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A fax about Anna: Dilip D’Souza

August 28, 2011

Guest post by DILIP D’SOUZA

Of course everyone has their own take on the movement that’s got us all talking. It raises passions, it polarizes, it shakes the powerful, on and on. I have immense admiration for what Anna Hazare has achieved: the outrage against corruption where we had indifference before, the outlet for such outrage, the renewed hope where we had cynicism before, the way his movement has shamed brazen politicians and forced an entire government to listen.

Yet the movement sometimes reminds me, of all things, of fax machines.

In his 1995 book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte spelled out his distaste for the fax machine. In the progression towards a digital world, he saw it as “a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time.” (See this and other quotes here). Writing in Wired at the time, he explained: “If, 25 years ago, we (that is, some of us in the scientific community) could have been overheard predicting the percentage of text that would be computer-readable by the turn of the millennium, the percentages would have been as high as 90 or 95 percent. But then, boom, around 1980 the previous steady growth in computer-readability took a nose-dive because of the fax.”

Why?

Negroponte explains in Communication World Magazine: “The fax is a step backward because it is nothing more than a picture of something. It is no more computer-readable than the page you’re reading this on. The same information delivered as an E-mail message takes much less bandwidth to send, plus it can be retrieved, filtered, sorted and edited. You can’t do anything with a fax except read it.” In Wired, he wrote that a given page of text takes four times as many bits to transfer by fax as by email, and ends up computer-unreadable at the other end nevertheless.

Yet the fax became so ubiquitous that “as much as 70 percent of telephone traffic across the Pacific [in the mid '90s was] fax, not voice.”

What’s the analogy to Anna Hazare?

This: we all want to progress towards a corruption-free India. (We may never actually reach there, but the road to that ideal is the point). I worry that this agitation, for all the good it has done, and when the dust settles, will be a blemish on that progress. I realize that’s a pronouncement that will annoy many, so let me explain.

There are criticisms of the Lokpal bill and Hazare’s movement that others have made, some of which I agree with. I don’t intend to repeat those, except to underline my fear of creating another large and powerful bureaucracy. Fear, because how will we find people of integrity and dedication to staff it? What will we do if it turns oppressive? What will we do if it remains mired in inefficiency? However well-intentioned the people behind the Bill and the language in it, our history with too many other institutions necessarily raises those questions.

But there is a far wider concern I have: I cannot believe corruption will end purely because we give ourselves a Lokpal bill.

For who will stop the doctor who asks for his fees in cash? The man who offers part of a payment for services rendered in cash, believing sincerely he is actually doing his payee a favour? The builder who installs wider pipes so as to draw more water for his flats, at the expense of flats in other buildings? The man who connects his electrical leads to his neighbour’s meter? The celebration of a Harshad Mehta as a source of expert tips for making money, even after his crimes were exposed and he was arrested? The tax advisor who suggests inventing an “associate” and offers to help fabricate salary slips for this imaginary associate, all so as to claim higher deductions on a return? The guy who ignores the “No Entry” sign and drives down a one-way street, offering “This is India!” as an excuse when challenged? The taxi drivers who doctor their meters and prey on unsuspecting train travellers coming off a long journey? The doctors and pharmacists in rural MP who claimed not to have any stocks of anti-rabies vaccine because the doctor asking did not offer a bribe, thus condemning her patient, a young boy, to a horrible death?

(I am not making any of this up. I could also go on).

Who will stop people like these? What will end thinking like this that all of us indulge in?

Not the Lokpal bill.

Not, let it be said, that it is the job of the Lokpal bill to address these concerns.

Yet that’s just the point. By focusing all our attention on corruption in our leaders and government structures, by filling us, even unwittingly, with the belief that that’s the fountainhead of corruption and that the bill will shut it off — in doing all this, I think Anna Hazare’s movement has turned our attention away from a deeper, longer-term reality of the war against corruption. (And it is a war).

This reality: that corruption is a pretty much a way of life. And turning that around will be a long and winding road.

As I write this, the impasse has been resolved. That is good. But if we now sit back, satisfied that the real victory against corruption has been won, we’ll find out soon enough that it isn’t.

Looking back from 2011, the fax was indeed no more than a blemish. Fifteen years after Negroponte expressed his disgust with them, the world is more digital than it ever has been, and while some still use faxes, email and texting and BBMing and so on have become by far the preferred ways to communicate.

