schemes of the government are bound to reach the target groups for whom they are intended.

The ‘financial inclusion’ or ‘inclusive growth’ which has been the buzz word since the past term of the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government came to power will become a fulfilled promise. Joining hands with this UID scheme are the public sector banks of our country, many of which have already signed MOUs [Memorandum of Understanding] with the UIDAI. They will be paid Rs 1,000 per card so that they will be able to cover the rural expanses, while they in turn will pay Rs 100 to every person who enrolls for the UID. These banks hope to use the UID to pass on various benefits to the proper recipients.

The Delhi Chief Minister Ms Sheela Dixit also joined the efforts to bring financial inclusion by way of issuing ‘Beghar’ [homeless] cards to the homeless poor of Delhi along with their provisional UID cards on the occasion of 2nd October 2010, the birth anniversary of the Father of the nation. Ever since the launch of the flagship welfare scheme of the UPA government, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [NREGS] in 2006 [which guarantees 100 days of work per family of rural labour], opposition parties and civilian activists have cried foul over the lack of accountability of tax payers’ money.

Even though the latest situation on NREGS is that about 83% of the recipients of the benefits under this scheme have bank/post office accounts and that their wages are being credited directly into these accounts, the issuance of UIDs and their linkage with the job cards of the workers will bring the much needed credibility to the outlay statements of the scheme by eliminating the possibility of inclusion of ghost workers and/or under payment of their daily wages.

Though the problems of rural labour as to their inability in operating a bank account persist, at least there will be a transaction trail for these NREGS payments up to a certain point. All the while, there is uproar against the very UID project from civil rights activists and liberal thinkers of the country. They claim that this is an infringement of the privacy of an individual, privacy which is implied in Article 21 of the Constitution of India in the expert opinion of the Supreme Court.

On the one hand there are fears that the data collected on the pretext of better delivery of welfare schemes may be used by government for profiling the people. On the other hand there is a practical menace of unscrupulous people resorting to trading in this sensitive data, some such problem already faced by mobile users in the form of unsolicited promotional SMSs/calls. The fact that India has no proper legislation for data protection doesn’t help the cause.

Further, there is not much hope of convergence of the various data bases because none of the existing data bases are using biometric technology which eliminates the possibility of cross referencing. In spite of the fears and fallacies, the Aadhar /UID does promise financial inclusion to the millions of citizens languishing below the poverty line. With a good intention and a touch of transparency, the UID bodes well for the future.