This Article is From Jul 16, 2018

Modi Government's 2 New Dangerous Proposals - By Yashwant Sinha

In my blog dated April 28, 2018, I had pointed out that the government was planning to introduce a chip in TV setup boxes to ostensibly monitor viewer preferences while watching TV programs. I had pointed out that this could also be a sinister design to invade the privacy of our homes and collect information about us without our knowledge or consent. Despite a lapse of time, no explanation has been forthcoming from the government.

In the last few days, the government has announced two more pernicious steps, the first on dealing with social media and fake news, and the second about allotment of services and cadres to newly-recruited civil servants. Let us look at both in some detail.

A small news item in only one of the many newspapers that I read every morning informed us recently that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has decided to open a social media communication hub in all the 716 districts of the country in which it will employ people who will monitor online content. It may be recalled that much praise was showered on the Prime Minister when a similar move by the I&B ministry to identify and punish journalists who allegedly spread fake news was nipped in the bud by the Prime Minister's Office. Smriti Irani was shifted out of the I&B ministry though many believe she could not have taken a major step like this on her own. Be that as it may, the arrangement, which is now sought to be put in place under the stewardship of the new minister for I&B, appears to be far worse.

The new monitoring mechanism will be able to read, contextualize and respond to content in most Indian and foreign languages and will get a 360-degree view of customers by integrating customer relationship management data with social profiles. It will personalize responses on the basis of customers' loyalty and past behaviour and also help the ministry to identify 'influencers' with basic attributes like how many followers they have.

The entire program will be implemented through Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL). The BECIL media hubs in every district will collect data relating to regional media and local events, monitor local news papers, cable channels, FM stations and important social media handles. They will also check the spread of fake and incorrect news and information, conduct perception analysis of various events and generate at least six reports per day for the ministry.

A social media analytical tool will be devised to collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms like blogs and forums along with proprietary mobile insights platforms which will enable real-time insights and other valuable data through a single system. The ministry expects to improve the perception of India in the world through this mechanism and give a positive slant to social media and Internet news.

From the above description, it is quite clear that the ministry would not only keep track of all that is happening in the media and social media at the local level, but would also be able to monitor content. Obviously, anything which is adverse to the government will immediately come to its notice and also enable it to take punitive action against such elements in the media or social media. On the very face of it, it looks dangerous in the extreme, as the government will be monitoring all our actions and even future thoughts. Is this the role the state should play? Or the duty the government should perform? It calls for immediate scrutiny, debate and action by thinking citizens.

The other equally pernicious proposal which has been circulated to the ministries of the government of India by the Prime Minister's Office deals with the allotment of services to candidates who have successfully competed in the UPSC examination for the IAS and other services. The suggestion here is that the allotment of services to the candidates should be done not on the basis of their performance in the UPSC examination but their performance in the foundation course. It has been a time-honoured practice from the beginning of Independence when competitive examinations began for recruitment to the various services under the government of India, including the all-India services like the IAS and IPS, that the allotment of services is done on the basis of merit as discovered through the competitive examinations. The higher- placed candidate would qualify for the more preferred service. The performance of the candidate was of course also taken into account. Thus, when I was taking the examination in 1959, at the rather young age of 21, I had to make my preference known between the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Foreign Service. I also had to make my preference known for the Indian Police Service viz-a-viz the other central services. A candidate appearing for the IAS and IPS examinations was also required to state his preference for the cadre, amongst the many state cadres available, including the home state cadre. So everything used to become crystal clear the moment the result come out and a candidate's rank in the list of successful candidates was known. The area of discretion was thus extremely limited.

Automaticity will now be replaced by discretion. What is it that a short foundation course of three or four months is going to reveal about a candidate which was not already known earlier? And instead of a thoroughly impersonal process that the UPSC adopts for making such a determination, we are bound to have a large dose of subjectivity introduced in the system through the foundation course. How will it look if a candidate placed at the tenth rank is considered unfit for the IAS and a candidate placed at 285 is considered fit for it? It also demonstrates a huge lack of confidence in the system run by the UPSC for the last 70 years.

The people of this country do not trust the Modi government in many matters now. These two moves of the government that I have mentioned above further strengthen those doubts. I shall strongly plead that the people nip both these proposals in the bud at the earliest.

Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004) 

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