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Campaign Wikipedia

posted by Madhav Gadgil

‘Ghar jake Google kar lo, Mere bareme Wikipediape padh lo!

Shahrukh Khan in ‘Lungi dance’ 2013

Truth shall prevail!

Thanks to modern science and technology, the treasury of human material, as well as intellectual and cultural wealth is overflowing today. Enormous quantities of information are being exchanged at lightening speed; incredible numbers of people separated by large distances are in constant communication with each other. Two contrasting tendencies are rapidly transforming this brave new world; on the one hand disparities in material wealth are growing, while at the same time, there is growing equality in access to informational and cultural resources. The inequities in material wealth are accelerating the rate of degradation of the natural world; even as progressive Acts like that guaranteeing the Right to Information flowing from the growing equality in intellectual and cultural wealth are helping people combat this degradation. A well-informed citizenry is the lifeblood of social progress; therefore, ensuring that citizens have ready access to good, reliable information is a prime responsibility of all of us, and of course, of our governments. 

Our wayward rulers

Regrettably, the government machinery fails to discharge its responsibility. Consider the on-going debate on Maharashtra’s irrigation scam. The statistics provided at various times by the agriculture and irrigation departments are utterly inconsistent; probably none of them represent the situation on the ground. Most of the 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 frequently results in mass mortalities of fish, but neither the state Fisheries department, nor the Pollution Control Board maintain any reliable records. People in many Western Ghats villages are in distress due to the careless operation of stone quarries and stone crushers. When the people of Kerala, with its high level of public awareness, succeeded in moving the Government machinery, a committee of the Kerala state legislature reported that fully 90% of the stone crushers in the state are operating without any permission from the local Panchayats or registration with District Collectors. When the Central Government appointed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel brought out many similar irregularities with solid evidence, the Central Government first suppressed its report, and then made only an English version available when ordered to do so by the Delhi High Court. To top it all, the Maharashtra Government then uploaded on its website a Marathi summary full of deliberate distortions.

Social media

Evidently, people must strive on their own to bring to light the true state of affairs. Fortunately, it is the strength of our democratic system that the newspapers and TV channels provide a great deal of good, reliable information on issues of interest to people. For instance, it was newspaper reports that forced Goa Forest Department to accept the presence of tigers in Goa. Similarly, these media often record large scale fish mortalities in our rivers. Such information also gets recorded in social media such as Facebook. However, barring systematic efforts such as launched by the Hyderabad based “Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL)” coalition, such information remains scattered. Moreover, much material on social media like Facebook is often self-centered, one-sided, prejudiced making it difficult to be sure of how much of it genuinely reflects facts on the ground. On the other hand the newspapers and TV channels are continually exposed to skeptical public scrutiny, thereby ensuring that, by and large, they deliver reliable information in a responsible manner. Hence, for people at large, genuine, reliable information can only become available by carefully garnering it from newspapers and TV channels, official documents and scientific studies and systematically organizing it through some responsible social media.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia, being so fulsomely praised in Hindi Bollywood songs, is just such a reliable social medium. It is an entirely voluntary, cooperative, web-based enterprise aiming to freely and readily deliver all the knowledge in the world to all the citizens of the world in their own languages. It started off in the year 2000 AD with a call to experts to contribute articles on the pattern of Encyclopedia Britannica, but without any remuneration.  But the response from the experts was very lukewarm; as a consequence it was decided in 2001 to throw it open to all citizens, converting it into an ‘anyone can edit’ enterprise. After all, the experts, too, acquire much of their knowledge reading what others have written. Wikipedia operates on the understanding that the 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 par with the expert-written Encyclopedias has been established by studies undertaken by respected scientific journals. Moreover, not being constrained by the page limits of a printed encyclopedia, it has generated vastly greater amount of material, with a far broader scope.

