Dead on the information highway

Published: Wednesday 15 February 1995

THE pitiable status of India's communications infrastructure and information technology was last evident, in sputtering neon, when the Indian government went overboard with its economic liberalisation policy. With its gates open, India made it clear that it had nothing, except primitive runners and piles of curling paper, that could remotely match the 2 cannons of communication and information that the North had at its command. These 2 crucial factors in the growth of a modern society are going through a revolutionary phase even in the developed countries. The world's a global village for them; we seem to be that village.

While Internet joins a hundred nations, India has chosen to repose on a shunt somewhere. Virtually endless cyberspace beckons out there, but networking in India is still entangled in a skein of purely statutory problems.

The archaic Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which prescribes telecommunications as an exclusive previlege of the government, is the first fuse that blew out over a decade ago. With its flaking telephone infrastructure, the department of telecommunications (DOT) is playing the country like a knotted, squeaky fiddle. Further, DOT's regulations, its unreasonable licensing guidelines, scare away private operaters from providing value-added services like logging on to remote computers, access to electronic databases, and electronic file transfers. They have also converted a supremely simple and elegant technology into such an expensive one such that even e-mailing remains an elitist communication tool.

While the private network services are only within the reach of big business, state-controlled services like the National Informatics Center Network (NICNET) and the Education and Research Network (ERNET) creak under internal feuds and resource crunches. For one, they entertain only government departments and research institutions as their customers, and even there they have missed their goals. Except for the paisa-counting use of ERNET by elite institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology, these networks are restricted to pretty visiting cards and letterheads. In their tussle to share pinched and suspicious government funding, they make undue claims about their potentials without making an honest effort to publicise ground realities or ensure the efficient utilisation of existing services.

The recently announced National Telecom Policy 1994, which has invited limited private sector participation in establishing the telecommunication infrastructure, offers a ray of hope. But its implementation may not be successful and may even be detrimental to the goal, unless the government is determined about creating an efficient and inexpensive telecom network.

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