73 years back, when the Constitution was being framed, the draft of the document was put up for public review. Back then the country was struggling with illiteracy and poverty. Despite this, the draft of the constitution was open to public scrutiny to ensure that the entire population could have a say in the making of their own constitution.
Obtaining public opinion in such a situation was very difficult also due to the absence of effective mass communication and information dissemination systems. Political parties, newspapers, meetings and radios were means of mass information and media of communicating public opinion to the government. But this situation has drastically transformed with the coming of the computer, the internet and now the mobile phone revolution. Mass communication has not only revolutionised policy information dissemination but also enabled effective feedback from people to the government.
The foundation of participation lies in information access to the stakeholders. Electronic media right from Radio, Television to the internet has penetrated the masses and has enabled the information to reach even the poorest and even in the remotest of the locations. It has helped spread awareness about the government, its working, policies, their success and failures in an inclusive and exhaustive manner. This becomes the bedrock of participation. The idea of citizen charters, websites and mobile apps for targeted information delivery has made it possible for users to access specific information. For example, the website of Ministry of Environment and Forests hosts a list of schemes undertaken by it, their estimated costs, timely targets set along with international treaties about environment protection and lists of endangered species. Thus it brings transparency in information thereby making it easier to fix accountability. As we had seen in the earlier articles, fixing accountability is one important feature and means of participation.
The other important way of participation is communication from the people to the government. Again television and radio have been effective means of airing public opinion since the ages. Today this line of communication has greatly strengthened. It is not possible for every lay person to air his/her opinion through the radio and newspaper, but the internet and social media have revolutionised this system. Media like facebook and twitter let individuals effectively air their opinions. An interesting example is when recently a woman tweeted to the Railway Ministry that her child needed a bottle of milk at a certain station and she could not find it, and at the very next station she was given a bottle of milk by the Railway officials. Twitter following, retweeting of posts, liking of Facebook pages is seen as approval or disapproval of the government and its initiatives.
However, the above forms are open forms of participation. The Internet has enabled more closed and targetted forms of participation. The websites like Mygov.in take direct suggestions from people on various issues. Contests, polls, and rewarding mechanisms encourage people to express their appreciation and grievances both on such media. These platforms ensure that more authentic opinions and suggestions on very specific issues reach the government. These opinions are then considered while making policies.
Now every new scheme has a dedicated website for itself along with a mobile application. These help register beneficiaries and manage their rights. The Aadhar portal, one for MGNERGA are examples of the same. These forms of e-governance not only make administration smoother and efficient but also more transparent and accountable. It makes governance people friendly.
Technologies like saving of biometric data, biometric aided physical uptake, remote sensing are helping make governance further transparent. The Aadhar platform has greatly aided more authentic and genuine participation in governance.
However technological participation is not without its limitations. It certainly is not as effective direct communication like the Gram Sabhas. But it is a much greater platform than the gram sabha. It is one of the most secular and equity establishing mechanism overcoming the issues of caste, religion and others. It is to be noted that the internet platform is limited to the netizens and hardly any of the poor inaccessible regions where people are illiterate and digitally excluded. This does bring an urban bias. But efforts are being made to bridge the digital divide. Social media is also seen to have distorted the facts and issues like paid news, managed posts can greatly impact public opinion in a wrong way. The authenticity of social media is itself at stake. Hence depending on it to an excessive extent will not ensure real participation.
But on an overall evaluation, it is clear that technology is more a boon in governance than its adverse impact. It has helped reach the people to an extent which no other media of direct participation could have reached. It is thus very true that internet and technology have revolutionised participation and with better digital penetration a more effective networked governance is likely to be expected.