On Corruption and Technology- A Debate Speech

26 10 2015

The transcript of the opening speech that I made, in a debate competition  held at IIT Madras CLT, on 26th October 2015, on the eve of Vigilance awareness week.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I oppose the motion : “recent improvements in technology engender new ways to protect tight networks of wealth and power and are therefore more likely to enhance corruption than prevent it”

At the outset, let me mention that my argument is a qualified position. The foundations of my reasoning does not emerge from any Huxelian vision, although it certainly is reinforced with a sense of history. I wish to state my case in the reverse order of terms framed in the motion statement.

Let us perform a thought experiment. Imagine that government of India chooses to place five rupee coins in a huge open jar on this podium with a banner “this belongs to the sovereign and shall be distributed to needy children for buying toffees”. There are no measures to protect the money, or ways to determine the neediness or what is the age limit for definining children. But at least we do know that the intended beneficiaries are not students of IIT Madras. Given the population mix of this institution- its age, economic background and level of education, we can expect that a large majority of people present here might honour the intend of Indian government. Well of course, a rare few mischievous ones might steal, given that no protection is available, for the fun of it or just because easy money is available. It might be a totally different situation if we were to place this jar near a statue at Anna Salai.

Now, let us play the game of raising stakes. Imagine the case where we have 100 rupee notes in a box. Government of India wishes this to be spent on providing two square meals a day for the poor; again unprotected and improperly defined. This time, the situation will definitely change a bit. None of the people present here are underfed, or so I hope. Still, a couple of free 100 bucks for the mobile data recharge is not a bad deal after all! It is easy money, although Government does mention about poor people, I’m sure that at least a few will reason that this money will any way be pocketed by the agents who are responsible for implementing the scheme. We know these rascals, don’t we? Some might think it was stupid of the government in the first place, although it does not prevent them pocketing a few notes. Again raise the stakes by putting 1000 rupee notes and gold coins, with a wish to create a new school for under privileged children. The number of angels will go down as the stakes are made higher while protection measures and implementation procedures remaining the same. To be noted is the fact that here will always be people who abstain from this form of corruption. But why did the number of Devils increase? Is it because money is the root of all evil?

Corruption, or at least its massive proliferation, is a systemic issue. It is not a moral issue. If it were, the moral science classes from the convent schools or Bharateeya Vidyabhavans, or classes on ethics conducted at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute for that matter, should have made all of our IAS officers upright people. It is not a question of ruling political ideology either; at least not in its widely understood sense. If it were so, a large many party bosses from CPSU should have been the favourites even after the fall of the Berlin wall. Let it be the case of Laissez-faire free market utopia (an absolute Libertarian dream though not fully acknowledged) in today’s Somalia or the mercantile capitalism period of the 18th century. They should have solved the problem of production, distribution and justice once and for all, or at least by and large!


Corruption, in my opinion, is largely the result of misalignment in power, responsibility and accountability. My argument is not that corruption is simply a delivery problem, the popular version of which is known by the mantra good governance, but that even a structural question has a system dimension when it comes to implementation. Given any structure, combating corruption is an institutional challenge which can only be achieved by placing the right set of checks and balances, and incentivising good behaviour. This is something places like Singapore and Hong Kong understood, and came to tackle, mostly with success. I am not trying to bring down the comparison to relatively smaller and arguably less complex societies. This is an attempt to point out that there is a huge systemic aspect.

Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, is a perennial theme. In fact, it is as old as the history of human civilisation which has found resonance with people at different space and time. We find this discussion in Plato’s Republic, Chanakya’s ‘Arthashastra’ and Machivelli’s Prince, from various perspectives of course. And yet there is no definitive solution acceptable to all, or a majority, so to say, to this problem. We have seen that historically, this concentration has resulted in certain forms of usurping. It also need to be acknowledged that this process has propelled greed, created scarcity and resulted in denial of justice, at least in a long run, in almost all of the places. 

My second argument comes from a historical premise. The networks of wealth and power are self preserving entities. Even in a stagnant society, as it were during say the Dark ages, they did survive. The ones who were able to adapt and evolve with time  definitely stayed longer. But irrespective of the presence of the variable new technology, they made every attempt to stay buoyant, mediating through structures and choosing courses of actions that they had thought  as beneficial for survival. My proposition is that the relationship is inverse; it is not the technology that create structures with concentrated wealth and power- the military industrial complex, if you will, but the existing ones adapt the technology faster often strengthening their position.

The licence raj in India was no paradise for a common (wo)man at the expense of the Tatas and Birlas. An inefficient and expensive telephone system, in which a lightening call – as it was called for a privileged instant long distance call – to a distant town was charged at 12 times the normal rate but had as much probability of dialling the right destination as the toss of a coin, or a single channel television in which news meant reporting things that minister in charge approved of, if anything had presented with an increased possibility of bribery or denial of justice at large. While it is true that today a multinational conglomerate could buy the mainstream media for a cover-up, the proliferation of internet and more independent cyber media, has opened up a fighting chance, however small it is. And finally my favourite anecdote to explain this point: abolishment of slavery was not an really an act of Christian charity, not by the Southern gentlemen who prided themselves for faith at any extend, but largely due to the industrial revolution, however imperfect it were, that had engulfed the North.

