Democracy is all about access to resources, rights, participation in decisions, freedom and the ability to pursue choice. Democracy the world over has been under threat, in recent times. In fact, in India, increasingly dilution of democratic processes can be traced to chronology of globalisation of Indian economy. There is a perspective wherein globalisation is aligned with the democracy. Globalisation project has hammered in the argument for free trade, without assurance of a democratic setup to facilitate such a trade. In the run up to setting up WTO and the rules of trade thereafter countries have increasingly chosen the paths to close democratic processes of decision-making, whenever economic decisions that are tuned to global trade became critical. The phenomenal influence of global supply chains on the decision-making systems in production countries has become a bane to democracy.
In India, technology is another tool that is used to demolish aspirations of equity and justice. Demonetisation which is digitisation centric has ultimately impacted the incomes and livelihoods of the poor, more than the hoarders of cash and merchants of black economy. Goods and Services Tax (GST) with a promise of single national tax overrides federal fiscal management and has a structure of decision-making that lies outside the scope of Parliamentary oversight. Even prior to this, in 2009, Aadhar as a digital identity of each citizen promised ease of services to the citizen, but becomes a pain for beneficiaries of welfare, consumers of services and essential goods. It got a legislative backing, 7 years later, through the enactment of Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016. Subsequently, Supreme Court gave some rulings reducing some draconian provisions. In a democracy, the entire process should have been in the reverse. Currently, Personal data Protection Bill has once again brought data protection, privacy, and unauthorised data sharing or misuse into the limelight. Prior to this, COVID 2019 related apps also raised concerns about privacy and rights of the citizens. NITI Aayog is proposing a paradigm shift in personal data management through a recent draft discussion paper titled ‘Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA)’.
Public policy making in India had a better structure. Over a period, it has been ruined to its core. Five-year planning system was more forward looking than admitted. In recent years, most policies are routinely formulated, mostly by private agencies and vetted through Committees, which consists mostly of bureaucrats who have less time to review and contemplate. A few are put up on websites for public comments, with usually no consequent effort to communicate widely. Commenting period is often 30 days. Language is English and Hindi. This process excludes almost 99 percent of the stakeholders. There is usually no supporting material that is accessible with the policy put up for comments. As a result, participation in such a process is zero or completely low. Comments do not get any response either. Not surprisingly, even Members of Parliament remain excluded.
Modernisation projects that impact on the livelihoods, ecology and environment are slipped through, without reference to the statutory participatory and consultation processes. Approval of Genetically modified crops is one such case study. In 2003, for the first time, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, allowed Bt cotton seeds under Environment Protection Act, without reviewing adequate local data on biosafety and efficacy. Later, in 2009, when the application for Bt Brinjal approval came up, the then Union Minister for Environment, Sri. Jairam Ramesh, initiated a 120-day public consultation process, across India. For good, even scientific institutions were consulted. With an overwhelming public opinion against such introduction, approval for Bt Brinjal was halted. This process should go as a norm to be followed in all such technology-led modifications in regulation and policy.
On the other hand, the non-participatory regulatory process of such technologies lacks competency, has endemic conflicts of interest and demonstrated lack of expertise, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts. Technology has become a tool to deny acceptable public policy processes, with business masquerading it as progress in science. Lack of public participation in decisions related to technologies is a serious concern, with no definite support from the government in favour people in this regard. Democracy is an alien word, when it comes to discussion on emerging technologies. When it comes to technologies such as genetically modified crops and IT, public participation is the least expected. Expectations on openness (transparency and clarity), science-based assessment, cost effectiveness, effective monitoring, assessment of priorities, oversight, timely decision making, trade and coordination among concerned ministries /departments have not been operationalised.
Surveillance using technology is also becoming a tool for the governments. China is known for using facial recognition technology to monitor Tibetans among others. In Hyderabad, there are reportedly 10 lakh cameras to monitor citizens and catch the violators of rules. In comparison, New Delhi has just over 5,000 cameras. Deployment of information technologies, in the form of CCTVs, facial recognition software, apps, towards control of behavior, cataloguing and pervasive gathering of personal data, is anti-democratic.
Social media giants, such as Face Book are in news, because of their partisan role in elections across the world. In India, allegations of its bias towards BJP have surfaced. In the US, a Senate Committee has grilled this and other social media giants over involvement in influencing voting patterns and voters. Clearly, public data is being used for undemocratic purposes. During 2018-19 elections in Andhra Pradesh, police have raided certain IT company offices in Hyderabad, claiming theft of public data (from welfare schemes) and misuse by TDP to influence voters. It was also mentioned that all ruling parties in India have been using beneficiary data, available from welfare and other schemes, to influence voting patterns. With the boundaries and borders between government, political parties and private IT companies blurring at many levels, undue influence on fair and free elections has become a new concern. To the extent elections have been made unfair by information technologies, democracy has been diluted equally.
India has a strong federal system, as framed in its Constitution. However, due to pressure from private actors, this is being diluted. In the past, Foreign Trade policy and trade agreements did not include States. In recent times, Electricity Amendment, New Education Policy, 3 Ordinances related to Essential Commodities Act, Contract Farming and agricultural trade facilitation, changes in Finance Commission, dilution of National Development Council, replacement of Planning Commission with NITI Aayog, among others, have setup steps towards defederalization. Such a trend is not merely because of Central government will, but also due to ‘rogue behaviour’ by States, especially those with higher GDP and regional party governments.
Anti-Constitutional, illegal and anti-social behaviour is being led by government leaders. Weakening of institutional processes, distortion of public policies is increasingly leading to an administrative culture that defies public sentiment and opinion. Shadow teams are replacing bureaucrats to support top government leaders in processes that lead up to policies. Laws that are meant to protect public and common property resources are not implemented. Vigilance, monitoring and audit systems that are meant to curtail corruption, anti-public activities are being selectively used.
Even while problems of people and barriers to their happy living are becoming complex, inter-linked, vertically and horizontally, participatory processes of decision-making are becoming restricted and representation is getting constricted.
Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi has been a passionate campaigner on environmental and development issues. He has contributed to public discourse and policy changes in electricity, seed, rice, cotton, sugarcane, sericulture, handloom and textiles, land, water and other related areas. He built campaigns, advocacy programmes and policy change projects. He is an author, writing on different subjects in regional, national and international publications. He also guides students on their Ph.D and other research activities.