Good faith collaboration

All this has been the fruit of the dedication of some fifty thousand odd voluntary editors improving existing and writing new articles. Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia, but a community of editors following a set of conventions arrived at over the years through consensus. Wikipedia does not include material based on original observations, but relies on verifiable information compiled on the basis of published studies or newspaper or TV reports. Wikipedia believes in ‘neutral point of view’ presenting the different perspectives provided that these are supported by good evidence. Wiki means quick, so the Wikipedia articles are not only reliable, but are put together very rapidly. For instance, the article on the December 2004 tsunami was composed in just two days through contributions of some 1000 editors largely relying on newspaper and TV reports.

Politicians under a lens

Wikipedia, like Facebook or Twitter, is a social medium. Every Wikipedia article is accompanied by a ‘discussion’ page, on which a variety of issues can be explored without the strict constraints of neutral point of view, verifiability and no original research of the main article. Anybody can register as a Wikipedia user and then is automatically assigned a ‘User’ page which is also accompanied by a ‘discussion’ page. A variety of issues may be discussed on this page as well. The major discipline accepted for these various discussion pages is that these platforms cannot be used for self-promotion or abusing others. Because of these noteworthy commonly agreed conventions, the material on the social medium of Wikipedia has acquired a special significance. For instance, in Europe and United States it has served to subject the performance of the political leaders to careful scrutiny. Thus biographical articles on the leaders often include documentation of the promises made before election, and the extent to which these were actually fulfilled following the election. Since anybody can edit an article in the Wikipedia, attempts were made to delete material that, though factually correct, reflected poorly on the concerned politician. However, Wikipedia preserves all versions of any article including a record of the IP address of the computer employed to make any changes. When it was revealed that such changes were made by agents of concerned politicians, the resulting adverse publicity has ensured that such improper interference has remained under check.

An independent medium

Wikipedia is entirely free of governmental control; moreover it cannot be subjected to commercial pressures, since it does not accept advertisements. Hence it is an outstanding medium to document what is actually happening on the ground.  Such information can be accumulated through incremental, asynchronous micro-contributions. It therefore constitutes an excellent instrument for the common citizens of India to document their experiences and the issues of vital concern to them on the Marathi  (https://mr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A4%AE%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%96%E0%A4%AA%E0%A5%83%E0%A4%B7%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A0 ), Konkani (https://gom.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%E0%A4%89%E0%A4%AA%E0%A5%87%E0%A4%97%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%B0%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A4%E0%A5%8B:MadhavDGadgil&action=edit&redlink=1), Hindi (https://hi.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A4%AE%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%96%E0%A4%AA%E0%A5%83%E0%A4%B7%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A0 ) or English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page), as well as other 18 Indian language Wikipedias. 

Sources of information

Articles in Wikipedia deal with specific ‘notable’ topics and it is mandatory that all the statements in any article are supported by citing verifiable sources of the information.  Such verifiable sources may include studies, books, official documents, or reports in media such as newspapers or TV channels. District gazetteers, Forest Working Plans, Environmental Status Reports of Municipal Corporations, People’s Biodiversity Registers prepared by Biodiversity Management Committees set up under the Biological Diversity Act,  information provided by candidates to the Election Commission, information received in responses to  RTI enquiries, Rupesh Patkar’s book on the Kalane mine dispute or Kamalakar Sadhale’s book on the Bhutkhamb agitation, Chitale Commission’s report relating to Maharashtra’s Irrigation Scam, report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, Kerala state legislature report on stone quarries, High Court judgments relating to the Dodamarg Wildlife Corridor petition, newspaper reports   [ e.g.. http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-overlooking-wildlife-corridor-and-rich-water-source-moef-clears-mopa-airport-in-goa-] could all constitute such acceptable sources of information.

Article topics

Wikipedia articles in English, Marathi, Konkani, Hindi and other 18 Indian languages could deal with a wide range of topics. These may pertain to specific themes such as Water Act, Forest Rights Act, mandate of Green Tribunal, sacred groves, mass mortalities of fish, history of environment related agitations in Goa, proposed Mopa airport, findings of Chitale Commission’s report relating to Maharashtra’s Irrigation Scam,  Lavasa hill city, Shah Commission report on illegal mining in Goa, accidents on Pune-Mumbai Expressway, a list of all active Biodiversity Management Committees in India, mining in Kempe taluk of Goa, wildlife of Dodamarg taluka in Maharashtra, pollution related fish mortality in Panchaganga river, educational status of candidates contesting Lokasabha elections and so on.

