Digital India: Understanding Information, Communication and Social Change


Pradip Ninan Thomas

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    To Prem, Beena, Sneha, Mathew and Shruthi—with love, lots of it


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    List of Abbreviations

    ANTActor Network Theory
    ARPUAverage Revenues per User
    AYUSHDepartment of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy
    BJPBharatiya Janata Party
    BOSSBharat Operating System Solutions
    BOTBuild-Operate-Transfer (Model)
    BPOBusiness Process Outsourcing
    BSNLBharat Sanchar Nigam Limited
    BTEFBharatiya Telecom Employees Federation
    CAGComptroller and Auditor General
    CAGRCompound Annual Growth Rate
    C-DACCentre for Development of Advanced Computing
    C-DoTCentre for Development of Telematics
    CIRPCommittee on Internet-Related Policies
    COACellular Operators Association
    CRCommunity Radio
    CRTsCathode Ray Tubes
    CSIRCouncil of Scientific and Industrial Research
    DITDepartment of Information Technology
    DMCADigital Millennium Copyright Act
    DoTDepartment of Telecommunications
    DRMDigital Rights Management
    ELCOTElectronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited
    ENTELLa Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones
    EOIExport-oriented Industrialisation
    EPOEuropean Patent Office
    EXIMExport–Import F/OSS, FOSS Free and Open Source Software
    FDIForeign Direct Investment
    FERAForeign Exchange Regulation Act
    FICCIFederation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry
    FIIForeign Institutional Investors
    FNTOFederation of National Telecom Organisations
    FYPFive Year Plan
    GAOGovernment Accountability Office
    GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
    GDPGross Domestic Product
    GISGeographic Information System
    GSMGroupe Spécial Mobile (Global System for Mobile Communications)
    GSPGeneralized System of Preferences
    IBMInternational Business Machines
    ICANNInternet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
    ICSIRIndian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research
    ICTInformation and Communication Technology
    ICT4DInformation and Communication Technologies for Development
    IFISIntegrated Financial Information System
    IIPAInternational Intellectual Property Alliance
    IITIndian Institute of Technology
    IKIndigenous Knowledge
    IMFInternational Monetary Fund
    IPIntellectual Property
    IPCInternational Patent Classification
    IPRIntellectual Property Rights
    ITInformation Technology
    ITIIndian Telephone Industries
    ITUInternational Telecommunication Union
    KIADBKarnataka Industrial Areas Development Board
    KSITMKerala State IT Mission
    LAALand Acquisition Act, 1894
    MAITManufacturing Association of IT Industry
    MGNREGAMahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
    MNCMultinational Corporation
    MRTPMonopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices
    MSSRFM.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
    MTNLMahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd.
    NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
    NASSCOMNational Association for Software and Services Companies
    NCPNew Computer Policy
    NeGPNational e-Governance Plan
    NFTENational Federation of Telecom Employees
    NGONon-governmental Organisation
    NICNational Informatics Centre
    NISCAIRNational Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources
    NITNational Institute of Technology
    NLRMPNational Land Records Modernisation Programme
    NLTNokia Life Tools
    NRCFOSSNational Resource Centre for Free and Open Source Software
    NTPNew Telecoms Policy, 1999
    NWICONew World Information and Communication Order
    OCROptical Character Recognition
    OLPCOne Laptop Per Child
    OLTPOnline Transaction Processing
    OSYUOpen Source Yoga Unity
    PPPPublic–Private Partnership
    RANDReasonable and Non-Discriminatory
    RAXRural Automatic Exchange
    RMLReuters Market Light
    RTCRights, Tenancy and Crops
    RTIRight to Information
    SAARCSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
    SAPsStructural Adjustment Policies
    SARISustainable Access in Rural India
    SEZSpecial Economic Zone
    SIMSubscriber Identity Module/Subscriber Identification Module
    TCILTelecommunications Consultants of India
    TCSTata Consultancy Services
    TEMATelecom Equipment Manufacturers' Association
    TKTraditional Knowledge
    TKDLTraditional Knowledge Digital Library
    TKRCTraditional Knowledge Resource Classification (System)
    TRAITelecom Regulatory Authority of India
    TRIPSTrade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
    UASUniversal Access Service Provider
    UASLUnified Access Services Licensing
    UIDAIUnique Identification Authority of India
    UKPTOUnited Kingdom Patent and Trademark Office
    UNUnited Nations
    UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
    USIBCUS-India Business Council
    USOUniversal Service Obligation
    USOFUniversal Service Obligation Fund
    USPTOUS Patent and Trademark Office
    USTRUnited States Trade Representative
    VAVillage Accountant
    VPTVillage Public Telephone
    VRSVoluntary Redundancy Scheme
    VSNLVidesh Sanchaar Nigam Limited
    WBWorld Bank
    WCTWIPO Copyright Treaty
    WEEEWaste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (Directive)
    WIPOWorld Intellectual Property Organization
    WLLWireless Local Loop
    WPPTWIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty
    WTOWorld Trade Organization


