Thanks to modern science and technology, the treasury of human material as well as intellectual and cultural wealth is overflowing. Enormous quantities of information are exchanged today at lightning speed, and incredible numbers of people separated by great distances are in constant touch with one another. Two contrasts characterise this world: on the one hand, disparities are growing in material wealth, and on the other, there is growing equality in access to informational and cultural resources.

The inequities in material wealth has accelerated the rate of degradation of the natural world, but at the same time progressive laws flowing from equality in intellectual wealth are helping people combat the degradation. This is one reason why, as much as ever, a well-informed citizenry is the lifeblood of social progress. Ensuring that citizens have ready access to reliable information is the prime responsibility of all of us, including obviously of our governments.

Wayward rulers

Regrettably, the government machinery is failing to discharge its responsibility.

Consider, for instance, Maharashtra’s irrigation scam, in which thousands of crores were siphoned off or wasted on dud irrigation projects. The statistics provided at various times by the state’s agriculture and irrigation departments are inconsistent. It is probable that none of them reflect the ground reality. Most rivers in Maharashtra are polluted well beyond legally permissible levels, yet the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board hardly acknowledges this sorry state of affairs. Such pollution often results in mass deaths of fish, but neither the fisheries department nor the Pollution Control Board maintains reliable records.

Or consider these two examples. After the people of Kerala succeeded in moving the government machinery, a committee of the legislature reported that 90% of the stone crushers in the state were operating without permission from local panchayats or without registering with district collectors. Another time, when the Central government-appointed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel revealed similar irregularities with solid evidence, the Centre first suppressed its report and then, pushed by a Delhi High Court order, made only an English version available. To top it all, the Maharashtra government uploaded on its website a Marathi summary full of distortions.

Clearly then, with the government machinery failing, people must work on their own to bring to light the true state of affairs. Fortunately, our media provides a good deal of reliable information on issues of public interest. For instance, it was newspaper reports that forced the Goa Forest Department to accept the presence of tigers in the state. It is again the media that often records large-scale fish deaths in our rivers.

Such information gets recorded on social media too, but this remains scattered, barring systematic efforts like as the one launched by the Hyderabad-based “Save Our Urban Lakes” coalition. Besides, much of the material on social media like Facebook is often self-centred and prejudiced, making it difficult to ascertain the veracity. On the other hand, newspapers and TV channels are continually exposed to sceptical public scrutiny, ensuring that, by and large, they deliver reliable information.

On balance then, people at large can wean genuine, reliable information only by carefully collating it from newspapers and TV channels, official documents and scientific studies and systematically organising it through some responsible social media.

Starting a discussion

Wikipedia is just such a reliable social medium. It is an entirely voluntary, cooperative, web-based enterprise aimed at freely and readily delivering all the knowledge in the world to all the citizens of the world in their own languages. The platform started off in 2000 with a call to experts to contribute articles on the pattern of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but without any remuneration. When experts showed little interested, Wikipedia was thrown open to citizens in 2001, converting it into an anyone-can-edit enterprise. After all, experts too acquire much of their knowledge reading what others have written.

Wikipedia operates on the understanding that laypeople may make mistakes, but these can be eliminated by ensuring open scrutiny and giving full scope for additions, deletions and corrections. That this system has resulted in material of a quality on a par with expert-written encyclopaedias has been established by studies by respected scientific journals. Moreover, not being constrained by the page limits of a printed encyclopaedia, it has generated greater amount of material with a broader scope.

All this has been achieved due to the dedication of 50,000-odd voluntary editors improving existing and writing new articles. This community of editors follow a set of conventions arrived at over the years through consensus. It has been decided that Wikipedia will not include material based on original observations, but instead verifiable information compiled from published studies or reports. Wikipedia believes in a “neutral point of view” presenting the different perspectives, provided these are supported by good evidence. Besides reliability, Wikipedia articles aim for speed (Wiki means quick). For instance, the article on the December 2004 tsunami was composed in two days through contributions of some 1,000 editors largely relying on newspaper and TV reports.

Every Wikipedia article is accompanied by a “discussion” page, on which a variety of issues can be explored without the strict constraints of neutrality and verifiability. This is in addition to the “discussion” page accompanying the “User” page that automatically gets assigned to anyone who registers on the website as a user. On all these debating platforms the site imposes only one major discipline – that they will not be used for self-promotion or abusing others.

Because of these noteworthy conventions, the information on Wikipedia has acquired a special significance. For instance, in Europe and the United States, it has served to subject the performance of political leaders to careful scrutiny. Biographical articles on leaders often include documentation of the promises made before election and the extent to which these were fulfilled. In the past, whenever agents of these leaders tried to delete unfavourable content, they were caught out quickly because Wikipedia preserves all versions of any article, including a record of the IP address of the computer employed to make changes.

The grassroots

Since Wikipedia is unconstrained by governmental control and cannot be subjected to commercial pressures because of its donation-based ad-free model, it is an outstanding medium to document what is happening on the ground. This information can be accumulated through incremental, asynchronous micro-contributions. In India, it presents an excellent instrument for common citizens to document their experiences and issues of concern on the English and the 21 Indian language editions.

The articles could deal with specific geographical localities such as cities (e.g. Pune), wards in a city (e.g. Kothrud in Pune), villages (e.g. Warkhand in Pedne taluka of Goa), talukas (e.g. Dodoamarg in Maharashtra), districts (e.g. Kolhapur or North Goa), rivers (e.g. Panchaganga, Mula-Mutha, Zuari). All we need is some official information source to initiate such articles. The 2011 Census of India is one such excellent database. Every census locality in this database is assigned a unique Census Location Code.

