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Dystopian system of social credit

With China all set to start its social credit system, can India be far behind?

Dystopian system of social credit

Truth is stranger than fiction. When I first watched the television series 'Black Mirror', I was filled with a deep sense of foreboding. In one of the episodes, the plot revolved around citizens clamouring for social credits that could improve their lives and the lack of which could spell disaster and doom. China, that great fount of innovation, seems to be taking a leaf out of that dystopian book. Starting 2020, all its citizens will be subject to social credits that will reward "pro-social behaviours" such as blood donation and volunteer work, and penalise "frivolous spending", smoking in public, buying too many video games, etc. News reports suggest that since May this year, the Chinese government has already blocked 11.14 million people from flights and 4.25 million from availing high-speed trains.

India could very well be aping this social credit system. We have been quietly laying down the foundation for it. India has enforced unique identity numbers (read: Aadhaar cards) onto its citizens and the government is pushing hard to ensure that everything (from banking to subsidies) are linked to it. China, where most companies have some kind of government ownership, already has access to most of the citizens' details. It is on the back of this data strength that China is moving ahead with its social credit system.

And since we compete with China in everything, can that day be far behind when citizens are rewarded or punished in accordance with the government's parameters? The idea of a social credit system is a disturbing one that stomps over all kinds of personal freedoms; but is it truly impossible? Just a few years ago, I thought that normalising lynching, turning a blind eye to communal disharmony, and allowing accusers of rape and sexual harassment to continue to occupy public profiles, would be unthinkable. Not today. We seem to be getting increasingly comfortable with dehumanising incidents happening around us. So, what stops us from accepting a social credit system that encroaches human rights?

If the social credit system were to be introduced in India, I am sure it would also try to first make an example of anti-social elements. Terrorists, rapists, murderers, paedophiles, thieves, tax evaders, corrupt individuals, would fall from favour. Like in China, they would not be able to book plane and train tickets and have their movement completely stymied, their children would not have access to good education, and luxury hotels will be a 'no-go' area. Rehabilitation, penance, and remorse, would not be entertained. Perhaps, there would be no compassion or second chances either.

Some may agree with this kind of draconian punishment for all, but if a totalitarian government is in power, then it would not stop there either. It would go several steps forward to punish others who did not conform to the government's thoughts and ideals. Don't respect 'gau mata'? You eat beef? You're a minority? Your sexual preferences are 'unnatural'? You're un-sanskari? You're a Hindu but aren't married and have 4 kids? You believe in freedom of speech? You don't want the Ram Temple? You have an opinion? All of these and more will earn brick bats!

It does seem like sci-fi, doesn't it? I thought so while watching 'Black Mirror'. But so much of real life reflects this already. Path-breaking technology, new age science, and radical inventions are set to touch our daily lives as are robot sex companions and brothels. So, who knows where governments will draw the line at dictating to us our 'ideal' behaviour and social choices? Perhaps, it has already started by asking us to link our bank accounts to our Aadhaar numbers.

(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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