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Live in Google Hangout, One Indian Official Says Government's Participatory Democracy Effort is Elitist

BY Julia Wetherell | Monday, March 18 2013

The Indian Government Planning Commission Google Hangout.

India’s government has been embracing a high-tech strategy over the past year, with new online portals and open data initiatives aiming to democratize civic life.  Last Friday, a Google Hangout with members of the Government Planning Commission was emblematic of these efforts.  But some viewers expressed skepticism that undermined the impact of the conversation, alleging that some of the “spontaneous” citizen questioners in the hangout were government plans. One commission member denounced the event live on camera.

In keeping with the country’s twelfth Five-Year Plan, the commission’s guiding agenda for 2012-2018 development, the conversation focused on issues of poverty, education, and energy.  There was a major emphasis on healthcare, a key concern of the twelfth plan. During the hour-long hangout, which can be viewed on YouTube, officials discussed goals for these sectors, and fielded questions from Twitter and hangout attendees.

As the India’s Business Today newspaper noted, the extent to which some of the questions praised the government – like one village leader who expounded on the virtue of new technological developments in rural areas before posing an inquiry about healthcare solutions – roused some suspicions about the authenticity of the discourse. 

Yet it was the reaction of commission member Syeda Hameed, who represents the interests of women, children, and minority groups, that left other participants reeling.  After the hangout had formally ended, Hameed appeared in the top screen of the video feed – the Hangout program brings whatever participant is making the loudest noise to prominence.  Though the clip has since been cut from the YouTube recording of the hangout, ZDNet has a recreation of her comments in an article published today. 

“This is a very elitist medium,” Hameed said of the Google Hangout, unaware that the feed was still live.  She also noted that no questions had been posed about minorities groups, or about historically disadvantaged members of the lowest castes in India. 

A participatory democracy event optimized for a desktop or smartphone device is somewhat counterintuitive in India.  According to recent Gallup statistics, countrywide household Internet penetration was at 3% in 2011.  Last week’s hangout is the second such event that has been staged recently.  In February, Indian finance minister P. Chidambaram appeared in a hangout session to discuss the country’s budget

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