To explain with an example: each of the many villages named Loni, Wadgaon or Mendha in Maharashtra has a different Census Location Code. Similarly, there is a district and a city in Madhya Pradesh as also a town and a taluka in Karnataka, all sharing the name Sagar. Again, these are assigned four different Census Location Codes. This facility permits us to refer unambiguously to any geographical locality at various spatial scales such as district, taluka or city or village. In addition, on their Wikipedia entries, one could readily add the latitude, longitude and altitude off Google Earth.

As it happens, there exists a code – developed by Prashant Pawar – to automatically generate base articles on census localities. Three such Marathi articles, on villages Haladi (Karavir), Rukadi (Hatkangale) and Parite in the Panchaganga basin of Kolhapur district, have been uploaded on the Marathi Wikipedia.

No less than 40,000 such articles were automatically uploaded on the English Wikipedia around 2003-’04 and were then quickly developed further by other interested citizens. However, that was not the norm. While Bollywood celebrates Wikipedia with Shah Rukh Khan singing Mere bareme Wikipediape padh lo, Indians participate little in editing or creating new Wikipedia articles. For instance, an article on the Pune Bus Rapid Transit System on the English Wikipedia is merely based on an official pamphlet. It ignores the vigorous discussion on the subject, including the many news reports in the past several years. The discussion page accompanying the article is almost blank. Surely, the more aware citizens of Pune could put the powerful medium to good use to provide a more detailed and balanced account of their city’s Rapid Transit System.

Bonding across languages

We could, of course, follow the American pattern of automatically generating articles on all Indian localities covered in the 2011 Census. But Wikipedia is not just an encyclopaedia – it is a community, and in the absence of awareness about the enterprise, this approach might not be fruitful. The communal effort was visible when the residents of Haladi in Maharashtra initiated a base article on their locality.

Besides creating base articles, interested citizens can upload photographs, audio and video clips on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license, permitting anybody to freely use or modify the material after giving due credit to the original creator. Aside from this, citizens can also augment information on issues of their concern through Right to Information queries or enquiries from forums like zilla parishads, municipalities, state legislatures or the Parliament. The Centre for Internet and Society has developed excellent resource material to support citizens taking up Wikipedia-related activities. A group of volunteers led by Subodh Kulkarni is also promoting this participation, as is Goa University.

Much could be accomplished if Indians become active participants on Wikipedia. People could use their articles and their discussion pages to draw the attention of journalists or scholars to their concerns. For instance, people in the command area of a dam could call attention to the fact that no canals have been constructed to bring water to them. A journalist could then investigate the issue and develop a news story, which in turn could provide a verifiable reference for a Wikipedia article. Such interaction could constitute an effective and transparent social audit. One can visualise an array of topics for a social audit, ranging from the status of wage payments in rural employment guarantee works, pending forest rights claims, encroachment of real estate on river beds, privatisation of public beaches, and availability of public toilets for women.

The newly emerging facility of Wikidata can strengthen this social audit. Wikidata permits integration of data not only from English but from multiple languages, such as Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Kannada. For instance, sacred groves – forest fragments that are communally protected – constitute a traditional conservation practice not only in India, but also in Bhutan, Myanmar and even Nigeria. This tradition is still relevant – indeed, new sacred groves have recently been constituted in villages granted Community Forest Rights such as Pachgaon in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra.

Using Wikidata and keywords such as Devari (Marathi), Devpan (Konkani), Nagarbana or Devarakadu (Kannada), Sarpakavu (Malayalam), Oran (Hindi), one can quickly compile quantitative information on this practice, helping bring together people from across the country. Similarly, using keywords in different languages for a phenomenon such as mass fish mortalities, one may compile systematic information on this phenomenon that Pollution Control Boards deliberately ignore.

Of course, the objective of the Wikipedia enterprise is to compile objective, verifiable information from a neutral point of view and the Wikipedia community will not be involved in any activism. Nevertheless, such an exercise of putting together information could serve a useful function of organising a social audit. This could help, say, scattered members of fishing communities that are adversely affected by pollution-related fish mortalities to organise themselves.

Democratic approach

This is a golden age for those fascinated by knowledge. And Wikipedia is a triumphant manifestation of the age, a progressive enterprise of good-faith collaboration with the noble objective of making all knowledge available to people all over the world. The English Wikipedia has taken giant strides towards such a goal. The key to this success of science has been the rejection of all authority other than empirical facts and logical inferences, and its aim is to engage all those interested in knowledge regardless of their social, economic or educational background. It is this democratic approach that has facilitated the rapid accumulation of knowledge. Yet there are continual attempts by so-called experts to monopolise knowledge.

It is the duty of true lovers of knowledge to resist such attempts. Knowledge has a vast canvas. Our environment, our social settings are legitimate subject matters of knowledge and every citizen can be involved in nurturing it. Wikipedia is an important step in the direction of bringing on board all citizens in the pursuit of knowledge. The ability of the Wikidata facility to bring together knowledge scattered in multiple Indian languages is one manifestation of this progressive development. All of us Indians should join hands in developing a reliable understanding of the nature around us and of our society, polity and economy. This enterprise of taking Wikipedia to the grassroots would be a worthy contribution to the cause of nation building.