Think, then, what the world would be like today had we, in 1995, treated the fax machine as the ultimate in digital communication.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Kishore T permalink
    August 28, 2011 8:26 PM

    Quite true, and now that the circus is almost over, I am wondering what next for the pathetic news channels that had nothing else to report over the last few days. Just before I blink, there is news of a new WAR. The war on electoral processes. Wonderful! A mela everyday.
    But you are right, it is/was a necessary war and this is neither the beginning nor the end.

    If I may ask, how do we define corruption? Is there such a thing as “good” corruption? Or are Black & White the only colors available?

    My eyes were opened one day when my wife fumed at me: “Are you not corrupt yourself to talk so pompously about corruption everywhere?”. I was baffled. Here is why:
    When I report a fault in my telephone line, I get prompt service – almost within a few minutes. The lineman (and the assistant) who comes by gets coffee and a Rs 50/100 note for all the trouble he takes to set the line right so promptly. Yes, it is corruption. We may call it what we like. But it is corruption nonetheless.
    I could justify it by saying that it is not the payment that draws such prompt service (what else? love and affection and loyalty?!!) and that it is a small thing for me to tip a lineman who works so hard and takes home a pittance.

    Here is another example, that would probably make better sense. One of my uncles’ last posting was as the SP of Hassan a long time ago. We once went to visit him and his second son cast a hawk eye on the constables standing on traffic duty below the SP’s office. After a while he came back to report to his dad that the constable had taken a bribe of Rs20 to let off a motorcycle rider who had entered a no-entry zone. This uncle is quite a legend in the KPS for his honesty and incorruptibility (old timers still call him the “Devarantha Manushya”) and he shocked us all by berating his son for cribbing about a constable taking a bribe. He said that the man worked from morning 8 till late in the evening, standing on duty all the while in the hot sun. ‘If there is a VIP detail he has to wait at attention until the VIP entourage has passed. After all that he takes home a salary (in those days) of Rs. 2000. With such a pathetic salary for essentially a donkey’s job, you expect him to remain honest? ‘

    He would not condone corruption in anyone and, yet, he spoke bitterly about the police service and what it had caused. Is it justifiable? Maybe not. Is there a solution to it? Perhaps not. Was my uncle corrupt as well, for not taking action against a constable who allegedly took a Rs. 20 bribe?
    A few months later he was posted as a Lokayukta SP in Chitradurga and retired as a bitter officer who had never made money who had never bowed to any politician and had been shunted from place to place as a reward for his honesty. Not even a house of his own after years of service. To top it all, his retirements benefits came to him after 4 years of retirement since he could not pay the bribe required at the AGs office to get it released sooner.

    I ask you, what is the reward for honesty in this country? Are we really so honest that we want the Lokpal bill to really succeed? Each of us justifies his/her own corruption and points at someone else as an example of the corrupt. I have a land conversion/registration pending since the last three years since I would not pay any bribe. Is it going to help me? I think not. The bitterness in the middle class that we speak about is, to put it mildly, sheer hypocrisy. If there is any reason why the bill’s implementation should fail, it will be the same pompous middle class which cannot do without its shortcuts and bribe giving/taking.

    In the end, all those Ramlila fans will go home, thinking that the party was good while it lasted. Ho hum, by the way, let us have a drink to celebrate our victory and if any havaldar catches us on the way back from our session, we could always pay him some money and get away with it. Bharat mata ki jai!!

  2. August 28, 2011 10:26 PM

    nicely put ….and more importantly in so many words!!! And the crowds thronging India gate( fe god knows wht??) doesnt seem to give me hope at all…..If simplicity is wht one understands .. let us internalise tht Corruption is within not without!!! Once we conquer that..no law is reqd!!

  3. anand permalink
    August 28, 2011 11:13 PM

    Lmited resources to tap for enormous population is major reason people are getting corrupt.To ensure they are aggregating enough for their loved ones and their offsprings and to ensure them against a bleak future make them corrupt.

  4. August 29, 2011 12:22 AM

    unfortunately there are no solutions for your questions. Lokpal does offer a solution to some of other questions which are also important. So why crib. There can never be a perfect solution to all problems and who said this is the only one. Very recently UK passed a law in july which makes all corporates liable for corrupt practices not just by em in UK but across the world and not just by companies themselves directly but also by their business partners if it unfairly is used to promote their business. One could argue will that solve corporate corruption, maybe not but reduce it will. Just another law … perhaps. Similarly if there is a better solution to solve corruption in India, why not speak up. Someone started with lokpal (a concept successful in some other parts of the world and even in karnataka if one was to take the recent example. So why not!
    And even if nothing works, the single biggest gain to my mind is the fact that the govt and politicians must have woken up to fact that people would and can ask questions.

