Jan 28, 2009

Bug in the system

As the economic collapse and now the Satyam saga show, computers cannot eradicate corruption

For years we were painstakingly told that consistent, reliable and accurate information is a precursor to curbing corruption. Bridging the digital divide by extending computerisation across the country is still being promoted as a sure way to fight corruption. The World Bank says it, the UN promotes it, and the business of making corruption history proliferates.

I had always stood up and challenged the popular contention. The New Age management gurus and that include academicians and bureaucrats, whose jobs are linked to promoting the use and application of the technology, would only snigger. E-governance is the buzzword and how can someone dare to question the perceived role computers can play in fighting corruption.

The Satyam saga has surely blown this e-governance fa├žade. If computers could help in curbing corrupt practices, how does one explain that Ramalinga Raju, the disgraced founder of Satyam Computer Servives, was able to forge computerised bank statements to dupe auditors, fake employee numbers to siphon-off money, and divert funds from his company to enter into benami land deals for thousand of acres? And what about the auditors, a part of the global PriceWaterhouseCoopers organisation? Were they not using computers?

There is certainly more on the plate than what can be chewed. Take the case of land records and property transactions. The computerisation of land records, for instance, which began in 1991, is now being hastened up. No one will discount the dire need to computerise the land records. But why use the flawed argument of curbing corruption? Bhoomi, Karnataka’s famed model of digital land records, for instance, has failed to check corrupt practices. In fact, it is now becoming much easy for the land grabbers and big business to misappropriate the electronic data.

The collapse of the financial markets in the United States, which triggered a global economic meltdown, happened under the very watchful eyes of the computer. I can understand what must have gone wrong when computer was non-existent at the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but still can’t fathom how did the 2008 financial collapse took place when everything was computerised. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not against the use of computers, but strongly feel that taking the e-governance and information communication technology (ICT) argument to eradicating corruption is not only far fetched but fundamentally flawed.

Bug in the system, Edit page, Hindustan Times, Jan 28, 2009

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