The Human Costs of Digital India


Max Weber was a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist whose ideas have had a deep impact on modern world. Most of his ideas were much ahead of his time. One of the seminal works of Max Weber is his scientific study of “bureaucracy”. Weber did not define the bureaucracy but identified its characteristics. According to Weber,  the fundamental characteristics of bureaucracy are that it is impersonal, rule bound, impartial and inorganic which makes it more mechanical and less flexible. Weber observed, as the western society was becoming more rational and scientific, it was also becoming more bureaucratic i.e. it was losing it’s human touch.

Bureaucracy, although colloquially used for government machinery, in its strictest sense does not confine itself to the same. Rather every appointed official i.e. an unelected official whether in private sector, government sector or semi-government sector is a bureaucrat. Here, one has to differentiate between a civil servant who is a government appointed person against a bureaucrat. Thus, bureaucratic machinery is observed across various realms of employment.

The observations made by Max Weber are extremely relevant to present day India. India, unlike west started its journey towards industrialization and modernization after Independence. While the west had already faced the challenges of modernization, India was just beginning to face it’s share of the same. The present day Indian society is turning more and more rational and scientific as medieval parochial ideas are being disowned and disregarded by its young population. There is greater penetration of internet in India which is highlighted by above 1 Billion mobile phone users and 306 Million mobile internet users. Similarly,there is a thrust towards Digital India by the central government. Mostly, the objective is to plug in leakages, eliminate middlemen and provide faster and efficient service delivery. Apart from this, the service sector which accounts for more than half of India’s GDP is becoming extremely digital in nature. Added to this, with the StartUp boom in India, people are able to get everything from vegetables to medicines at their doorsteps by just a single click on a mobile app. There is no doubt that Indian society is increasingly becoming tech-savvy and digital. Both the supply and demand i.e. consumption and service delivery is increasingly being done through electronic means mostly internet. As a result, the human interface between the consumer and the supplier is being eliminated on a steady pace.

Though novel in it’s aim, Digital India will have it’s own challenges under “Iron Cage of Rationality”. While identifying various challenges of a bureaucratic society, Max Weber put forth his concept of “Iron Cage of Rationality” which few other social scientists have also termed as “Golden Cage of Rationality”.

Weber explained “Iron Cage of Rationality” as a system in which bureaucracy lacks discretion and dvelves itself into a rational system devoid of human touch. So, if a poor illiterate drought struck farmer  has to approach the office of Relief Commissioner, he will have to go through the entire legal formal process starting from drafting of an application to the concerned officer. The system will not help him to draft the application because system is rule bound. It will initiate action on it’s end once it receives the application form. Thus, the system though sounding very efficient since it is rule bound, is basically an iron cage which lacks emotional element. There is no human touch as none would work out of way to help the poor farmer. In a way it is de-humanised. The system cannot apply its own mind because it is rule bound and has to follow the same procedure without any aberrations.

E-governance and Digital India too promote the same idea where the work is done in accordance to predefined procedures and any arbitrary decision cannot be taken because there is no human interface.Here, the decisions are taken based upon the available information devoid of personal subjectivity or value premises which may hamper objective decision making. The larger question is whether India is prepared to handle the consequences of this Iron Cage? Is India, which is known for its values and respect for emotions ready to sacrifice the same for higher efficiency and faster delivery of services? There is a silver lining. Every society chooses it’s own course. No society completely falls within strict boundaries of observations made by humans. It defies them and charts it’s own path. How India will fare needs to be seen.

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