Dev 360, The  Asian  Age/Deccan Chronicle

Happy New Age Of Leaks Is Here

Dec 21, 2010

Do Wikileaks and Radiagate spell the end of privacy as we know it? Or did they just usher in a brave, new world of hyper-transparency? Is WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange a hero or a villain? Are you smiling or hiding as contents of a certain Ms Radia’s telephone conversations tumble out bit by explosive bit? Whatever be one’s views on these questions, one thing is crystal clear. Like it or not, the age of leaks is here.
In the world that looms ahead, “superempowered individuals who can expose conversations far beyond their borders — or create posses of ‘cyber hactivists’ who can melt down the computers of people they don’t like — are a reality”, as Thomas L. Friedman noted in a recent column in the New York Times. Governments and corporations typically crave secrecy and will double their efforts to safeguard their secrets. But in today’s globalised, internetworked world, when increasing numbers of people can access the most powerful tool ever for finding out what’s really going on and inform others at the flick of their fingers, such determination will be matched, and often surpassed, by the zeal of those bent upon ferreting out that privileged information.
So, how should we respond? If this was a panel discussion, we could argue, “On one hand… on the other hand…” In the real, rough and tumble world, unfortunately, words are no protective armour. Whether you are a government, company or a prominent individual, how you look when you are stripped in public will depend on how you have been maintaining yourself. “When you’re increasingly naked, fitness is no longer optional”, says Philip M. Nichols, professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton.
Smart companies, governments and politicians understand that in the long run, transparency is simply a good strategy. With instant communication, whistleblowers, prying media, Google and citizens and communities increasingly able to put the mighty and the powerful under the microscope, opacity is not a real option for much longer.
One area where such hyper-transparency can help avoid much controversy is in the management of land and other natural resources. Large corporations with massive amounts of money and lots of information about how to use natural resources are now moving around the world scouting for friendly investment destinations. In many cases, their projects are later opposed by those affected, a situation that helps nobody and hurts many. Total transparency from the beginning can not only prevent conflict later, it also enables the operation of an open and fair market where every actor has equal access to information.
The fear that people do not have the information they should is not confined to India or other developing countries. Recent reports from Japan and Canada have spoken of overseas firms trying to buy up land or mines, and people then demanding that they be kept informed and their consent be taken before any such deal can go through. A telling example: Last month, Harumi Takahashi, governor of the Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido, said that a local ordinance is required to force foreign interests to report an intended land purchase before the contract is signed. Hideki Hirano of the Tokyo Foundation and chief researcher behind two reports raising alarm bells about the increase in foreign ownership of Japan’s forests says the Japanese government must also identify areas for protection, such as those containing vital natural resources or considered key to national security and that transactions involving forest and mountain areas should be disclosed to the public.
In India, of course, most of the recent mega corruption scandals have to do with the way precious natural resources have been allocated, and the different stages at which the various affected people have found out about it. Not surprisingly, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s formula for rescuing her party from its current troubles includes transparency in the use of natural resources. Addressing the 83rd Congress plenary last weekend, Mrs Sonia Gandhi called for full transparency in public procurement and contracts and for protection of whistleblowers. Since discretionary powers on land allocation “breed corruption”, she suggested that all Congress Party chief ministers and ministers should set an example by relinquishing such powers. There should also be an open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources, she said. A ministerial panel headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee recently approved the new mining bill that proposes 26 per cent profit-sharing by miners with the people affected by the project.
All this is good news and a good start. But the taste of the pudding is in the eating and one waits to see how these words will translate into action.
Activists involved with the Right to Information and the use of natural resources are cautiously optimistic about the recent developments. Leo Saldanha, who works for the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group (ESG), a non-governmental organisation which has been consistently highlighting “illegal” acquisition of land and privatisation of lakes, points to a major victory last week — the Karnataka high court decreed that public consultation is a must before planning and building the Metro or any infrastructure project in the city. ESG and others had challenged the construction of the southern reach of Bengaluru Metro as being in gross violation of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act and other statutes in a public interest litigation.
“For groups like ours working against tremendous odds to dig out the truth about many major industrial and infrastructure investments, with significant adverse economic, social and environmental ramifications, both Wikileaks and the Radia tapes offer a substantial volume of information. These revelations are major game changers as they strongly affect the nature of the political dialectic. Communities now will not be ridiculed for questioning the claims of corporates who adversely impact their lives and livelihoods. It is possible there may actually be more sympathy for their cause. In fact, the Radia tapes will make it so much more difficult for corporates and their backers in the government to bluff their way through the system and society”, says Mr Saldanha.
Venkatesh Naik of the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) feels the country needs something on the lines of Publish What You Pay (PWYP), a global network of civil society organisations that calls for oil, gas and mining revenues to form the basis for development and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. PWYP seeks disclosure of information about mine revenues and contracts. They fight confidentiality clauses that often protect oil, gas and mineral contracts from disclosure.
These and other activists feel Wikileaks and Radiagate could trigger contradictory and simultaneous trends: clampdown and openness. Information can change the game, argues Mr Naik, provided affected communities have the capacity to access the information and use it. But as of now, he points out, in many schemes information is available but those who are the most affected are not made aware or equipped to leverage that information to their benefit.

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

 

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