Geographical setting

The articles could also deal with specific geographical localities such as cities (e.g. Pune), specific wards in a city (e.g. Kothrud in Pune), specific 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).  We need some official source of information to initiate such articles. The 2011 Census of India database is one such excellent database (http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/dchb/DCHB.html, Goa District Census Handbook http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/dchb/goa.html). Every census locality is assigned a specific unique Census Location Code in this database. Thus there are several villages named Loni, Wadgaon or Mendha in Maharashtra; all these have been assigned a different Census Location Code. There is a district named Sagar as also a city named Sagar in Madhya Pradesh and a town and a taluka named Sagar in Karnataka; again these are appropriately 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 one could readily add the latitude, longitude and altitude read off from the Google Earth.

Base articles

Prashant Pawar (ppawar@msn.com, 9545050660) has developed a SCALA code to automatically generate base articles on various census localities. Three such Marathi articles, on villages Haladi (Karavir), Rukadi(Hatkangale), and Parite in the Panchaganga basin of Kolhapur district have already been uploaded in the Marathi Wikipedia:  https://mr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%B3%E0%A4%A6%E0%A5%80_(%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%B5%E0%A5%80%E0%A4%B0)

https://mr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A4%B0%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%A1%E0%A5%80_(%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%A4%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%A3%E0%A4%82%E0%A4%97%E0%A4%B2%E0%A5%87)

https://mr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A4%AA%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%A4%E0%A5%87 .

No less than 40,000 such articles were automatically uploaded on the English Wikipedia around 2003-04 and were then rapidly developed further by other interested citizens. However, while Bollywood celebrates Wikipedia with Shahrukh singing ‘Mere bareme Wikipediape padh lo’, Indians are participating very little in editing or creating new articles in the English or 21 Indian language Wikipedias. For instance, the English Wikipedia carries an article on Pune Bus Rapid Transit System. But the article is merely based on an official pamphlet and completely ignores the vigorous on-going discussion, including many news reports on this subject over the last several years.  The discussion page accompanying the article is almost blank.  Surely the very aware citizens of Pune could put the powerful medium of Wikipedia to good use to provide a far more detailed and balanced account of the Pune Bus Rapid Transit System.

People’s concerns

We could, of course, follow the American pattern of automatically generating and uploading articles on all Indian localities covered in 2011 Census of India. However, Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia, but a community and in the absence of adequate level of awareness about the possibilities of participating in the Wikipedia enterprise in India, it might not be fruitful to go ahead with this approach.  Instead, it is proposed that those interested in uploading and building upon base articles on various localities may contact either me (madhav.gadgil@gmail.com) or Prashant Pawar (ppawar@msn.com) by email; following such expression of interest we would be only too happy to upload the pertinent base articles on the website: http://www.madhavgadgil.in/ .  As people become active, interested citizens may add appropriate material of their interest to these base articles. For instance, people in the Panchaganga river basin are very much concerned about pollution related health problems and mass mortalities of fish; and there have been many news reports on these issues.  It is heartening that citizens of Haladi have already initiated developing the base article on their locality further along these lines. Additionally, interested citizens may upload pertinent photographs as well as audio- and video-clips along with pertinent information on Wikimedia Commons. Such material can then be readily incorporated in Wikipedia articles. Such material will be treated as being available under a Creative Commons license, permitting anybody interested to freely use or modify the material giving due credit to the original creator of the material.  Furthermore, interested citizens could augment information on issues of their concern through RTI enquiries or questions asked by people’s representatives in forums like Zilla Parishats, Municipalities, state legislatures or Parliament.

