Choosing between WCs and PCs

Conferences can be terribly boring affairs. But for real tedium, you cannot beat a conference on ICT and development. So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I ended up in Bhopal a few days ago to attend one. All I had to look forward to was an endless series of talks on how ICT will totally transform everything and finally deliver the holy grail of development to the billions who are pathetically underdeveloped.

The Hotel Lake View Ashok sounded a lot better than it turned out to be. Must have been nicer once upon a time but the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Department now owns it and like all things governmental, it is rapidly going to seed. In any event, the hotel is located at the edge of the largest lake (18 kms circumference) in Bhopal and the view is not unpleasant. As I was checking in, I thought I was hallucinating. There in the lobby was CJ — or at least CJ’s identical twin, if he had one.

You see, CJ is an old friend of mine who lives in Berkeley, California. What the heck would he be doing in the lobby of a hotel in Bhopal, however nice the view of the lake? As it turned out, he too was attending the conference since he was in Delhi and Bhopal was just a short flight away.

CJ is a vagabond and what he uses for money has been a bit of a mystery to me. He likes the good life. If you have been following my scribblings, you may have already come across him in “Do the Taliban have Buddha Nature?”. I like hanging out with CJ because he is a contrarian.

We ended up having a beer at the restaurant that evening.

“So, CJ,” said I, “what’s new in New Delhi?”

“Nothing new. Same old crap. The fog is something terrible. Of course, the bunch of blinkered retards that rule India haven’t figured out that fog is an annual phenomenon. Otherwise they would have installed appropriate equipment at the airport for flights to operate.”

CJ is not a fan of politicians and bureaucrats.

“India has bigger worries than how to operate flights in the Delhi winter fog, you know,” I said. “All the politicians and bureaucrats and NGOs are worried about the digital divide. At this very conference, we are addressing the problem of development using ICT.”

“Digital divide is crap,” CJ responded.

“Well, the Minister for IT doesn’t seem to think so, for your information, CJ. In fact, they are going to make broadband available cheap for the common man,” I said.

“Digital divide is crap,” CJ repeated.

I pulled out a newspaper. “See this item here, CJ, The Broadband Village . It says here: “A village where everyone has easy access to information on agriculture, education, drinking water, electricity and health.” Thousands of such high tech villages will be the norm in two years. How? Through the magic of broadband and PCs. No more digital divide and no more underdevelopment.”

CJ read the article and declared, “That article is more full of crap than the toilets of an Air India jumbo after a transatlantic crossing.”

I was starting to realize that there was going to be a theme to our discussion. Crap. I have amazing powers of premonition, you see.

“Information is good, is it not? So if all villages have information easily accessible to them, surely it would help, wouldn’t it?” I countered.

“Sure, information is good. But what would you rather have? information on education, drinking water, electricity and health or the real thing — education, drinking water, electricity and health? These buffoons are probably stupid enough to think that handing out a menu card to a starving poor man is a great substitute for providing him a decent meal. What good will information about water do for them? It is not information on water they lack: they lack water. It is not information on electricity they lack: they lack electricity.”

I said, “Well, they are bridging the digital divide and once that divide is bridged, the rest will fall in place.”

“Perhaps there is a digital divide and maybe someday one should bridge the digital divide. But if you don’t bridge the real divides, no amount of bridging the digital divide will amount to squat. Remember that real resources diverted to bridging mythical divides are not available for bridging real divides.”

“Real divides such as what?” I asked.

“The Crap Gap,” he said. “Crossing the crap gap is more meaningful than bridging the digital divide.”

Like I said, I had a premonition. I allowed him to elaborate.

“Sanitation and clean drinking water are problems that are real and will have a greater impact on the lives of people in urban and rural India than giving them access to information and installing internet kiosks. If you provide them with just those two, you would improve their lives much more and they will suffer much less from diseases. A glass of clean drinking water will help them more than information on the internet about health. A decent place to crap in would help the women in urban and rural areas more than surfing the world wide web.

“Think about this. What would you rather have: access to clean drinking water or access to the internet? Would you rather have an internet kiosk or would you rather not have to go and take a crap on the train tracks in Mumbai? I bet you dollars to donuts that given the choice, every time you would choose a clean glass of water and a decent toilet.

“Drinking water and sanitation has been a greater divide than the digital divide and for much longer. No conferences are held on sanitation because it is not “high-tech” and those who attend these digital divide conferences don’t have the imagination to realize that human dignity is more important than the ability to surf the web.”

I was really not in the mood for more of this talk about crap. “Sure I would take a toilet over a cybercafe any day of the week. But the poor need information access as well,” I said.

“Yes, they do. But we must remember that people need health and dignity as well to live a decent human life. The sequencing of interventions is important. Do the most urgent thing first. Partly it is sheer greed that motivates the bureaucrats to try to bridge the digital divide because there is money in the purchasing of PCs. But partly it is also a basic failure of imagination. A failure to empathize with the lot of the poor. The people who attend these shindigs have toilets and they have PCs and they cannot imagine that toilets are more important than PCs. But give them a choice between WCs and PCs, and you know which one they would first run towards.”

