Sucheta Dalal :The Bill Gates mania and E-governance
Sucheta Dalal

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The Bill Gates mania and E-governance  

September 29, 2000

Why does Bill Gates attract the same hysterical adulation in India as Bill Clinton does? Is it something about the name Bill? Unlike Bill C, Bill G is certainly no telegenic charmer adept at manipulating audiences with a well-timed word or gesture. So maybe it is because Gates and Windows (not to forget BillG or Billji) provide us hacks with plenty of opportunity for pun, clever copy and zany headlines and that lends charisma to the nerdy genius. Or is it that Indians simply fall for the story of his ascent to being the world's richest man?

Nobody bothered with the anti-trust action against Microsoft, and his speeches, which are largely a shrill promotion of Microsoft, were listened to with rapt attention by the best in business and politics. This time the added attraction was the 10 state chief ministers who congregated for a luncheon darshan with BillG -- they included CMs from the most technologically savvy to the most backward states.

At the same time, Gates hogged the front pages as well as television. Several other top businesspersons were also visiting. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric and one of the most admired CEOs in the world, was here the next day, but he rated a single news story. Also in the country were Michael R Bosignore, chairman and CEO of Honeywell, who announced a $ 100 million investment "towards acquisitions and organic growth of business" in India. That is twice the sum promised by Bill G, yet it made but a single story. Nobody gushed about who met him and for how many minutes.

For the record, Bill Gates was here to mark the tenth year of Microsoft’s Indian operations. In these past years, Microsoft has grown to employ around 150 people who notch up sales in excess of $100 million a year. Most of this money, minus staff and promotional expenses, goes back to the USA. As compared to this, Bill Gates has promised a $ 50 million investment to expand its research and development centre in Hyderabad, he promised $ five million to the IT ministry for rural IT education and entered into a worldwide development alliance with Infosys Technologies (which only sent the latter's price crashing).

Nobody has a right to expect more. Bill Gates is very focussed about what he wants from India and has not made it to the top by squandering hard-earned money. His first objective is to sell more Microsoft products to India and the next is to use India’s high technological skill base and low wages for work on its NET Enterprise Server platform and e-commerce initiatives.

The Indian chief ministers who were gushing about Gates have let go of large automobile projects and international management and technology schools which would have brought them more investment and employment. Instead, we have everybody babbling about E-governance, making requests for $ 400 for a fund-a-school programme, or showing off smart driving licenses to Gates. He reveled in the adulation, made suitable reciprocatory noises and flew away.

I am most intrigued by the fuss about E-governance. The Microsoft website says that Microsoft’s E-governance initiatives also figured in BillG’s discussions with the IT minister, Pramod Mahajan. A search of the site however yielded no more details. A Mumbai newspaper provides more clarity. Vilasrao Deshmukh, Maharashtra chief minister, who also spoke about E-governance to BillG, told the paper, "What I am looking for is connecting the entire administration from the lowest to the highest level with E-governance. At present we do not have the IT architecture required for this. And that is the reason we sought Bill Gates’ cooperation." He also said, "He (Bill Gates) appreciated the idea when we met him."

Naturally. Any IT initiative around the world increases the potential for selling Microsoft products. And India is clearly a market with vast potential. The problem is that E-governance has little to do with Bill Gates or IT architecture and more to do with our own willingness to introduce transparency and reduce corruption. Automation, which is the key to any e-activity (commerce or governance) brings transparency which is anathema to Indian politicians, bureaucrats and businesspersons.

We have no shortage of technical talent to develop IT-architecture. We dislike transparency. How else does one explain the fact that an exercise to introduce voters identity cards has not been completed in five years? How else will a Bangladeshi migrant get on the electoral list within months while those who have lived in Mumbai for nearly two decades never find their names on voters lists?

Why has the exercise of assigning Permanent Account Number – PAN -- by the Income Tax Department also not been completed after five years of effort? Until the list is complete, it is impossible for the government to track commercial transactions and payments by making the mention of PAN numbers compulsory. Nobody wants to end benami transactions (under fake names) because it will kill "other revenue" of tax officials.

At the state level, automation will increase access to information and transparency is the death knell of corruption. Downloadable forms, electronic payment and access to information on contracts and tenders, bidding and selection criteria etc. kills business for a thriving army of fixers, middlemen and corrupt officials who depend on confusion and delays. Will they permit the switch over to E-governance?

Here is an example of how lucrative the system is. A couple of months ago, I had to visit the property registration office to sign some transfer papers in person before the concerned official. Two busy, courteous and diligent officials worked like beavers in getting documents signed and a large waiting crowd was being efficiently disposed of. As we moved ahead in the queue, I saw to my horror that both officials were openly pocketing Rs 500 at the end of each signature.

When I squeaked in protest, my broker pointed to the bundles of paper lying indiscriminately stacked around the room, on a loft and in the corridors. "If you want to do it without payment, you papers will lie around here for a few years and you may never even find them," he said. I took the soft option because he promised to slip the money into the drawer.

Conservatively, the duo was collecting Rs 500 each ever five minutes. Clearly a portion of their collections was distributed among colleagues (silence money) and to the bosses. This is just one tiny example. The municipal corporation deals in far larger number for simple permissions. Will they want E-governance?

E-governance will improve efficiency only if basic automation is introduced. A crackdown on corruption will have to precede automation. What we need is good governance before E-governance and Bill Gates can hardly help us there.

-- Sucheta Dalal