In the world’s largest democracy, corruption has long been part of the system of governance. However, transformative new technologies are playing an exciting and powerful role in citizen engagement, good governance and in the mobilisation of the masses for social action.
Since the beginnings of the Indian independence movement, technology has been a central element to citizen engagement. According to Nishant Shah, from the Centre of Internet and Society, print and cinema reflected the views of citizens and informed them of the visions and changes that the country was going through. Today, India has one of the largest young and connected populations in the world.
Fifty per cent of the population is under the age of 25 and there are about 880 million mobile phone subscribers. New technologies are shifting the way that citizens interact with government and mobilise around issues they care about.
Based in a cramped office in New Delhi, the group Gram Vaani community media are developing tools to make governments more accountable. This group of young people with impressive resumes and big dreams form part of the new generation of Indian social entrepreneurs calling for change.
One of their most revolutionary products is a citizen news telephone hotline. The initiative is having a huge impact with recorded reports of government officials being fined for corruption, school teachers being paid overdue salaries and medical resources being sent to remote areas to fight malaria outbreaks. It allows callers to report incidents or problems from their regions, which are then transcribed and made available through a website for the media, government and general public.
This technology is particularly effective in remote areas, where Gram Vaani partners with local NGOs who empower local communities to use the tool. The service, which is expanding across the Indian state of Jharkhand, clocked 40,000 calls during the first month. Roshan Nair, from Gram Vaani, said: “NGOs have taken up the entire responsibility of informing local residents about our hotline, verifying information, and training new users. We have supported them, but they continue to do good work at great personal risk.” The technology is also currently deployed in Afghanistan with plans to expand to Pakistan and Iraq.
During my most recent visit in January, 74-year-old anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement dominated the media. The movement has been fighting for the introduction of the Lokpal Bill, which would create an independent ombudsman with the power to investigate corruption allegations from citizens. The movement launched a successful social media campaign, which built an image of Hazare as the 21st century Gandhi.
Social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter were used as organising tools for protests and when Hazare was arrested, his team released YouTube videos of him in jail to rally supporters. Their campaign was incredibly successful, mobilising thousands to support passing of the legislation.
According to a 2011 report released by Facebook, Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill were the most mentioned topics in Indian status updates, a sign that Indians are increasingly using the internet to share and debate political events.
Online movements such as the IAC are spreading through Indian urban areas with online campaigns on issues of violence, the environment and the protection of women are gaining momentum and political leverage. Increasing tension from the government around internet censorship and with more organisations and citizens harnessing the power of the internet and mobile phones for social action creates a very interesting space to watch in 2012.
Another powerful governance project Ipaidabribe.com is the world’s largest crowd-sourced database on corruption, with more than 18,000 acts of corruption registered. Developed by NGO Janaagraha, the website aims to tackle corruption by allowing citizens to log corrupt acts that are then used to lobby for better governance systems, law enforcement and regulation. A reporting tool on the website allows the public to view detailed analytics on where bribes are made, to which government department and their total costs to the public.
The Transport Department of Karnataka was frequently reported for bribes on the website, which led to the Public Transport Commissioner inviting Janaagraha to identify procedures that would help foster transparency and accountability in their bureaucratic processes. The Karnataka state government has since agreed to put posters promoting the website in all government offices. The technology is currently deployed in Kenya with Janaagraha stating that they are in talks with 15 countries.
India is booming; changing at a rate the country has never seen before. Despite the increasing use of technology by organisations and social movements, India still has a huge challenge in bridging the digital divide. Despite the powerful examples provided, social action and citizen engagement movements largely remain concentrated in urban, metropolitan settings, and often only engage the middle class. According to Mr Shah, from the Centre of Internet and Society, “there are innovations which are allowing people with cell phones in rural and remote India to be better connected, but there is no substantial data that actually proves that it fosters citizen engagement”.
As organisations such as Gram Vaani and Janaagraha begin to build more tools to foster citizen engagement and hold governments accountable, it is going to be incredibly fascinating to not only observe their future impact, but also see how technologies will be developed and spread to rural areas.
*Gautam Raju is a co-founder and creative director of OurSay Australia. He travelled to India in January as part of an OurSay research trip.