Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In India More People Have Phones than Toilets, But Society is Not More Mobile

BY Julia Wetherell | Monday, January 28 2013

Twenty years ago, making a telephone call from a rural village in India likely meant a trek down to the lone public phone in the town square. Today, although there’s still a 50,000-person-deep waiting list for landline installation in private homes, mobile phones have radically transformed the country, breaking down barriers in communication, commerce, and access to services. Yet in a society that retains its deep class stratifications, how significantly has mobile communication improved life for the poorest Indians?

In a Bloomberg essay from January 27, the novelist Pankraj Mishra looks at the history of mobile in India over the past two decades — starting in the early nineties, where the primary method of long-distance communication in his village in the northern province of Himachal Pradesh was letter-writing; Mishra says he transcribed hundreds of pieces of mail for neighbors who were unable to write.

To give an idea of happened next, Mishra turns to the authors of The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life, a newly published volume from Harvard University Press. They cite a turning point in India’s telecommunications revolution: the year 2000, when price-per-minute rates for mobile dropped by around 75 percent. In 2012 there were six billion mobile phones in use in India, from around 1 million in 2000; even the poorest subscribers might have multiple devices for different uses. Mishra says the neighbors who once conscripted him to write letters can now communicate nearly without cost by using a code system of missed calls.

Yet returning to the story of the same village, Mishra claims that the proliferation of mobile has not had so worthwhile an outcome as might be thought:

As India’s most garish totem of an ostensibly egalitarian consumerism, the phone can deceive, and its potential can be exaggerated. After all, Indians have greater access to mobile connections than to working toilets.

He says that people in his village have used mobile technology to reinforce the power of their caste, leveraging and amplifying existing social capital, like a landowning businessman who is able to remotely govern a profit-making farm. Those who are already at a low social standing are often left without a path to upward mobility. Mishra is also uneasy with the use of mobile phones as platforms of political organization, questioning the wisdom of demonstrations like flash mobs — which have been held in the aftermath of the brutal New Delhi rape case — to direct real social change.

At a time when the national government is making ambitious plans for India’s digital infrastructure, these are serious questions for the future of a society that is at once highly traditional and increasingly wired.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

More