    The Kenyan writer and cultural critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o seeks to develop what he calls ‘poor theory’. This concept does more than merely recognize that poor people think—though in itself this remains crucially important. Shorn of scholasticism and other excesses, poor theory also carries the incendiary idea that society's processes of knowing themselves need to be reorganized in light of those who, decades ago, Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’.1

    Digital India makes major contributions to poor theory. It does so by delivering us to a concept of the digital that is determinedly different from the one that brays through cellphone advertisements and news features about the latest Internet service. Herein the digital is stripped down to its societal essentials. Self-satisfied consumers stand revealed as only one part of the picture. This is not just another prolix celebration of consumers' subjectivity, of the sort that has so confused and diverted communications scholarship, but also an honest and creative engagement with the social and political forces that shape our modernity.

    In the United States, nowadays India is often presented as a rising commercial power—and, at the same time, as an ineffable blend of poverty and high-tech entrepreneurship, perhaps filtered through a supposedly timeless caste system. Pradip Thomas reveals a more coherent, contingent, and historically grounded reality. In the India that he scrupulously depicts, the digital is a volatile mix of commodification initiatives and attempts to push back. If, on one hand, the political economy of information is being generalized so that it encompasses not only familiar media and network services but also software and biotechnology and e-government programs of public sector commodification, then, on the other hand, Digital India is also deeply attentive to the social agency of resistance movements. Each of the two moments requires equally careful scrutiny.

    From Free and Open Source Software to mobilizations around a ‘right to know’; from anti-GMO protests, to community radio—Professor Thomas shows us a society rife with social struggle. Drawing on his years of engagement with the accumulating experience of activists contesting poverty, domination, and exclusion, he depicts a Digital India that goes beyond the banalities of ‘business process outsourcing’ and the talents of Indian engineers. Here at last the study of communications is opened to India's farmers and urban poor, its participants in a grey economy, its under-represented and despised—in other words, its majority—as a shaping force. The result is both a tribute to poor theory and a yardstick with which to measure the world.

    DanSchillerProfessor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Department of Communication, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA February 2012

    1. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012: 2.


    Trying to account for the digital in India is a close-to-impossible task. The viral imprint of the digital is shaping both the formal and informal sectors in India, and I believe that we are yet to witness the full impact of the information revolution on our society and in our lives. To a certain extent, media scholars have had little choice but to deal with the digital, given its ubiquitous, shaping presence in and through the many cross-sectoral convergences that continue to redefine production and reproduction in the 21st century. The digital is the common language that has enabled marriages between previously separate technologies, and is the basis for a variety of applications—from consumer and media technologies to telecommunications, computing, the life sciences, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, military technology, etc. Information processing is the key to the digital. The informational logic of cybernetics, characterised by information and feedback, and expressed via flows and networks, is the basis for a whole range of productive processes across multiple sectors—biotechnology laboratories, just-in-time manufacturing, clerical work, classrooms, military strategies, public surveillance, the health industry, agriculture, seed production, national and global governance, investments and financial networks, transport, not forgetting the cultural industries. The informational mode of production, in turn, is located within, and sustained by neo-liberalism and the free market.

    In the previous two SAGE volumes—Political Economy of Communications in India: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (2010) and Negotiating Communication Rights: Case Studies from India (2011)—I had highlighted upon the issues linked to India's tryst with ‘information’ as technology, process, product, and the opportunities and contestations this had given rise to, in the context of uneven, capitalist development. These included chapters on the ‘informationalisation of life processes’, and the Free and Open Source and Citizen Journalism movements in India. I see this volume as a natural postscript to the two previous volumes and, in a sense, the completion of an integrated three-volume project. The chapters in this volume deepen the engagement with the digital and explore a range of issues related to India's embrace of informational futures. There are many aspects to the digital and this volume highlights some of these aspects. In particular, it deals with the relationship between the digital and social change; the role played by structures, policies and products such as the mobile phone in the change processes; the gaps between principle and practice; the many contested contexts of the digital in India and the reasons behind why a key actor—the state—in the context of both external and internal pressures aimed at privileging the market as the key arbiter of access and growth in matters related to new technologies, is investing in public sector digital initiatives. The state in India has not withered away in the context of the march of capitalism. On the contrary, it remains a formidable entity that is playing an active role as a midwife to the information revolution, continuously adapting to the challenges posed by Gov.2.0. At an international level, for example, the Indian government at the 2011 UN General Assembly proposed the establishment of a U.N. Committee on Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) as an alternative to the US-controlled Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

