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Rising without wires

Photo by Meanest Indian on flickr.
11 March 2013
Photo by Meanest Indian on flickr.

HAMISH McDONALD takes a look at India’s mobile phone revolution.

With India again in the doldrums after a spell as the rising counterweight to China, the story of its explosive uptake in mobile phones is a corrective one.

In 1998, India had only 880,000 mobile phones. Last year it counted 900 million for its 1.22 billion people – a leapfrog over fixed-line phones, which grew from 18 million to 33 million.

It all happened despite efforts by bureaucrats and politicians to impose conditions set to make it fail and retain state monopolies, say two Australian-based India specialists, media-watching political scientist Robin Jeffrey and ANU College of Asia and the Pacific anthropologist Assa Doron.

In their colourful new study, The Great Indian Phone Book (Hurst & Co, London, £24.99) they explore how, in a technological version of the great Indian rope trick, this vast and complicated country grows despite the antics of its leaders.

These have been spectacular at times. The sale of 2G mobile spectrum in 2008 saw applicants kept waiting three months for details, only to be told at 2.45pm one day that they had to lodge deposits for letters of intent between 3.30pm and 4.30pm that same afternoon.  The spectrum went to speculators for US$300 million who on-sold it for four times the price; it might have fetched up to US$40 billion through open auction, India’s auditor-general later reported.  

Even so, the sector has sent a cascade of modernity throughout India, from telecom billionaire Sunil Mittal down to local entrepreneurs running phone towers, sale-rooms, and repair shops.

The key has been affordability. Low-cost handsets and pre-paid charge cards sold by trusted local shopkeepers, have given Indians the most economical service anywhere, with 50 rupees (88 cents) buying over 200 minutes of talk.

Boatmen on the Benares burning ghats get bookings, fishermen in Kerala sell their catch before landing, tribal people in remote parts of Orissa get news in their own language, all on their mobiles.

A mobile-money storage system called EKA gives villagers their first bank accounts, with money disbursed by participating shopkeepers. The similar M-PESA scheme in Kenya now channels a third of its GDP.

Health agencies are working on check-ups via cell phones. Welfare payments will be delivered directly through phone accounts, avoiding corrupt officials.

“The cell phone drew India’s people into relations with the record-keeping capitalist state more comprehensively than any previous mechanism or technology,” say Jeffrey and Doron.

There is an underside too: pornographic video-makers, scamsters, extortionists, and terrorists all make use of mobile phones.

And while the mobile phone is yet to create political and social revolution, Jeffrey and Doron point out that it has given the less powerful “vast new vistas of entertainment and a chance, however slight, to even up life’s odds a little.”

The mobile phone enormously helped the sweeping 2007election win in Uttar Pradesh state of Mayawati Kumari’s party of former Untouchables. Smart phones allow citizens to video officials taking bribes or stuffing ballot boxes.

“The ability it gave to low-status people to communicate with each other and with sympathetic politicians and officials marked a profound break,” the authors write. “In the past there were words low-caste people should not hear and things they should not know. And to get close enough to a senior official or politician to expose wrong-doing or sloth was impossible for many people.”

The mobile phone gives men and women a private way to talk, evading tight social controls, to the horror of conservative elders.

The authors note that one caste organisation banned its unmarried girls from cell phones because “girls fall in love after they come into contact with boys through mobile phones”. New brides often have to surrender their cell phones, as part of a dismantling of their previous social networks. Recent horrific rapes in urban India get blamed on the taunting video image of the mobile wali [girl] who “danced, smiled, drank, smoked and wore skimpy clothes – all with a mobile phone in her hand.”

The effort to stop the tide is probably futile. Mobile phones give the young their own space and encourage people generally to do new things.

“As a disruptive tool, the cell phone suited democratic India admirably,” say Jeffrey and Doron.

Writing about the great Indian “mutiny” of 1857, the historian Christopher Bayley saw the newly-introduced universal and cheap postal system helping Indians organise their revolt and blindside the British rulers. The mobile phone may be setting off more mutinies under the present raj.

A long-time foreign correspondent in Asia, Hamish McDonald is Journalist in Residence at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


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