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SAM recommends June 2, 2014

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Narendra Modi rides technological wave to power in India

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey

Technology alone did not win India’s general election for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi. But it played a huge part, and the surprisingly decisive results mark the country’s full-scale embrace of the digital age. Indian elections will never be the same.

Modi and his party used the spinal cord of India’s remarkable mobile phone network, with its more than 900 million connections, and added Facebook, Twitter, live 3-D “hologram” appearances in country towns and a gang of tech-savvy young enthusiasts. Read the full story: The Age, 27 May 2014.

Assa Doron, College of Asian and the Pacific, Australian National University, and Robin Jeffrey, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, are authors of The Great Indian Phone Book.

Landslide victory history in the making

With the election of Narendra Modi, India faces a critical turning point which could see not only greater prosperity but also sectarian violence, writes Ian Hall, a senior fellow in the Department of International Relations, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Read the full story 

When nature calls in India, phones are on hand November 8, 2013

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Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey

Election season has begun in India and media-savvy politicians are taking up the cause of toilets. India has many fewer toilets than mobile phones and this, some politicians agree, is a crying shame.

Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat and the leading opposition candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections, jumped on the toilet bandwagon this month. He told an audience of young people that although he was a leader of an uncompromising Hindu movement, he believed in ”toilets first, temples later”.

Officially, India has more than 900 million mobile-phone subscribers but fewer than 600 million toilets. With elections in five states due in November and national elections by next May, toilets and telecommunications are hot issues. In the past 10 years, Indians have fallen in love with the mobile phone, but fewer have the chance to use a toilet.


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

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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.


Creative destruction: Schumpeter, Shiva and the great Indian mobile phone October 19, 2012

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Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey

To explain the unnerving and unstoppable march of capitalism in the mid-20th century, Joseph Schumpeter coined the term ‘Creative Destruction’. Capitalism’s engine was fuelled by a voracious impulse to devour yesterday’s commodities and thus clear the way for new products for the insatiable appetite of the consumer to feed on.

In India, ‘Creative Destruction’ once referred to the cosmological realm occupied by the King of Dancers, Shiva-Nataraj, whose continuous dance of creation and destruction governs the universe. In Nehru’s newly independent India, the idea of inducing consumption for the sake of updating to the newest model was almost sacrilege. During the first few decades of independence, material pursuits were frowned upon, while progress and industrialization were founded on ideals of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Mobile repair shop in Lucknow's bustling Hazratganj (Credit: A. Doron)


India’s churning democracy: future directions February 27, 2012

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Barbara Nelson and Assa Doron

This article appears in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Ideas from India.

Indian democracy continues to puzzle many foreign observers. But for most Indians, democracy — however imperfect — is a matter of practice, something they grow up with. Indian democracy may not be perfect — which democracy is? — but it would be safe to say that debates that raged until at least the 1980s about whether it will survive are now firmly in the rearview mirror. Millions are going to the polls this year as elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur begin this January. Most attention is focused on the Uttar Pradesh poll, India’s most populous state and the sixth largest in the world, a state so large that the logistics of ensuring security for voters affects the election; the poll must be conducted in seven distinct phases.

That India has survived as a democratic nation since independence in 1947 has, until recently, remained an anomaly to social scientists. According to the view that democracy requires economic development, a common culture and high levels of literacy, India’s claim to be democratic has rested largely on the fact that it holds elections, has universal suffrage, and transfer of power occurs without trouble. Rather than viewing India as an anomaly, democratic theory now accounts more comprehensively for the Indian case.


India’s mobile revolution: a view from below March 3, 2010

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Assa Doron

Reprinted from Inside Story. Read the full article

I first met Rakesh many years ago on theghats (landings) of the holy river Ganges in the city of Varanasi. He offered to take me for a boat ride, an absolute must-do for a tourist, like me, visiting the city for the first time. Since then I have returned many times – as a tourist, a tour guide and now an anthropologist studying the city and its inhabitants. Rakesh and I kept in contact by mail over the years, off and on, though I only really caught up with what he was doing when I was back in Varanasi. Then, on a recent trip to the city, he proudly showed me his new mobile phone, saying that from now on we would be able to speak anytime, anywhere. He also asked me to give his mobile number to all my friends who intend to visit the city. Through the mobile phone he has been able to increase his earnings markedly, he said, with people from all over the world booking his boat in advance.

