27th JULY 2018
Answer questions in NOT MORE than 200 words each. Content of the answer is more important than its length.
Links are provided for reference. You can also use the Internet fruitfully to further enhance and strengthen your answers.
GS III: S&T
Q1. India has not been able to reach its potential in Artificial Intelligence. Discuss the reasons for the same.
- Sensing that an AI economy will radically concentrate income and wealth, many global digital industry leaders have called for assured basic income for all. Globally, just one or two concentrations of AI power may rule the world. Currently, these are in the U.S. and China.
- India is fast squandering its great advantages of high IT capabilities and a big domestic market required for data harvesting. Unlike most industrial technologies, AI does not develop in laboratories and then get applied by businesses. AI develops within business processes, as data are mined from digital platforms, and turned into intelligence, which is ploughed back to produce more data and intelligence, in infinite loops. Any country’s AI therefore largely exists within its huge, domestically owned commercial digital/data systems. In the U.S. it is with Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft – and in China with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.
- Beyond economic dominance, AI is as much about cultural, political and military power. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that whoever rules AI will rule the world. A non-AI military against an AI-powered one will be like a hapless infantry unit facing an armoured division.
- India has no such large domestically owned commercial data systems. And any chance that these could develop is being nipped by allowing takeovers like of Flipkart by Walmart. Soon, Walmart and Amazon will own between them perhaps the most significant set of India’s consumer-behavioural and other economic data, over which they will develop various kinds of AI. In time, such AI will allow them to control practically everything, and every actor, along various economic value chains linked to consumer goods.
- Confusion is caused by many Indian IT industry leaders conveying the erroneous message that India is doing well with AI. The problem is that they are jostling for crumbs of IT/digital business when Indian policymakers should be aiming at the highest levels of new value chains that AI will create in every sector. It is mastery over the systemic cores of AI where the real national advantage lies.
- The digital/AI industry works in huge ecosystems with global digital corporations at the centre, and various start-ups and specific digital/AI applications at the peripheries. Amazon and Google both push their cloud services to try to become the default machine learning platforms, which they open source to fence in the largest number of clients and followers possible. They further network selectively to aggrandise digital and AI power. Start-ups everywhere, including in India, are mostly vying to find a place in such huge global ecosystems, anchored either in the U.S. or China, generally by being bought out.
- All the wonderful AI applications that we read about, which the Niti Aayog’s new AI strategy is also replete with – whether of increased agriculture output, precision medicine or tailored learning – are basically shop-windows of global digital/AI corporations. It is just like they allured us with all the unbelievable Internet and mobile applications, provided for ‘free’. These AI applications may give us spectacular one-off benefits here and there, but gathering further data from each new instance it is the AI engine owned by a Google or Microsoft that becomes ever more intelligent about India’s problems and solutions. They stand to build an epochal fortune around these quickly-scaling AI engines.
- A big nation like India cannot derive satisfaction from rapidly becoming a client country for AI, whether as ready users of AI applications in different areas, or by offering out-sourced R&D for global digital/AI corporations through start-ups existentially eager to be bought out. What really counts is whether India owns the centres of systemic AI that comes from controlling huge commercial data ecosystems. In this regard, India’s ambition to be an AI superpower is, frankly, sinking fast.
- Technologies should flow freely across the globe, and we must welcome global technology companies to help India’s digital development. But while technology is global, data are essentially local. Even with all the overlaps, there are some basic differences between core technology businesses and data-driven businesses. Data-based sectoral platforms, like in e-commerce, urban transport, agriculture, health, education, etc., should largely be domestic. India has a right to provide such domestic protection through policy, especially if India begins to treat its collective social/economic data as a strategic national asset, as our mineral resources are.
- Such policy protection alone will ensure that we have large-scale data-driven Indian companies able to develop the highest AI in every sector, by employing huge Indian data to solve (equally huge) Indian problems. Once enough AI proficiency and strength has been developed domestically, it should then be used to go global.
GS II: POLITY-BILL/ACT
Q2. Discuss the pros and cons of the latest RTI Act Amendment Bill.
- The government is committed to transparency and openness. The RTI Amendment Bill, 2018, is aimed at preserving and promoting administrative efficiency and accountability throughout the country.
- The RTI Act was enacted to enable citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, to promote transparency and accountability in the working of public authorities, and to constitute a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions.
