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The cell phone: India’s society shaker December 11, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Doron, Assa, India, Jeffrey, Robin , trackback

Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron

In a country where one of the ancient texts declares that “if a Sudra [low-caste person] … listens in on a Vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin”, cheap mobile phones can be explosive (Patrick Olivelle (ed. and trans.), The Dharmasūtras. The Law Codes of Ancient India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12.1, p. 98). In India between 2000 and 2012, the telephone, and communications generally, have passed from the control of a tiny elite to become the daily experience of the mass of the population.

                Credit: A Doron

In the year 2000, India had 2 million mobile-phone subscribers. It had 900 million in August 2012, and the cost of a basic phone is as little as a week’s wages for a poor labourer (about INR 500 or SGD 12), and three hours of talk-time can be bought for half a day’s wages. For millions of poor people, a mobile phone has become the first ‘consumer durable’ they have ever owned. In the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, a single Coca-Cola bottle, dropped into a stable society, caused disarray and disruption. The mobile phone is no passive Coke bottle. It’s an interactive, talking, writing, picture-taking, data-keeping, broadcasting trouble-maker – trouble-maker, at least, if you believe that societies are fine as they are and that change and challenge are problems.

Over the past ten years, the mobile has shaken up politics, business and innumerable aspects of daily life in India.

In politics, the availability for the first time of mobile phones to devoted (but poor) party workers played a major part in the surprise victory of a Dalit-based (formerly ‘untouchable’) political party in elections in the vast state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2007. (Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron, “Mobile-izing: Democracy, Organization and India’s First Mass‘ Mobile Phone’ Elections”, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 71, no. 1 (February 2012), pp.63-80.) The UP story illustrated the potential and the limitations of technology. Fired-up party workers, coordinated through their mobile phones, made the difference in 2007. But many were disillusioned with the government they put in power; commitment drained away; and their party lost office in the following elections in 2012. It’s the people at the end of the phone who make the difference.

In business and commerce, the mobile has raised high hopes that farmers and fisherfolk will be able to negotiate better prices, avoid middlemen and get fast and reliable information about conditions and practices. Some of that has come to pass, but perhaps more important is the way the mobile phone brings marginalised people into relations with government and institutions.

Most Indians don’t have bank accounts. Organisations like EKO, a mobile phone-based enterprise that provides basic banking services through small shopkeepers, suggest the possibility of bringing bank-account security to tens of millions. That can mean a lot for someone who previously had to hide hard-earned cash on their person or in a tin box in a hut. It can also mean reliable payments from government or employers without interposing paymasters who may demand a slice of a cash payment as a bribe.

In households, mobile phones throw up new questions. Should a bride surrender her mobile phone when she moves into her husband’s home? Some mothers-in-law demand it. And who should be permitted the autonomy that a cell phone provides? “No love marriages, mobiles or unescorted visits to markets for [women] up to age of 40” proclaimed a local council in a village 45 kilometres from New Delhi (The Hindu, 13 July 2012). Its all-male members were concerned that mobile phones were making the young restless and disobedient.

The ability of the cell phone to turn its owner into a broadcaster provides a new weapon for the weak. CGNet Swara, a media initiative based in central India, (Tehelka, 1 September 2012, 48–9) allows tribal people to report news by phone in their own voices and language. After checking, stories are disseminated by phone to subscribers. English summaries are circulated on the Internet. Local officials now have to be aware that demands for bribes may be recorded and passed on to their superiors or broadcast widely.

The cheap cell phone is not a cure-all for India’s ills. Mobile telephony is controlled by the powerful, and mobile phones can be used to identify and track people. But India’s mobile-phone explosion shakes society and politics more vigorously than anything since the imposition of British rule.

Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron are the authors of The Great Indian Phone Book: How Cheap Mobile Phones Change Business, Politics and Daily Life, which will be published by C. Hurst in the UK, Hachette in India, and Harvard University Press in North America at the end of 2012.


1. ercelan - December 11, 2012

Economic mobility is startling. Not just within a city. So many now migrate because help in and from the village is just a phone call away.
Rebellion is easier and hence resistance is stronger. Two instances seem worth recounting. Protest against a powerful land grabber in the village was getting nowhere until families sent members to gain solidarity from city activists who could then exchange upto date info with families left behind. Yet another land grabber murdered village activists but could not then prevent subsequent mobilisation in protest within hours of the killings.
Instant communication has also brought painful ordeals, as in kin talking to workers hopelessly trapped in the garment factory fires in karachi and dhaka

2. Mark Jones - December 18, 2012

It is difficult to overstate the impact of mobile phones on the India of the second modernity. Within a few short years they have become deeply embedded in just about every activity. Coolies now finish their days work with a short blast of traditional music downloaded onto their mobile. Taxis can really only be hailed by mobile and booking a train is close to impossible without one. Even school children can let their parents know when they have been abandoned by their teachers for the day (which is frequent) and can arrange a pickup rather than spend the day skulking about the playground.

As for the defence of human rights, well everyone now carries a camera and can document and report police brutality, official corruption and bureaucratic incompetence in an instant and there are 500 news channels hungry for the story and eager to report it.

India of the second modernity is a very different creature from the sleepy antique land it was in the 20th century. Its vitality and creativity is simply astounding.

3. Kuntala - January 14, 2013

Interesting and thought-porovoking article. My comment pertains to gender; we know that the use of technology, including mobile phones, is heavily gendered. Early socialist feminists thought that technology equated capitalism and negatively impacted women by displacing them from production. But with IT and Communication Technology (CT) of mobile telephony, there was recognition that the impacts may be both positive and/or negative or mixed in nature, and that more than sexual differences, race and ethnicity, and in Indian context caste and class, play important roles in producing different effects for different groups of women. New areas of technology such as IT & CT have opened new spaces for women. The works by Cynthia Cockburn (2004) and Judy Wajcman (2004) are important in this regard; they suggest that ordinary people, especially women and subordinate classes have reaped the harvests of these post-industrial technology. There is a need, however, to strike a balance between the pessimistic fatalism (of technology alienating the poor) and utopian optimism (of technology emancipating them. It would be interesting to explore how mobile phone technology impacts on women’s labour in contemporary India, because earlier, feminists noted that the sexual division of labor was embedded in the way men and women do things in a factory or shop floor. So, a question would be if the use and impacts of mobile phones are gendered and if so, in what ways.