With the rise in participatory development over the last few decades, there have been increasing discussions about power between NGO professionals and the stakeholders that they serve. Often these conversations can centre on international power imbalances (e.g., North v. South), yet with the rise of various middle classes and their civil society activism over the past few decades, questions have also been raised about class hierarchies domestically, especially in India.
Emblematic in these questions about class is the role of ICTs in NGO projects facilitating citizen participation in governance. In a country with over 900 million mobile subscriptions, with just over ten percent of them being smart phone plans, India has been called the next smartphone frontier. Moving away from discussions merely about citizens’ access to ICTs as a barrier to participation, other questions must also be asked by NGOs engaged in ICT4D that depend upon a large volume of users for programmatic “success”.
One of these tough questions centres on the class makeup of one’s organisation and its effects on the tools provided to empower citizens. The case I examine here is that of Ipaidabribe.com (IPAB), where I spent seven wonderful months as a volunteer researcher during my MA studies. Informed by discourses in the anthropology of development, as well as historical and contemporary research on India’s middle classes, I contend that a number of the NGO’s perceived barriers to citizens utilising IPAB were limited by the class-based experiences of the staff.
In particular, there seemed to be three limiting assumptions about users’ language skills, understandings of corruption and barriers to higher user rates:
- Written English fluency was not seen as a hindrance to citizen participation, or at least deemed as important from a programming perspective
- All corruption is morally wrong and should be fought against by all citizens
- The only barrier to higher user rates was simply access to the Internet, not how various citizens already use their own mobile devices
It is estimated that 30% of the Indian population have “some semblance” of English fluency, or at least the ability to communicate orally in English, while roughly 10% have written and grammatical fluency as well. Given the historical marker of English being part of an elite or middle class identity, it is difficult to grasp how a country of over 30 languages and hundreds of dialects would benefit from an English-only platform. Furthermore, the dismal amount of reports on the Hindi portal can possibly be seen as a class-based distinction in IPAB’s reporting.
Considering Anna Hazare and other high profile anti-corruption activists in the early 2010s, some argue that the middle classes were united under a specific definition of corruption, to be seen as morally reprehensible and to be resisted at all costs. Janaagraha’s iPledge campaign is emblematic of this concept of corruption, where users are asked to sign a pledge that they will never pay a bribe and that the power of making change rests in refusing to give a bribe to whatever party is demanding it.
This concept breaks down when anthropological discourses of corruption, such as de Sardan, bring forth the idea that various moral logics of kinship and community complicate defining corruption and its moral implications. One can use the example of the street vendor, who does not possess the money to pay for a license, who bribes the local police officer with a percentage of his or her earnings to not be removed from the sidewalk. While this fits the definition of petty corruption, it may not be seen as morally wrong because the vendor can continue providing a livelihood for his or her family. Considering Chatterjee, the urban poor can find inventive ways to circumvent established laws for the sake of their livelihoods, where ‘legal’ courses might be out of reach.
Reporting & Internet Access
In India, there are over 900 million people who subscribe to mobile telephone plans, many of which do possess basic mobile browsers. However, only 110-120 million of these subscriptions are for smart phones, an arguably much easier route for using Internet-based platforms such as IPAB. One of the issues encountered is seeing access to the Internet as the biggest or one of the only barriers to a citizen using an ICT4D tool to report corruption.
During my research, I performed interviews and ethnographic research on auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore. They were often the objects of corruption reporting because they tended to demand higher-than-metre-rates for taking their generally middle class customers for rides. Even though nearly all of them had access to the Internet on their basic mobile phones, only a handful used the Internet features or even knew what the Internet’s purpose was. Of those few who did use their mobile Internet, most used it for games or music.
Many auto-rickshaw drivers were also victims of police corruption, heavy licensing fees and predatory lending schemes, which gave rise to why they demanded higher-than-metre-rates. However, in many social media posts and articles from IPAB staff and interactive users online, auto-rickshaw drivers were seen as another ‘urban woe’ about how corrupt India had become and essentially a lower class ‘demon’ figure.
With much funding from Indian and international IT companies, as well as western philanthropists, Janaagraha is at the forefront of technocratic middle class activism and governance in urban India. While its causes are often just and necessary, some of its programmes seemingly cannot escape its middle class organizational makeup and users. Like much of the ‘new middle class’ activism across urban India, languages invoking human/consumer rights are often utilised to create their preferred city, sometimes at the expense of the urban poor.
One would not know this from the language of liberation in English media that has covered the IPAB platform, both domestically and internationally. However, certain questions must be asked by NGO professionals in these contexts, to try and live up to the organisational mission of improving the livelihoods and experiences of ALL urban citizens. Difficult, introspective questions must be asked about one’s own language choices, moral responses to perceived governance failures, potential users’ already-existing interactions with technology and potential ‘organisational blinders’ based upon the staff makeup to ensure that, directly or indirectly, the social ills an organisation is trying to alleviate are not replicated or reinforced through one’s own programmes.
Chris Speed is an ICT4D researcher and content developer based in Nashville, TN, USA.