Govt-citizen information asymmetry is dangerous

Last Updated : 28 July 2019, 05:59 IST

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Constitutional government means rule by a limited government -- one whose powers and functions are limited by a constitution (whether written or unwritten) as a check against tyranny and authoritarian rule. Unlike in ancient and medieval societies, the power of the State today does not rest solely on brute military power or appeals to religion; information plays a key part. When collected, analysed and disseminated within the scope of law and rules, information is necessary for good governance. Government, as we know it, would be virtually impossible if the State did not collect data and try to make sense of what is going on in the country, and address problems accordingly.

But when the flow of information is purely one way -- where the government collects all the information and keeps citizens in the dark about the truth, it is a recipe for tyranny. It is awareness of this danger that has resulted in laws such as the Right to Information Act, 2005, the regular release of statistics by the agencies concerned and in institutions such as Parliament, where legislators scrutinise and question the government. Unfortunately, the recent moves of the Modi government have been to attempt to cut off the flow of information to the public and keep them in the dark.

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Take, for instance, the RTI (Amendment) Bill that has cleared both Houses of Parliament. The RTI Act was drafted and passed after widespread consultation, with near unanimous approval of Parliament. Yet, the law to amend it has been railroaded through Parliament with the government using its brute majority in the Lok Sabha and by making tactical alliances in the Rajya Sabha to stifle any real discussion or scrutiny of the Bill.

The effect of the amendment to the RTI institution remains to be seen. There are serious concerns with handing over the power of determining the tenure and terms and conditions of service of information commissioners to the Union government. The merits of the changes notwithstanding, the process followed is what is most troubling -- as if law-making is a bureaucratic procedure where as long as the bare text of the Constitution is trivially followed, the public should have no role in the process.

Given that this is the first session of the new Lok Sabha, where the government enjoys a brute majority, and is on course to obtain a majority in the Rajya Sabha soon, this must be considered as the manner in which this government will function for the next five years.

The problems with the government’s statistical bodies are now well-known. Whether it is the repeated changes in reckoning GDP growth, or suppressing the unemployment numbers, or simply refusing to release caste and socio-economic census data, the credibility of the government has taken a hit in the eyes of everyone except its most devoted supporters. That this is quite deliberate and not accidental can be seen from its response when experts question statistical methods or consistency of data -- a chorus of voices doubling down on the official numbers without any real attempt at answering the substantive points raised.

The unreliability of data has implications beyond just public discourse in India. It has clearly had an impact on the government’s own finances as the revenue estimates turned out to be wildly inaccurate in the previous financial year, creating a huge shortfall for the Centre. Yet, instead of trying to own up to mistakes or even be more transparent about the calculation of such deficits, the response has been to insist, against all reason and facts, that this has had no impact on the fiscal deficit.

And yet, even while making attempts to cut off access to information to the general public at large, the government has spared no effort to know more about its citizens than ever before. We see this in the reckless extension of Aadhaar to all and sundry use cases, in the recent moves to set up social media hubs across the country, and also in the latest move by the University Grants Commission to demand university students provide their social media profiles. Even if some of these measures are being justified through a thin veneer of legality, it raises the uncomfortable question: is limited government even possible when there is such significant information asymmetry between the government and the citizens?

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There’s a tendency to imagine that the surveillance state will look exactly like what George Orwell wrote about in “1984” -- an all-powerful, all-knowing State with enormous capabilities and capacities to carry out its will. While this no doubt describes colonial rule in India, the Soviet Union and Chinese rule in Xinjiang and Tibet, perhaps it is not the only model of tyranny we should look out for in the modern age. Another equally dystopian novel, though less popular than “1984”, is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” -- one where books have been banned, there’s no such thing as independent media, and citizens get their entertainment through “reality shows” which are just endless parades of noise and colour with no depth. The State here doesn’t need to police every single action of its citizens because they have collectively lost their ability to think, analyse or question, and the very few who have not, are pursued vigorously.

Perhaps this is the future that awaits India if citizens don’t push back against attempts by the government to monopolise the flow of information.

(The writer is Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

Published 27 July 2019, 19:03 IST

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