Among members of the boatman community who work on the Ganges ferrying passengers, Rakesh is one of the few who can read and write in basic English, thanks to his own initiative. The mobile phone gives him the means to communicate and maintain contact with his friends and clients, both in Varanasi and around the globe. Since his first purchase Rakesh has already replaced his mobile twice with increasingly advanced sets. We now keep in touch via text messages and, on special occasions, person-to-person calls.


Cancer treatment in India and its alternatives August 12, 2009

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Assa Doron and Alex Broom

India is often viewed as a country where cancer is yet to take its hold. As part of the developing world, with relatively low rates of longevity and relatively high rates of communicable diseases, cancer was and often still is not seen as a priority. Lack of basic primary health care services, water-borne diseases and other infectious diseases remain the primary causes of death. But as India is stepping into the 21st century, with a burgeoning urban middle class, cancer is increasingly making its mark. Not only is cancer increasing amongst the affluent classes, who live longer under the auspices of India’s booming economy and consumer culture, cancer is also evident amongst the poor rural population who are now bearing the brunt for India of the much-lauded Green Revolution. More and more we hear reports of a sharp increase in cancer cases as a result of toxic material in the food of ordinary folk. The Indian Outlook magazine reports highly contaminated ground water in Punjab, a consequence of long term usage of fertilizers and pesticides. These dangerous chemicals infuse everything, from vegetables and up the food chain, causing a sharp increase in cancer and other physical and neurological deformities.

Ayrvedic hospital_assialexAyurvedic hospital

For many people in the rural areas identifying cancer and getting treatment is very difficult, which ultimately leads to late diagnosis and a much smaller chance of recovery. Around 80% of those diagnosed with cancer in India will die of the disease compared with 50% of those in most developed countries. In our recent study of cancer doctors and nurses in Delhi , a range of oncology practitioners expressed their frustrations at their inability to cure cancer for those who present late to hospital. The study found that the main (more…)

Intoxicated India July 7, 2009

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Assa Doron

A recent article  in The Lancet expresses alarm at the influx of alcohol consumption in India. It observes that over the past decade a new segment of the population, including women and youths, have been consuming alcoholic drinks. The article identifies this rise as a major public health concern, emerging out of an unsavoury process of middle-upper class indulgence and consumption. As the author writes: “The country, which has seen a rapid proliferation of city bars and nightclubs in recent years, is fast shedding its inhibitions about alcohol as a lifestyle choice.”

India is an emerging giant of consumption, and alcohol is one of the major signifiers of that change. For a subcontinent considered ‘dry’ for centuries, and where prohibition was written into the nation’s constitution, such conspicuous consumption of alcohol is indeed alarming for many. A recent policy paper, aptly titled the Alcohol Atlas of India (2008) warns of the impending dangers of an intoxicated nation.

India has a long and uneasy relationship with alcohol which can be traced to cultural concerns, principles of commensality (e.g., eating and drinking together) and status considerations that have long underpinned India’s caste system. According to Brahminical orthodoxy, alcohol is a polluting substance that defiles those who consume or even touch it. As such, those at the apex of the caste hierarchy, Brahmins, who must maintain their purity at all cost, have largely abstained from alcohol. Moreover, alcohol is also considered haram (forbidden) by India’s substantial Muslim population. However, amongst other groups, including Christians, the warrior castes (kashatriyas), and lower orders of society, alcohol has long played an important role in their everyday lives and festivals. These groups have indulged in the forbidden elixir for many generations, much to the chagrin of their upper caste brethren. The disapproval surrounding alcohol consumption received a boost during the colonial era when  the Indian temperance movement, spearheaded by M.K Gandhi and other leading members of the Indian National Congress, used it as an effective vehicle for advocating their social, economic and moral designs. The disapproval of alcohol emerged as (more…)