How the Net will Bridge the Gap

For
the first time ever, much of India’s now billion-plus population is suddenly
aware of a website’s name and address. That’s some feat in a country with
one PC for 200 people.

A pity it had to happen around corruption, and that, in the process, it shook
up a nation’s immense faith in the armed forces. But it established that
information can make the difference to a population starved of it, and of
transparency, and hope.

Tehelka’s "sting-op" was more about months of plodding
investigative journalism than about the Internet. But the immediacy and
interactivity of the web helped. The story and transcripts were released
simultaneously, for people across the globe to browse and download. The
webserver itself was away from Indian jurisdiction and from possible attempts to
shut it down. People picked up and read in detail whatever concerned them the
most. And the feedback was immediate.

A flood of people responded on Tehelka.com and on other sites reporting the
expose. Most were strongly approving. Some offered to contribute, to carry such
investigations further. Others said they felt empowered as common people; that
the mightiest had been brought down.

It’s a preview of the power of the Net, even with such amazingly low
penetration in India.

The chief vigilance commissioner’s website lists corrupt officials’
names. Together with high-profile CBI raids of the type that happened in April
on top customs officers houses, we can hope for a time when corruption will at
least not be an acceptable fact of life at every level.

Government systems going online also help. A website tracks passport
applications, making unauthorized earnings a little more difficult. My extension
booklet still took four months, but the fact of documenting its movement forced
some transparency there. Now, if only this happened at the corrupt transport
directorates, forcing them to list license application status and results for
qualifying drivers. Those ad-hoc, bribe-inspired processes would surely be
drastically cut down.

Despite the power of TV and print, the web’s role will grow steadily in
public life. A mass of websites will help empower the common citizen. They’ll
include government and service company sites, personal websites by disgruntled
employees or customers, sites for the Indian consumer, and more. While the big
media houses will continue to be the big influencers–online and offline–building
up their reputations on credible reporting and analysis, the Internet will begin
to play an increasingly crucial role: of bridging a gap.

It will help bridge the information gap between the haves and have nots,
between rich and poor. It will help ensure that in an increasingly wired
society, there are fewer and fewer secrets.

Prasanto Kumar Roy

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