There is excellent resource material developed by the Center for Internet and Society http://cis-india.org/   to support interested citizens taking up Wikipedia related activities. A group of volunteers led by Subodh Kulkarni (9422907330, subodhkiran@gmail.com ) is also active in this context, as is Goa University. We hope that along with the people in Panchaganga basin of Kolhapur district, several groups such as villagers of Goa concerned with the proposed Mopa airport, the cluster 26 villages of Savantwadi - Dodamarg talukas who had expressed an interest in being declared as Ecologically Sensitive, several hundred villages of Gadchiroli - Chadrapur districts who have been assigned Community Forest Resource rights, and investigators active in the Maharashtra Gene Bank project will also take up such activities.    

Social audit

Much may be accomplished if Indians become active participants in the Wikipedia enterprise. People could use the article or their own discussion pages to draw attention of the journalists or scholars to particular subject matters of concern to them. This would be an excellent way of encouraging journalists with an investigative bent of mind to focus on topics that would be worth exploring, thereby benefiting the profession of journalism. For instance, people in the command area of a dam may call attention to the fact that their fields were supposed to be irrigated quite some time ago, but that no canals have been constructed to bring water to them.  A journalist may then investigate the status of that particular command area and develop a good news story. Such a story could in turn provide a verifiable reference for a Wikipedia article. Such interaction could come to constitute an effective, totally transparent system of social audit. One can visualize a vast array of topics for such social audit, ranging over the status of wage payments in rural employment guarantee works, pending forest rights claims, encroachment of real estate on river beds, privatization of public sea beaches, availability of public toilet facilities for women, and motorbike riders speeding along pavements endangering pedestrians. These notable themes could become topics of informative Wikipedia articles and serve the cause of much needed social audit. 

Wikidata

The newly emerging facility of Wikidata can greatly strengthen such an effort at social audit through the medium of Wikipedia. Wikidata permits integration of data not only from English but from multiple languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Kannada. For instance, sacred groves constitute a widespread traditional conservation practice, not only all over India, but in Bhutan, Myanmar, even Nigeria. This tradition is still relevant, indeed new sacred groves of substantial areas 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 may quickly compile good, quantitative information on this practice from all parts of India, helping bring together people from all over the country. Similarly using keywords in different languages for a phenomenon such as fish mass mortalities, one may compile systematic information on this widespread, tragic phenomenon that Pollution Control Boards deliberately ignore. Of course, the sole objective of the Wikipedia enterprise is compilation of objective, verifiable information from a neutral point of view and the Wikipedia community will not be directly involved in any activism. Nevertheless, such an exercise of putting information together could serve a very useful function of organizing a social audit and thereby helping widely scattered members, say of fishing communities adversely affected by the menace of pollution related fish mortalities, organize themselves.

Hopes and aspirations

Present times are a golden age for those fascinated by knowledge. Wikipedia is a triumphant manifestation of this age, a progressive enterprise of good faith collaboration initiated at the dawn of the new millennium in 2001 with the noble objective of making all the knowledge of humanity freely available to people all over the world in their own languages.  The English Wikipedia has taken giant strides towards such a goal. This remarkable achievement has been rendered possible by the rapid progress of modern science and technology. The key to this success of science is its rejection of all authority other than that of empirical facts and logical inferences, while seeking 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 the so-called experts to monopolize knowledge.

It is the duty of true lovers of knowledge to resist such attempts at establishing monopolies. After all, knowledge has a vast compass. Our environment, our social settings are all legitimate subject mater of knowledge and every citizen can be involved in nurturing knowledge dealing with many such themes. Wikipedia is an important step in the direction of bringing on board all citizens in the pursuit of knowledge. Modern technology today permits us to effectively overcome the language barrier. The ability of the Wikidata facility to bring together knowledge scattered in multiple Indian languages is one manifestation of this progressive development. So all of us Indians can now join hand in developing a reliable understanding of the nature all around us and of the society, polity and economy in which we are embedded. Such an enterprise of taking the Wikipedia enterprise to the grassroots would be a worthy contribution to the cause of nation building.

 

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Madhav Gadgil,
Dec 12, 2017, 2:15 AM
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