  5. Ms. Asha Kachru permalink
    August 29, 2011 7:56 AM

    corruption is within AND without! we are dealing at present with the easier part, the corruption outside. it is necessary but not sufficient, agreed. dealing with the one within will have to follow. the people have now become ready to protest against any other injustices in our society and that is what i am so happy and optimistic about the whole upsurge, asha kachru

  6. Rajab permalink
    August 29, 2011 8:54 AM

    Wonder if the Lokpal would be able to stop something like Gujarat 2002 happening again. If it has to be an effective Lokpal such safeguards should be ensured. Also would Dalits be given good education and not the municipality type. Would the roads not have pot holes? Would people get water?
    Well guess some one else will have to do it. In Gujarat we have had no Lokpal for the last nine years and now when there is one the man who Anna gave a certificate of being uncorrupt creates a racket.

  7. August 29, 2011 9:22 AM

    For all those asking for solutions…

    http://rant-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/08/pen-sword-corruption.html

  8. August 29, 2011 10:10 AM

    Are you saying that anti-corruption legislation is: (a) not necessary? or (b) not sufficient? It is easy to see the sense in the latter, and I have yet to come across meaningful arguments to the effect that, for example, the Lokpal Bill is a panacea for all forms of corruption. That it is not sufficient, IMO, is a given.

    However, agreeing that it is insufficient does not imply that it is unnecessary. What I have indeed come across, unfortunately, are many arguments to the effect that this is not a silver bullet and *therefore* it is not required. This is a fallacy. To prove that it is unnecessary one must either argue that it adds no value, or that it is, in fact, a cure worse than the disease. Showing that it is not sufficient and therefore unnecessary is a specious argument.

    Undoubtedly, numerous other reforms, some of which are already in various stages of conceptualization/ articulation/ drafting/ enactment, are badly needed. And they are needed in any case, regardless of the corruption issue, to promote overall economic growth and prosperity. The bigger question is – how do we transform our administrative and governance systems so that all these legal and regulatory changes, acting in concert, can deliver best results. I don’t see much focus on this but that doesn’t mean that nobody is thinking about it.

    As regards cultural change – which is at the root of the day-to-day corruption of the kind you have described – I’d say that a lot of it will most likely come about (one can only hope) through changes in systems and processes, better enforcement of existing as well as new laws (thanks to various legal and procedural reforms including de-licensing and anti-corruption laws) and awareness programmes (civil society movements) that continue to keep this issue front and centre.

    Lastly, I think it would be useful to remember that this is a struggle towards improvement, not perfection.

    P.S. The fax machine served an economic need when no other solutions were available. It has outlived its utility and is now obsolete. That’s how evolution works. I don’t think we could have skipped that step, unless we had the prescience to know what was coming. The same goes for a lot of technologies. The pager is another example, as is X.400 email.

  9. Mast Qalandar permalink
    August 29, 2011 11:35 AM

    Dilip

    I am afraid I don’t quite understand your fax machine analogy.

    Are you saying that it would have been better to wait for a better idea than Anna’s movement for lokpal to emerge?

    Just to point out: The fax machine was a significant advance over contemporary technology in days when computers were expensive, their availability was limited, and the only other way to send a document was through courier.

    MQ

  10. August 29, 2011 12:57 PM

    MQ and others, thanks for responses.

    First thing is: it’s an analogy. Not meant to be an exact parallel, only meant to offer a little food for thought.

    Second: I’m not saying we should have waited for a better idea to emerge. I’m tired of waiting for ways to fight corruption that never come. I’m saying only that if we think this Lokpal bill will end corruption, and therefore the battle against it ended yesterday, “we’ll find out soon enough that it isn’t” (isn’t ended, that is). I cannot help worrying — I’d love to be reassured in the coming weeks — that a lot of people see yesterday’s victory in that light. The battle really begins now, if you ask me.

    Third: Corruption is not the exclusive preserve of our politicians and governments. Like Jaitley said in that report I quoted, it has become a way of life. How do we address that?

    Fourth: of course the fax machine was an advance, analogous here to the Lokpal bill being an advance over what we have in place now. But that’s not the point. What if we had looked at it as the solution to the problem of digital communication?

    Mayank: you want to know my solution to solving corruption? There is no easy solution. It will involve things ranging from laws (like Lokpal) to education to lowering poverty levels to inculcating a sense of values and ethics in our kids. If there’s one thing I can suggest now, it would be this: each of us resolve never to pay a bribe, regardless of the price to be paid. I realize that will cause problems in plenty of situations, but it’s a resolution to aim to follow nevertheless.