Well, that was it then. The next day after the conference he went off to Delhi and I made my pitch on “The WC Divide Trumps the PC Divide: Why Crossing the Crap Gap is more Important than Bridging the Digital Divide.”

{ Acknowledgement: Originally I had used the phrase “crap chasm” but as Frank pointed out, “crap gap” is more appropriate. Thanks you, Frank, for the suggestion.}



Categories: Conversations with CJ, Digital Divide, My Favorite Bits

12 replies

  1. Atanu,

    You are too good! I dont understand, why our bureaucrats and the people who ‘rule’ India doesnt understand this basic thing. For them it seems that the PC is the wonder pill thats going to wipe out all the problems of people everywhere. Maybe these folks have not given up their herd mentality and cannot put enough thought into what really solves the problem.

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  2. “CJ” sounds like someone I can be friends with !

    Some great arguments in this post. Only wish the politicians and bureaucrats were listening.

    By the way, given his outlook, why did CJ bother to make the trip to Bhopal? 😉

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  3. Atanu,

    This was awesome. You really hit the nail on the head. There is too much ‘crap’ going around on bridging the digital divide. Going a bit further from cities makes you realize that we’ve not made much progress at all. Having 0.1% of our people writing software and far fewer number of people solving complex and ‘ambiguous’ problems gave us this false sense of progress. We started believing that having more people writing programs and surfing the web will solve all our problems. Thank you for the eye opener.

    Surojit

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  4. Well, the politicians have probably figured out that the poor don’t really need WC’s since they live on love and fresh air. Thus it logically follows: no food, no WC’s. Only PC’s!!

    Aside from that, one needs to walk in Mumbai to know what a giant toilet this city has become because there is no civic plan to handle the housing needs of the burgeoning rural population who come here looking for work. This governmental apathy will be at the root a terrible epidemic very soon.

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  5. Hi,
    I agree to all this and all the crap our crapy politicians are doing. I always wonder that if it were the politicians and their crapy policies that is to be blamed, why don’t all or some intelligent (indian) people who solve big business problems of world, once try it big to like create a political party of all educated people and make intelligent plans to come into power and then make intelligent policies for india? and if they come into power the first thing they must do should be to change the constitution to allow only people having Bachelors degree and less than or two children, to hold some ministerial position.
    anybody creating a Bhartiya Intellectual Party (BIP) ????????????

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  6. Atanu,

    a long time ago an friend of mine, Suresh, who was interested in walking into the jungles of India to watch bison and tiger, asked me while we were chatting at Coffee House – “Do you know why they started ‘Project Tiger’? Why didn’t they go for trying to preserve the many other species of animals which are nearer to extinction in India?” I, of course, had never even thought of giving this question a thought!

    “That’s because, a Tiger is right on top of the food chain. To get the Tiger to survive, you have to ensure that everything in the pyramid below it also has to survive. This includes all the other animals, re-forestation, reclaiming lands, educating villagers and alternative solutions to prevent deforestation”, says Suresh.

    Wow, I thought. I’d never thought of it that way. But anyway I asked, “And don’t you think it had anything to do with the Tiger being a much more glamarous role model for preservation?”

    “That may be”, Suresh said. “But that’s was just an opportunity, waiting to be utilised!”

    I think of the digital divide along similar lines. Yes, internet access is not the only thing required, and certainly not the first thing required. But to get internet access started (and more importantly, maintained!), you have to have power lines set up, you have to have telecommunication links set up, you have to have basic infrastructure. Without all this, internet access is just a waste of money.

    And just as the confluence of ‘fate’ and ‘opportunity’ in the case of Project Tiger, I feel that we should let the Indian politicians harp over the digital divide and try and get it across as soon and as fast as possible. Let’s grant them their last boast. Because once they’ve got the ball rolling, once they’ve got infrastructure set up and people KNOW that alternatives indeed exist, that will be the death knell of corrupt politicians in India. And they won’t even know what hit them! All they’d think is, hey this is what I started!!

    – abhijit.

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  7. But my question is that why people are so much hooked up with the idea of ICT and development and keep attaching a ‘e’ to everything? Why not people define explicitly how can the problem of electricity be solved using ICT,or drinking water?
    Why not proper research is undertaken to understand where ICT is required and at what level it is required in order to solve various problems?

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  8. Hi,

    I have also worked in the area of ICT and Development, and read many papers on bridging the digital divide, ICT revolution , yada yada yada…and at this point it seems like jargon. There isn’t much hard evidence yet to back claims that ICT is this great enabler….but I think where ICT can make an impact is in making service delivery more effecient. Yes, poor people need sanitation, clean drinking water and access to health care but in many developing countries the government fails to deliver essential services to its citizens due to problems such as: leakages/corruption, weak incentives or a lack of articulated demand. ICTs, can make service providers more accountable, help build citizen voice and minimize information asymmetries and lack of transparency in the whole service delivery process.

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