When India first started using technology for national development, it used technology to build a huge software industry which helped the economy grow in the 1990s. In the decades that followed, with a much improved economy, civic minded Indians set their sights on a much loftier goal – tackling corruption.
In July 2008 The Washington Post reported that nearly a fourth of the 540 Indian Parliament members faced criminal charges, "including human trafficking, immigration rackets, embezzlement, rape and even murder". The criminalization of politics causes a huge drain of public resources and the resulting loss of credibility for politicians dissuades civic minded citizens from stepping forward. Unfortunately the average voter often has little to no idea of the criminal background of some of these Parliament members and hence public opinion cannot be used to throw them out of power. The media, too, does not have capacity to focus on all the corruption cases and usually focuses on the most egregious violations.
As I have blogged before, e-government involves the transformation of the government in relation to itself, citizens, businesses and other stakeholders through the intelligent use of technology. However, beyond this, e-government should also take into account the use of technology in all aspects of governance, including the transformative use of technology and networks to support the use of authority and power in a country (at all levels) not only through enabling rules, capacities, processes, behaviors, institutions, and traditions. E-Government should ideally extend its vision beyond services, and support fundamental elements of good governance such as democracy, openness, participation /inclusiveness, accountability, and effectiveness.
This is where the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) comes in. ADR was established in August 1999 by a group of Professors from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. Some of these professors included Dr Trilochan Sastry, Prof Jagdeep Chhokar, and Dr Ajit Ranade. ADR filed a Public Interest Litigation in August 1999 in the Delhi High Court asking for mandatory disclosure of criminal, financial and educational background of candidates contesting elections to the Parliament and State Legislatures, prior to the polls. The case ended up with the Supreme Court supporting ADR’s PIL in 2002. Since then, ADR has been working on improving governance and strengthening democracy mainly through the reform of the electoral and political process.
The 2002 ruling made it mandatory for all candidates running for parliamentary or state assembly elections to file an affidavit giving details of their criminal cases, assets, liabilities and education. Now voters could learn about the background of the candidates before they voted for them. However once candidates started filing these affidavits it became important to make this information reach voters. Therefore the next challenge was to harness the affidavit data in the 12 days between the date of filing affidavits and date of polling. To manage this challenge, a campaign called National Election Watch was launched. The campaign quickly busied itself in digitizing and processing data from these affidavits and disseminating this info through the media and other channels. In 2009 when the entire country was undergoing general elections, the myneta.info web service was created (“neta” means politician). This web service provided information compiled from affidavits of all the Parliamentary and State Legislature candidates.
Since then, the success of mynet.info has been quite remarkable.
- The percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases came down from 20% to 14% in the assembly elections held in the country in 2008 for the states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, NCT of Delhi and Mizoram.
- BJP and INC made announcements that they would not field candidates with criminal records, while in 2010 both the Congress Chief Ms Sonia Gandhi and leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Ms Sushma Swaraj of BJP made public statements calling for a consensus on barring candidates with criminal backgrounds from contesting elections.
- In 2008, ADR obtained a landmark ruling from the Central Information Commission (CIC) saying that Income Tax Returns of Political Parties would now be available in the public domain along with the assessment orders.
- Many candidates with serious pending cases that contested Lok Sabha 2009 elections lost.
The appeal of the myneta.info website is perhaps the fact that it is a source of unbiased, authentic and objective information about candidates, as the information comes directly from facts in their own sworn affidavits and there are no opinions anywhere on the site. ADR is also working to support the illiterate citizens for India who need information about their candidates but are not able to read and write. ADR has a toll free number 1-800-110-440. An SMS service (instant messaging) has also been set up, where people can send their pincode (zip) and get a brief summary about candidates in their constituency. In a country of 22 languages, ADR also has plans to offer multilingual support.