- The Amendment Bill only intends to empower the Central government to decide the tenures, salaries and allowances of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (IC) of the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions through delegated legislation. It neither takes away nor weakens the powers of the CIC or ICs. The Bill was deemed necessary because the existing provisions of the Act do not have an express provision regarding the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the CIC and ICs. Section 13(5) of the Act equates the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the CIC and ICs to that of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners (ECs), respectively. Similarly, Section 16(5) equates the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the State CIC to that of the EC.
- The salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the CEC and ECs are in turn equal to a judge of the Supreme Court. Therefore, the CIC, ICs, and State CIC become equivalent to a judge of the Supreme Court in terms of their salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service
- The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are very different. The Election Commission is a constitutional body established under Article 324 of the Constitution and is responsible for the conduct of all elections to Parliament, State legislatures and to the posts of President and Vice-President. On the other hand, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies established under the RTI Act.
- Since the mandate of the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are different, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly. The proposed amendment to the RTI Act is limited to this extent. Further, the proposed amendment will not have any adverse effect on the salaries, allowances and other conditions of service of the present incumbents appointed before the commencement of the proposed amendment. The proposed amendment will not make the office of the CIC and ICs less attractive as the salaries and allowances will not be lowered.
- The Bill does not intend to make any fundamental changes to the RTI; instead, it will make the RTI Act more transparent by way of providing express provision for salaries, allowances and other conditions of service of the CIC and ICs.
- For over a decade, citizens of India have tenaciously protected and guarded this people’s legislation, preventing repeated attempts to dilute the Act through amendments. Interestingly, no government has bothered to propose amendments which would make the RTI Act more robust and effective.
- One unique and attractive feature of the RTI Act was that it did not create a new bureaucracy for implementing the law. The RTI Act tasked and mandated officials in every office to change their attitude and duty from one of secrecy to one of sharing and openness. Despite many officials having a vested interest in not sharing information, the RTI statute carefully and deliberately empowered the Information Commission to be the highest authority in the country with the mandate to order any office in the country to provide information as per the provisions of the Act. And it empowered the Commission to fine any official who did not follow the mandate. This was enough of a strategic deterrence, and with all its difficulties, information did begin to flow out of government files and offices.
- It has led to a situation where an estimated 70 lakh people apply for information every year. So probing and effective are many of the questions that powerful vested interests try to threaten, bribe, cajole, browbeat, and when all else fails, kill the person seeking to expose their misdeeds. More than 70 people have been murdered in this fashion. Applicants know that however much the official may try to stonewall, there is an independent authority which can be approached, which can extract the information for them, and which can even fine the official. No other law in the country has set up a mechanism that can, at the initiative and pursuit of an ordinary citizen, make officials pay a fine from their salaries for not doing their duty. All this is sought to be diluted so that the structural credibility of the RTI law crumbles.
- One needs to ask why this is being done in the first place. A spurious excuse is trotted out in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill. It states that equivalence in salaries with the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is not acceptable because the CEC is a constitutional authority. The RTI Act does not seek to make the Information Commission a constitutional body.
- Time and again several courts have defined the jurisdictional powers of the Commission. Nonetheless, the Commission encounters adjudication of several personal issues related to service disputes, fixing of pay and pension, grant of promotion, settlement of matrimonial disputes, requests for time-bound completions of tax evasion petitions, accident-related claims and compensation, and so on. Whether the mandate of the Commission should include such matters is an issue for public discourse. Another aspect for consideration revolves around the power and procedure for deciding cases of non-compliance of the Commission’s orders and associated penal provisions. There is also a need to reassess the understanding of the term public good or public interest in the broader context of the ever-evolving nature of the RTI mechanism.
- The Commission has an established institutionalised mechanism for examining and analysing various aspects of the RTI Act and its implementation through weekly meetings, conventions, seminars, and so on. The proposed amendments never featured in the discussions of the Commission.
- At the centre of the discussion is the need to focus on reassessing the efficacy of the RTI on the substantive issues of providing information and enforcing the provisions of the Act, and the awareness of applicants and respondents through periodic seminars, workshops, etc. Experience indicates that the stakeholders remain oblivious to their rights and obligations under the RTI Act. On several occasions, it has been found that the Public Information Officers pass non-reasoned orders, do not adhere to the timelines prescribed under the Act, or provide vague, incomplete and misleading information. The Commission also encounters cases of numerous applications filed by a single applicant on the same subject matter. This causes disproportionate diversion of resources of the public authorities.
- For an informed citizenry, all stakeholders, including public-spirited individuals, youth organisations and NGOs should create awareness about the provisions of the Act so that the RTI mechanism can be strengthened to usher in a new era of transparency, accountability and good governance.