  11. Mansoor permalink
    August 29, 2011 2:19 PM

    I agree, first we need to know what is corruption – are we talking about corruption as a generic term that encompass political corruption, moral corruption, and so on, or simply political corruption. In my view, Anna and his team is focused on political corruption. It’s a top-down approach. We all have personal situations where we have bribed – the answer to why we have bribed will obviously vary. Let me cite a situation – on the way to office, I was caught on a traffic signal for not wearing a seat belt. Mine is a 30 years old car and does not have seat belts. As per the supreme court guidelines, four-wheel light motor vehicles, manufactured after 1994, need seat belts for drivers and front seat passengers. I told the cop about this rule which he said is invalid and asked for a fine of Rs. 400. I told that the fine is Rs. 100 and he must give a receipt of it. He mentioned that the receipt book is over, so either I park my car on the signal, go a police station which is 10 kms away, pay the fine and get a receipt and then show that receipt to the cop and drive away, or pay Rs. 100 and collect the receipt the next day. I opted for the 2nd option. This is how corruption has entered our system and this is how the down of top-down are forced to bribe. I do not think all Indians are corrupt to the core – the fact that even without knowing, thousands have supported the JLP is because it’s a ray of hope for the common people (I can’t even hope against hope that JLP will root corruption out!). Of course, Anna’s example of Modi as anti-corrupt raises questions.

  12. K.S.Parthasarathy permalink
    August 29, 2011 2:55 PM

    WE had Mandal agitation..it has offered an illusioray relief. We had JP movement..it raised issues of democrcy and destroyed it in the process..the men who bloomed in that agitaion turned out to be most reactioanary and corrupt. Yet another agitation would not bring about any radical change in the long run. Even available means to fight corruption and grivences have proved to be inaccessible, corrupt, ineffective. The Bourgeosie takes pleasure in generating such agitations and movemnts as a method to syphone off peoples’ anger ..it is not possible for masess to sustain such scale of agitations too long..that is its safety..the Corruption is the soft belly of Capital and unless the system is democratised, corruption would not go..meaning Ca;pitalism would not disappear anytime sooner..Anna is no where in this discussion. At best he is a good man with lots of illusions…at worst he is a puppet in the ilke of hitler like personalities such as Kejrival and Bedi..Oh! there contempt for democracy! There demogogy on Democracy!

  13. Ajith permalink
    August 29, 2011 7:06 PM

    We all understand where Dilip D’souza is coming from? People like Anna are definitely not in his good book nor in his masters’. But fax or no fax, Anna has brought back the Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata once again. And all those Manmohan’s first right-holders’ to Indian resources stand completely naked for not supporting the Anna movement.

    • Kishore T permalink
      August 30, 2011 1:44 AM

      Thank you, thank you, for enlightening me. My brother, I was being misled by these Congressi crooks and the leftists – they suffer from that incurable disease called secular-cell-anemia. My eyes have been opened now. I know the Truth now. I cannot thank you enough. Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata should be supreme, always. These crooks will not understand it. But they will, when we make them. Unless there is a strong, iron hand ruling over all of us, we will never grow into a superpower. We are wasting so much time and emotion on needless issues – environment, secularism, casteism, khap panchayats (how dare they question tradition?), varna – jati – dharma etc etc. In fact, if we ever come back to power we should make it a law not to dissent at all. These do-gooders will learn only then. Why should I get beaten up for standing with them? I will join you immediately. They will also join forces with us when they realise that it is a losing battle. Numbers, my dear brother, that matters more than anything else. All this talk of logic, debate and caution is what these wretched people have done so far to bring the country down to its knees.