My position is that development in technology, by and large, has played a significant role in democratising the world and hence reducing corruption of all forms. Slowly and steadily, science and technology is taking material wealth, information and ideas to the masses to whom it were denied through out the history. This is not necessarily a linear process and shall have ups and downs. Yet, to me the trend is definitely towards better.

My third proposition is that whatever should you mean by the word recent developments, whether we like it or not, all technological feats will proliferate into the masses at a rate faster than before. One only need to look at the time it took for radio to become a part of every Indian household, and compare it with television, then telephone, the mobile phone and today’s smart phone! This process is irreversible, at least for a foreseeable time into the future, even with the most regressive patent laws, attempts to bring Orwellian cyber-laws or surveillance mechanisms. For a project like PRISM by NSA of US, or its Indian counterpart if any, there shall also be Edward Snowdens to expose. The app world citizens could be easily tracked, and perhaps framed for wrong reasons. Agreed. But they also are able to report crime and corruption faster than ever. They can keep a check on how complaints are dealt better than before. What ails us in reaping the benefit are our sluggish institutions. Spectrum auctions might present opportunities for the rich and powerful to make money, but e-governance and checks for maintaining transparency shall be the very seeds that could expose them.

Let us be clear that all power structures- ruling benches, social structures or bureaucracies – seek survival, pretty much like human beings. While technology need not provide the ultimate solution to all structural issues, it is indispensable on the implementation side, and in particular for increasing the efficiency.

I would like to conclude by saying that despite every questionable practice done with the help of technology, solutions to our structural as well as systemic issues can only be materialised with better aligning the existing, or perhaps better, technology with ethical considerations. Like it or not, designing institutions towards this goal present the key. Bashing technology or wrongly accusing it as if it were a conscious individual or a scheming enterprise, will not solve the problem of corruption, or concentration of wealth.

Thank you.


PS: I had to cut down on some parts, because of time limitations (5 minute opening) that I came to know only before entering the stage. All the same, got second prize. 🙂





Hold your peace forever?

24 10 2015

Some thoughts on the recent student suicides at IIT Madras, and the debate on mental health that followed.


IIT Madras had witnessed two suicides during the last couple of months. Apparently, these unfortunate incidents have no common denominators except the decision to end one’s own life. The shocks from the incidents did incite some serious discussions on mental health within the campus and among the larger stake holders, especially the alumni. As often as they turn out to be, this time too the exchanges in social media and newspaper were filled with bitterness.  I hate to say this on the eve of every major incident from the campus, but the reactions from both sides to me, appear too far fetched, although definitely not in equal terms. I fully concur with the requirement of sensitisation and debate on this matter. As pointed out in the article in ‘The Hindu’ certain gargantuan moralist fossils that have long stayed and become a rigid part of the system should be placed in the museums, from where they could be marvelled by glorious past enthusiasts at a safe distance. But having agreed on these, I do find some of the generalisations in the absence of adequate data problematic. On the other hand, I find  Khap panchayats in favour of preserving the institute honour, who have time and again used this policing tactic to extinguish the scope of the debates  or attempted to put the blame squarely on people who dared to speak out, much more deplorable and offensive.

Do we have a problem?

I have read that during the period of Raj, the designated purpose of an English grammar school was to remove every bit of tenderness from young boys, so as to  prepare them to become foot soldiers for the imperial enterprise. Every other aspect of the imperial education was tied to this aim. Unsurprisingly, even sports. As the eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha had pointed out in his LSE lecture:

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

 The colonial enterprise has long withdrawn from India, but again unsurprisingly, our education system still embeds the ghost from that era. In my opinion the stout refusal to acknowledge the problem of mental health in professional education, and create workable, self evolving systems in place comes from the very idea of “ideal engineer” or “professional” who has no place for “weaknesses”. The question is not whether students of professional courses should be prepared to handle stress – both academic and personal, which all reasonable people would agree that they should be, but the kind of coping mechanisms to be promoted and systems to be put in place.  Unfortunately, the professional institutes in our country, even the elite clubs like IIT’s, have not moved far from the 70’s thinking in the western world. In short, we are at least 40 years behind the world universities in dealing with mental health issues. 

Much worse is the false sense of pride inculcated in the alumni of this exclusive club, who more often than not, are completely privilege blind so much so as to attribute their superhuman qualities to their success, as against a realistic assessment. The problem with the IIT system, in my opinion, is that very often otherwise competent people, who are probably less strong mentally or have different requirements, get crushed under the weight of the system. And since we do not have to talk about them most of the time, all is well and hallelujah! This survivorship bias, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the dominant discourse, and this is very much a part of the problem.

