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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.

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