      My god, they even have the temerity to question the setting up of a salwa judum – when we all know we have to fight fire with fire. (My hindi fails me – is there an aphorism that suits this? -“khisiyan billi kbamba noche” is all that is turning in my mind since the last couple of days. That is one more issue we have to take up – shuddh Hindi as Rashtrabhasha. We should destroy Urdu since it sounds like a foreign language – even if it was born in India. Only then these scoundrels who want to salute the Green flag but live here as traitors will understand).
      Why should we debate anything at all? Our leaders will decide for us. If they didn’t have the wisdom would they be leaders at all? Along the way, we can get those chamchas and chamchis imprisoned who did not see enlightenment.
      In my town, the girls are getting too uppity as are the dalits and the lower castes. They should learn their place as well. Last Valentine’s day I could not give them a sound thrashing along with our other brothers who knew that the only way to get the society sorted out was handing out a few left and right slaps to the girls. Brother, there is so much to discuss and plan before our government comes to power again. I look forward to speaking with you when we march to Delhi singing “Bharatmata uber alles”.. er, Vande Mataram would be made too common if we sing it too often, I think. It is holy, so let it remain in its rarefied tent. On the other hand, we should allow youngsters to paint the flag on their cheeks, shaven heads, bare hands, backs, bosoms and buttocks as long as they are patriotic and on Vijay Path we can headbang to AR Rahman’s version with saffron bands on our foreheads (That traitor, though. Born a Hindu, converted to Islam. Only his music saves him from being butchered. But, one thing, all these Khans must go. No excuse for them at all.)

      Thank you, brother. I hope people will be similarly enlightened and leave their ideology-phideology pseudo-secular mumbo jumbo once and for all – before we decide to end their nonsense once and for all. Vande Mataram. Bharat Mata ki Jai!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Also, salutations to Singhal bhai, Dr. Praveen bhai, Prof. Joshi, Muttalik ajja, Bom..! er.. Mumbai
      dadas … don’t want to incur their wrath by forgetting them either.

  14. naveen jankar permalink
    August 30, 2011 3:05 PM

    im not a supporter of Anna but please note that Anna slowly transformed his village one issue at a time. it took decades of multifarious involvement by his self-righteous group till the entire community was disciplined. It is no doubt an ambitious project to try a similar project with more than a billion people but i think they are going to give it a try.

    it may happen that the middle class which is so enthusiastically celebrating the protest, will be more hesitant if and when the screw is turned on their moral laxity and double standards.

  15. Subash permalink
    August 31, 2011 6:22 PM

    But why does everybody wants to end corruption? After all these years hasn’t it become a part of our life. Let it be understood that if you want to avail of a service one has to pay a price. This is the ultimate enhancement of a free market. Please remember that the people who are in a position to extract a rent/ levy have reached there after paying a price or by way of their talent or whatever you may call by way of qualification. So why must we grudge them if they take their fair cut. Its a free market. Ultimately everything has to be priced. So let us take steps to make corruption legal and regulate it.

  16. Vishnu Mishra permalink
    August 31, 2011 11:41 PM

    If we’d treated the fax machine as the ultimate in digital communication then communication today would have been very slow, but there would be some communication at least.

    In 2025 another guy will repsond to a blog saying “If we’d treated the Lokpal bill as the ultimate in fighting corruption then the corruption fighting mechanism today would have been kind of inefficient, but there would be some resistance to corruption at least. ”

    All that said, I agree there are problems with the Lokpal bill but this is just the beginging. We need to push forward with more legislations and reforms.

    About people being corrupt, I’m sure its not in the genes. 60 years of inefficient governance does that to you. People don’t like to pay bribes, but they won’t start a fight with the system every time some *insert expletive* asks for a bribe. You and I can afford to do that. People with a hand -to-mouth existence cannot. So stop blaming the common man. He might be partially responsible, but right now the rot in the system is so deep that a ‘one man versus the system’ fight, although heroic, borders on the foolish.

    So what I’m trying to say is that,although the Lokpal bill is not the most elegant solution to the problem. It is a soltuion nevertheless.

    By the way, I whole-heartedly appreciate what you are doing on your part.

    P.S: Why has the print media been treating the lokpal bill as pure evil? There have been things that were way more worse, but received way less flak. Perplexes me.

  17. kalyan permalink
    September 4, 2011 6:24 PM

    Is it that difficult to understand that any gadget can’t replace humans?Machines never agitate ;they break down.

  18. Adhip permalink
    September 12, 2011 10:49 AM

    I dont really agree with your analogy, according to you (Negroponte) the Fax machine takes the digital world back by 15 years. How does the Lok Pal Bill by any way take you back in the evolution. This is the start, a new beginning to a “non-corrupt India”. A good analogy according to me would be, the first Macintosh in the 70’s to how it has improved itself over the years (And you have the Pro, Air’s…which are technological marvels in itself)

    I agree with your points over the things which are not been covered, but thats what evolution is a ll about, you make sure of improving the previous edition, and the Lok Pal Bill is the start. No one here is saying that it will eradicate corruption from India, but its a start towards changing things around you. In the end, its the people who need to change, but the (strong) Lokpal will atleast inject a little fear before they think of corruption.

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