Mar 19, 2010

Landless poor to subsidise the IT sector !

Anyone who has a hammer in his hand, treats everything as a nail. I have always found this statement not only amusing but immensely thought-provoking. This holds true for any new technology. The hammer in this case being the new technological product. Be it the computers or the mobile telephony. In order to sell the technological products, it is not unusual to see a chorus from the academicians and the industry on the need and relevance these technologies have for the poor and the marginalised.

Some months back, Sam Pitroda was at pains to tell us how the Knowledge Commission (that he chairs) is trying to look into the possibility of making the computers an engine of growth in the rural areas. I have repeatedly heard some of the distinguished economists and scientists speaking at conferences and seminars about the turnaround that the computers can make to the life of a farmer. Of course, I am aware that with a hammer in their hand, they are looking for another nail to be nailed. 

The IT industry is desperately trying to justify its role in rural development, in other words looking for an opportunity to sell the computers in the villages. Considering that India has 600,000 villages, look at the size of the market that the industry, already faced with a downturn, is eyeing. And if they can somehow convince the government to purchase computers (obviously equipped with Window 7 software) for the poor, it will help to keep the industry afloat. This will be a bailout package. 

With the financial year coming to  close on March 31, this is time when business activities are its peak. No wonder, the Union government has sent a letter, dated March 11 2010, to all the State governments and the Union Territory administrations, asking them to lay emphasis on the computerisation of the panchayat offices. Now this is nothing surprising considering that the government had already decided to set up panchayat ghars in the name of Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) programme.

But what is surprising is that Rs 2,400 crore has been allocated for the computerisation programme, which has to be deducted from the MNREGA administration expenditure. Knowing that not more than 4 per cent of the total MNREGA allocation can be used for administrative purposes, the government has very cleverly changed the rules extending it now to 6 per cent.

According to Dainik Jagran (March 19, 2010) there is no direct relationship between the rural employment programme and the construction of panchayat offices or the computerisation of these new offices. What is however more shocking is that the money that should have actually gone in for creating additional rural employment opportunities for the poorest of the poor is now being used to bail out the IT industry (and its hardware suppliers). Now, if you are from the IT industry, you don't have to feel agitated. I know you are doing a 'great service' to the poor, and the nation should be in fact grateful to you.

In simple words, the poor and marginalised will now be subsidising the multi-billion dollar IT industry. I don't know why the IT industry, which has been enjoying income tax exemptions, and is considering to even provide helicopter services to ferry its employees to avoid traffic snarls in a city like Bangalore, can't be generous with the poor. I am sure the IT industry can on its own install computers in the panchayats (if it feels computers would be helpful) instead of exracting its pound of flesh from the poor landless labourers. Isn't it sad that you pay fabulous salaries to your employees, and you can't even appreciate a few lakh more poor to earn a pitiable Rs 100 a day!

Rs 2,400-crore can provide two square meals a day for lakhs of poor landless workers. Come on, have a heart. You can't be that treacherous. The IT sector too has a corporate social responsibility. You don't have to literally move with a hammer in your hand.

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