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Suffering from 'e-identity' crisis?

tech-reviews Updated: Jul 18, 2009 19:16 IST
Prasanto K Roy
Prasanto K Roy
Hindustan Times
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Ever tried sending an email to a government official in India? Or a politician? If you haven’t, don’t bother. They won’t reply. You can sit and analyse reasons, attribute it to culture, whatever. But the biggest reason is that they don’t have an email address for themselves.

If you’re working for a private sector company, you have an email address, like jai.sinha@jutemill.com. Ditto if you’re working for a foreign government, like MehtaSPS@state.gov (USA). But not if you’re working for the Indian government.

As a government official, you will have an email address for your office chair. This will be nice and anonymous, like dfso.jalandhar@punjabmail.gov.in, or, if you’re a minister, minister@food.kerala.gov.in. A state IT secretary could get something like itsec@bangaloreitbt.in.

So does it matter what your email address is? Of course it does. That is your online identity. If someone writes to me at pkr@cybermedia.co.in, I reply. Or I ensure that someone does. But if it were an address for my office chair, I might not bother. And if I were a bureaucrat who knew he’d be transferred in two years at the most... I too might simply, happily, ignore all my email. As they do.

Check the official MPs’ list at tinyurl.com/loksabha, for instance, and you’ll find most MPs listing their address as ‘NA’. That includes Shashi ‘Twitter’ Tharoor. Exceptions include our FM (pkm@sansad.nic.in) and another non-so-mild-mannered Bengali (mamata.sansad@sansad.nic.in). A few have personal webmail addresses listed, like farooq_abdullah@rediffmail.com.

Even for top officials, you may not easily find an email address – even an office-chair address. US citizens know they can reach the White House at president@whitehouse.gov, but how do we in the world’s largest democracy write to our prime minister or president? India’s official portal, india.gov.in, does not say. It only lists the Vice-President’s address, as vpindia@sansad.nic.in. (Some
web-surfing brings up the contacts as presidentofindia@rb.nic.in, and pmindia.nic.in/write.htm... but I did not get a response from either address.)

IT’S PERSONAL
As a close friend in the government points out, this disease is far more deep-rooted than just the use of technology. Information is power. We in the government, he says, derive our power by holding back information... so much so that it needs a special RTI act to get information flowing again.

An email address by personal name is the norm across the world, in governments, institutions and companies. It gives the user a stable, firm online identity – along with accountability.

Is this technophobia? Far from it. Every bureaucrat and politician uses a mobile phone. But as a citizen, you can’t reach them. You go through a wall of PAs and assistants, and you still won’t get through. The moment mobiles have to be made accessible to citizens, says a bureaucrat, tongue in cheek, “we’ll find that they’ve stopped working... the batteries are down, the network’s jammed...”

And then there’s the BlackBerry. I continue to be surprised not just by the number of bureaucrats who use BlackBerry handhelds or other mobile mail systems, but also by how they use it only for personal email. They usually have their Gmail or other personal mail accounts forwarded to their BlackBerry, while office mail goes to the PA, or to the e-trashcan.
So who decided that office chairs, and not people, needed email addresses in the government of India?

That is lost in history, but the National Informatics Centre, the government’s “web services organisation”, had a hand in it. Today, it appears to be the IT departments of the state governments who manage email addresses. The Department of IT at the Centre is, interestingly, one of the few organisations that uses named IDs like asanyal@mit.gov.in for people, not chairs. But there too it isn’t consistent. For instance, along with his elevation, R Chandrashekhar’s address changed recently from jsegov@mit.gov.in to secretary@mit.gov.in, while others have a mix of name and designation in their email address like sagg-js@mit.gov.in, which will change when they move.

And there you have it: the government of India. Changing addresses, changing identity, a mass of faceless officials perpetually on the move. You can’t catch them. Send them an email, but it will reach a chair, not a person. Find the person, and he’s moved to a new role.

So while Nandan Nilekani works on creating a unique digital identity for the citizen, I am hoping someone will work on creating one for the Indian bureaucrat and politician: an email address for the person, not the chair.

Prasanto K Roy ( pkr@cybermedia.co.in ), chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of specialty titles such as Dataquest, can be found at twitter.com/prasanto