The Academic part

In my opinion, the root of the problem is not the competitive nature of the programme. Of course, I do believe that relative grading is not a very good idea under most circumstances. Even software companies have started to move away from relative assessment in appraisals. Academic stress for some part is inevitable in any system, although the option for self-paced programmes and giving more electives from the third year onwards can handle some aspects of this. The extraordinary attendance requirement, though not religiously followed by every faculty, in my opinion is a total nonsense. This only helps to protect incompetent faculty members, and never students. This is also a burden shifting, wherein the important duty of an undergraduate teacher to make the subject interesting and engage the students is transferred to the students, who in the process are penalised for having bad teachers.

It is unrealistic to expect every student to perform well in any given course or project. The principle should be to positively reward the ones who do well and put effort.  The disinterested should be allowed to scrape through with an average grade, given that a certain required minimum level of conceptual understanding and/or effort is demonstrated. Very often, this required minimum is not made clear at the outset, and this lack of proper information results in frustration and unnecessary stress. The delays and extensions in the final year project have very often been the reasons for suicides during the past. IIT Madras has taken note of the issue and now has a provision to substitute B.Tech project with courses, which is a good start. In any case, I have felt that there is a certain lack of transparency in some project evaluations. This is not to make any insinuations of personal vendetta or arbitrariness as such from my part, although there have been hearsays of such nature, but only to suggest that it is certainly possible to tell students at the outset as to what is required.

The Human part

Living inside a huge campus, especially during the most vibrant as well as impressionable years of one’s life brings in the question of dealing with human relations. It is an inescapable fact that campus dwellers exist in a web of relationships from platonic friendships to romantic love of hetero or/and homo varieties. This is exactly where the system in place is so fragile and conservative. Even when there are many aware and compassionate faculty members and supportive peers, the culture of frowning and refusal to acknowledge continues. The prevailing  conservatism is  often suffocating to someone who might not have any relationship issues at all, as I have felt many a times while listening to some younger friends. Of course, IITM is still three notches above the private colleges in South, by and large, in this regard. But the more relevant question is whether one would like a national institute to be compared with pathetic moral policing ones from the state, in the same breath. I have heard from friends that the counselling and guidance unit, for all the good work they do, lack a non-judgemental approach towards relationship issues. This simple fact, if true, alienates many a people who need real help.  The alleged use of students as some sort of information gatherers or even spies, can only make things worse. In my opinion, such moves are reprehensible and displays a kind of colonial hangover.

On top of the relationship questions, there is the issue of perceptions. This is the way-too-dangerous-zone which is almost unmanageable. Particularly vulnerable are the perceptions about caste and gender. The general perception about most Dalit students by the upper caste ones is pathetically prejudiced, not to mention completely wrong. The language in which it comes out is often very covert, but the under tones are easily distinguishable. I have had personal encounters with these prejudices as a teaching assistant in a basic engineering course. The same goes about gender relations. Young men generally believe that women have it easy, quite unreasonably,  and are so cocksure about their superiority. The question of LGBT is frowned up on, and some, both from students and faculty, are openly hostile.

Personally, I know the dynamics that goes on only too well. Having graduated from an NIT (or Regional Engineering College, as it were when we had joined) a decade ago, which too had a similar mix of population and a highly skewed sex ratio, I understand the popular perceptions in such a high testosterone campus. Trust me, they are far from reality by any yard stick of reasonability! It took me a few years to realise the mistake in perceptions about gender relations and even the elephant inside the room- caste. This is as much applicable to faculty as students. I believe that given the situation, sensitisation is the only way forward. But a systematic mechanism should be in place to make sure that this is done along with the academic orientation during the first weeks of the class. In fact, it is high time that we think about coming up with a systematic regime for sensitising on  gender, sexuality and caste prejudices.

Way forward..?

To be frank, we do not, as yet, know the extend of the problem. It is beyond me to speculate about any all weather solution too. But if anything, the discussions should begin. The naysayers and honour brigade might go on with their usual businesses of personal attacks and questioning intend, but it is also important to bring them to the table. It is absolutely unfortunate that some otherwise well meaning people have interpreted the debate, to put it mildly, as a mere perception difference between Humanities students and Engineering students. Not only is this kind of tagging ludicrous, but it does show a certain inability to engage with ideas and confuse them for people. As far as I have seen, this is a peculiar IIT Madras problem, where many engineering or science students (even faculty) have an unwarranted sense of intellectual supremacy. In fact, most these supremacists do not have any clue about the questions they address any more than a commonsensical grasp, which too is often wrong.

In any case, if you ask me, the first step in the right direction is to come with a speak out campaign. As a student and while inside the institution, nobody, for no reason, should be made to hold his/her peace forever. The institutions which are supposed to handle such issues should be asked to adhere to a completely non-judgemental approach. And we certainly do not need more moral policing, even if disguised in the security and safety jargon. Every student should realise that there is no worth in suffering in silence.