Digital India has swept the imagination of the ‘modern’ Indian, along with the ‘development’ paradigm of invest (read ‘make’) in India under the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Surprisingly enough, this package, what our esteemed Prime Minister would term ‘governance’ of development, in terms of infrastructure, digital empowerment and supposed economic prosperity, is gaining mass popularity without any critical questioning or dissent from the majority of the Indians both living inside and outside of India. A lot has gone into the making of this imagination, which also includes the role of the media, vociferously advocating a ‘globalized and digitalized’ India, empowered enough to give a strong competition to the most advanced countries in the world.
Well, it all sounds absolutely fantastic, who would not want economic prosperity, advancement in technology and economic growth? However, we should start by asking some basic questions. Whose India are we talking about? What does empowerment mean to most Indians or let’s be specific, the underbellies of the Indian boom- the Dalits, the adivasis (tribal population)? Who benefits out of this? Who are the main players of this politics of development? How ready are we as a nation to embrace Digital India at this point in history?
Now let us try to put this into perspective. It all dates back to when the East India Company first came to ‘invest’ in India, with the sole business motive that it would be mutually (at least we can give them a benefit of claim) advantageous for India and the East India Company. Sounds surprisingly similar to the present context of the politics of FDI in India, right? Well probably, that is where it all started; it remains a similar kind of politics although deceitfully garbed with a different banner of so-called international co-operation as part of India’s foreign policy. Coming back to the colonial era, the kings ruling over the princely states did not lose their rule at once, but slowly and surely as the East India Company proceeded with capturing the market, and then eventually spread its tentacles around to apprehend the existing political systems, and finally took over the society (we are talking about foreign goods, including textiles which led to the closing down of thousands of existing indigenous cotton and textile mills). What began with a language of co-operation, ended with India becoming a colony of the British, in no time. India could understand that language of control during the colonial era because, then, the authority exercised by the British crown was direct.
At present, however, in the age of the Digital India initiative with the loud slogans of ‘invest in India’, somewhere there lurks a similar danger. Today’s India seems blinded to the omnipresent cues of a politics of a similar nature, because the deal is now being sold under the banner of development, with a dream being painted of the possibility of India becoming a global superpower. This is taking India away from its reality to an imaginary farce, as neo-colonialism is seeping to take it in firmly within its grips and make it again its ‘beloved colony’, this time in the name of democracy and in the very nexus with the state.
Now let’s try to understand who gains from this politics and why would the government do it anyway, after all the government came to power with a promise to provide basic amenities including access to primary health care, education and sanitation to the poorest of the poor. (Un)fortunately, the story here is not very different from the story of the colonial era, where the zamindars or landlords supported the British. The difference is one of terminology, today we have the capitalist replacing the zamindar and the government trying to establish itself as the zamindar of the zamindars. On one hand, the imagery of the state ambitions huge infrastructure projects through rapid industrialization, but let us not forget that to set up factories we need land, so in reality what we have is the Land Acquisition Act of India that has till date successfully displaced close to 60 million people from their homes and customary lands without any compensation or resettlement and rehabilitation being a distant dream and yet again it is no surprise that almost 60% of the displaced are the tribals and Dalits of India – the most marginalized and alienated sections of our society. By now it is obvious that the infrastructures of imagination are usurped by the businessmen, the big and the small and the middle class.
Before we get carried away by the real issues (like farmer suicides, brutal rapes, khap panchayats, infant mortality, malnutrition, corruption, separatist movements in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, poverty, AFSPA, etc), let’s hold our horses here, because according to our government and a majority of middle-class Indians, the issue with Digital India seems to begin and end with net neutrality. We do acknowledge the gravity of the issue surrounding net neutrality but what we are trying to get at is how on earth is Make in India and Digital India any solution to most of India’s problems leave aside the ambition of linking all villages with broadband connectivity?
Moving a step forward raises the question of internet monopoly. Again the story is similar and is about how big malls came to our doorsteps asserting they will sell us cheaper goods than the corner store or the grocery store down the road. We eventually stopped buying from our retail shops and started investing in the goods sold by these malls until most small-scale shops and retail stores were forced to shut down with our shifting preference for a giant, ‘friendly’ mall selling huge businesses off the corporations. And sooner than we thought, the market forces started controlling our likes, dislikes and even what we could buy or not thereby conveniently limiting our choices and controlling our needs.
We did not dissent, because we did not understand the politics of this market monopoly that happened under the carpet. Let’s take a look at the crowd that walk into these malls? Do they represent the ‘real’ people of India? It is an affirmative NO! We feel yet again a similar story goes for digital India. Beware for it’s not just a policy initiative but a conspiracy consisting of virtual hegemony for profit and a glance at our corporate partners – Reliance, Facebook and everyone who has opposed net neutrality is suggestive of this. It too shall begin with lucrative offers and eventually Reliance and Facebook will decide what we see over the internet, how much we have to pay to buy which product (read website); turning the internet into a product, controlled and monopolized by big corporates to foster their economic interest, and what corporations have done to India and other developing countries is well known. People rejoice that internet.org will provide free access to some websites via Facebook. Does it not sound similar to something like ‘give me your nature and I will give you an artificial garden, which will be a token representation of the nature that you will sell me; give me your freedom and I will present a farce of the same idea of freedom that you once really had!’
Well Mister Prime Minister, you have clearly failed to sell us ‘your’ dream of Digital India and Make in India. When we say ‘us’, we would like to include the voice of the voiceless which includes the adivasi woman in a rural village of Assam who has lost her home and her family to disease, the farmer who lost his crops and life to GM seeds and pesticides and many others who ‘make India’. You failed to sell us your digital un-freedom!