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Saturday, April 5, 2003

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought to us vividly the dangers inherent in our modern world. The terrorist attacks in the US on the 11th September, 2001, the Second Gulf War now raging in Iraq, and the rapid spread of Severe Accuse Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) from the first reported infections in Guangdong province in China to over a dozen countries across continents – all these illustrate the perils confronting us in a shrinking world.

But, sometimes we tendc to focus excessively on the threats, ignoring the opportunities, particularly for emerging economics like India. In many ways we are lucky to live in this age and time. Most humans today have access to amenities, comforts and advantages which even emperors could not dream of only a century ago.

For many of us in India, the contrast between the period of the First Gulf War in 1991 and the Second War now is striking. In 1991, satellite television just made its appearance in India. For the first time we could watch round-the-clock news programmes, and live coverage of events around the world. Even then, CNN was not available to cable television viewers. Many wealthy Indians moved into Five-star hotels to watch live reporting of the war on CNN, which was just then making waves in the world of broadcasting. Ted Turner became a celebrity overnight, and CNN became the most famous channel in the world during that Gulf war. Those were also the days when we, in India, still could not get a telephone connection with ease. I remember paying Rs. 8,000 as a fee to be included in own-your-telephone(OYT) category, and waiting for years to get a phone connection. Economic liberalisation was just beginning in India, and consumer still had restricted choice in a sellers' market. Internet was not known to people then. Only a few American military communications experts had access to, and understanding of, the internet.

Only twelve years later, our lives have changed almost beyond recognition. Several news channels – including BBC, Sky TV, Fox TV, ABC, NBC, CBC, Al Zazeera and several others now have live coverage of the Gulf war. Earlier, CNN and other channels depended on the Pentagon and military briefings. Now, over 2000 correspondents are in Iraq covering the war directly and sending us live pictures as battles are taking place and events are unfolding. About 500 journalists are "embedded" with the allied troops, marching with the soldiers and reporting what they directly witness. All these images are now carried directly into our drawing rooms. Millions of people all over the world are glued to television, watching the 24-hour saturation coverage of the war and the political and diplomatic maneuvers surrounding it. Even in India, none of us need to stir out of our homes to watch these events.

When the 9/11 attack took place, most people watched the video replays of the attack on the first tower within minutes, and millions watched the crash of hijacked plane into the second tower live! Many of us in Hyderabad, of course, could not watch television that evening because of power failure. But still, we got the news on telephone almost as quickly as it happened. And by 2003, we have telephones on demand, with several companies providing a variety of services – basic telephony, wireless local loop, cellular etc. Long distance phone costs have plummeted, and the cell phone calls are actually cheaper on the whole. Internet has become everyday reality, and millions of us no longer send communications by ordinary mail. Thousands of people can now be reached by the flick of a button at zero cost. Internet telephony across continents is practically as inexpensive as a local call. Video-conferencing is increasingly common, and our Supreme Court has even held that evidence of a witness deposing through videoconferencing is valid under our law! And we now have buyers' market in India, with consumers having real choice, quality improving, and prices stable or falling!

True, there are still many dangers, and some special threats associated with modern world. But on balance, we have more opportunities than even before, and more and more people can access information, technology and healthcare at lower and lower costs. True, some people do harbour an apocalyptic vision of the world. True, there could be great ecological dangers awaiting us if global warming is not reversed. Every age and every technological advance carries with it some dangers. But we have greater opportunity than ever before to combat these threats, and build a better life for most, if not all, people. Therein lies our hope for the future.

Error | Foundation for Democratic Reforms


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