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. 🙂