    The chapters in this volume are mainly grounded in a critical political economy approach to understand the digital moment, and, as such, the frameworks of domination resistance and agency structure have been used as pegs to construct the argument. The digital cannot be understood in isolation from the political economy that has shaped it and continues to give meaning to it. The story of the digital in India is not just about the successes of India's software industries and should not be limited to an appreciation of the revenues earned from the business process outsourcing (BPO) projects, important as they are. There is much more that can be attributed to this revolution as more and more people in India experience their digital moments and encounter the enveloping presence of the digital in their everyday lives. What makes the digital fascinating is that it is both structure and anti-structure, meaning that the ‘dominant’ digital in India is complemented with a multitude of subversive digitalities—from counterfeit mobile phones to pirate software. And it is this broad spectrum of digital practices in India that make it an interesting project for study. Technologies, however, are not neutral. They shape and are shaped by human interventions. Technological shaping is a complex process—be it in the contexts of telecommunications, e-governance, public sector software, mobile telephony, digital piracy, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in development, and this volume highlights some ways in which the ‘information revolution’ is shaping lives, opportunities and processes in India. This ‘shaping’ involves contestations and power plays, advocacy and mobilisations, policy and politics, and the involvement of civil society and the private sector along with the State.

    There is a conspicuous lack of critical material on the various ways by which the language of the digital is shaping all productive sectors in its image. Research on the social impact of the digital in India remains fragmented. The tradition of administrative research predominates, and the industry has played a key role in investing in ICTs research. There is a need for detailed, independent research on the informational economy and most definitely the need for evidence-based research on the worth or otherwise of the multi-billion dollar investments in e-government, ICTs for development and other connectivity projects in India. I have used the acronyms IT (Information Technology) and ICT in an interchangeable fashion throughout the text, despite the fact that the term ICTs is used to describe convergent technologies.

    As a coordinator of courses on communication and social movements, and ICTs and social change at the University of Queensland, I have had numerous opportunities to debate and discuss issues related to the digital with a number of students, including research higher degree candidates, in particular, Ellen Strickland and Bambang Budiwiranto. In my journey towards trying to make sense of the digital, I have been privileged to have had the occasional conversation with critical theorists of information, including Professors Dan Schiller, Cees Hamelink, Hopeton Dunn, Bruce Girard along with information activists like Roberto Verzola, Sylvia Cadena, Frederick Noronha, Sunil Abraham and Lawrence Liang who share deeply grounded views on the information revolution, the Internet and the role of information as property. To them and many others, my thanks for freely sharing knowledge on the contested nature of information politics and processes.

    I have been fortunate to have been through a 3-year period characterised by a writing surge and have been surprised at my own willingness to be driven to write and complete a series of books on communications in India. Apart from the two books that I had written between 2009 and 2011, I had also written a couple of journal articles on issues related to the digital in Info, 9, 23 (Telecom Musings: Public Service Issues in India, 2007), Telematics & Informatics, 26, 1 (Bhoomi, Gyan Ganga, E-Governance and the Right to Information, 2009), Media Development, 4 (Cyanide for Gold: Dealing with E-Waste, 2009), the International Communications Gazette (Traditional Knowledge and the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library: Digital Quandaries and Other Concerns, 2010), the Nordicom Review (The Role of Public Sector Software in Development in India: Contested Futures, 2012) along with assorted book chapters on issues such as the digital divide and citizen journalism. While the chapters in this book allude to some of these writings, the material in this book is based on the research that I have been involved in during the last five years. India, for my money, is the most exciting terrain for the denouement of the digital in all its variety, complexity and contestability. In this project, I have been privileged to have had SAGE as my publishers, and would like to thank Rekha Natarajan in particular along with Shambhu Sahu and others at SAGE who have supported my writings. Finally, my thanks to my family—Preetha, Nitin and Prianka who are now reconciled to the fact that I am, alas, no JK Rowling!! This book is dedicated to my brother Prem, and Beena, Shruthi, Sneha and Sannu who have played an extraordinary role in shaping the dreams of an academic.

    Namaskaram. Brisbane October 2011
  • About the Author

    Pradip Ninan Thomas is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Communication and Social Change at School of Journalism and Communications, University of Queensland, Australia. A leading academic in the area of communication and social change, Thomas is also on the advisory boards of a number of international institutes including the India Media Centre at the University of Westminster.

    He is Chair of the Participatory Communications Section, IAMCR, and on the editorial committees of a number of journals, including Media Development, Journal of Creative Communications, Communication for Development and Social Change, Journalism and Communication Monographs and the International Journal of Press/Politics. In 2010, he was involved in a study of communication rights movements in India.

    Thomas has published more than a hundred articles on communication, many in refereed journals including the International Communications Gazette, Info, Global Communications and Media, Economic & Political Weekly, Telematics & Informatics, Asian Journal of Communication, Media Development and Communication for Development and Social Change.

    He has authored and/or co-edited a number of books, including:

    • Who Owns the Media: Global Trends and Local Resistance/2001/Zed-Southbound
    • Intellectual Property Rights and Communication in Asia: Conflicting Trends/2006/SAGE
    • Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Intellectual Property in the Twenty First Century: Perspectives from Southern Africa/2007/Codesria
    • Strong Religion/Zealous Media: Christian Fundamentalism and the Media in India/2007/SAGE
    • Political Economy of Communications in India: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly/2010/SAGE
    • Negotiating Communication Rights: Case Studies from India/2011/SAGE

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