Connecting to the Future

NEW DELHI – One of my favorite photographs shows a Hindu sadhu right out of central casting – naked body, long matted hair and beard, ash-smeared forehead, rudraksha-mala around his neck, the works – chatting away on a mobile phone. The contrast says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today’s India – a country that, as I wrote years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time.

There is something particularly special about the sadhu and his cell phone, because it is in communications that India’s transformation in recent years has been most dramatic.

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When I left India in 1975 to go to the United States for graduate studies, there were perhaps 600 million Indians and just two million land-line telephones. Having a telephone was a rare privilege: if you were not an important government official, a doctor, or a journalist, you might languish on a long waiting list and never receive a phone. Members of parliament had among their privileges the right to allocate 15 telephone connections to whomever they deemed worthy.

Moreover, a phone, if you had one, was not necessarily a blessing. I spent my high school years in Calcutta, and I remember that if you picked up your phone, there was no guarantee that you would get a dial tone; if you got a dial tone and dialed a number, there was no guarantee that you would reach the number you sought, and you heard an exasperated “wrong number!” more often than a friendly “hello.”

If you wanted to call another city, say, Delhi, you had to book a “trunk call,” and then sit by the telephone all day waiting for it to come through. Or you could pay eight times the going rate for a “lightning call” – but even lightning struck slowly in India in those days, so a lightning call took a half-hour instead of the usual three or four (or more) to be connected.

As late as 1984, when an MP rose to protest the frequent telephone breakdowns and the generally woeful performance by a public-sector monopoly, the then communications minister replied in a lordly manner. In a developing country, he declared, telephones are a luxury, not a right; the government had no obligation to provide better service; and any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone since there was an eight-year waiting list for telephones.

Now fast-forward to today. In the first edition of my book The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, I reported that, in April 2007, India set a new world record by selling seven million cellphones that month, more telephone connections than any country had ever established in one month. By the time the book was printed, bound, and distributed to bookstores, that figure was already out of date. And in 2010, India sold 20 million cellphones three months in a row.

India has now overtaken the US as the world’s second-largest telephone market, with 857 million SIM cards in circulation and an estimated 600 million individual users. China has more, but India is ahead in phones per capita, is adding them faster, and is projected to overtake China before the end of 2012.

I am not merely celebrating a triumph for India’s capitalists. What is wonderful about the “mobile miracle” (I am not embarrassed to call it that) is that it has accomplished something that our socialist policies proclaimed but did little to achieve – it empowered the less fortunate. The beneficiaries are not just the affluent, but people who in the old days would not have dreamed even of joining the dreaded waiting lists.

It is a source of constant delight to me to find cellphones in the hands of the unlikeliest of my fellow citizens: taxi drivers, paan wallahs (betel vendors), farmers, and fishermen. If one visits a friend in a Delhi suburb, one will notice on the side streets an istri wallah with a wooden cart that looks like it was designed in the sixteenth century, using a coal-fired steam iron that looks like it was invented in the eighteenth century, to press clothes from the neighborhood. These days, however, he has a twenty-first-century instrument in his pocket; incoming calls in India are free under most calling plans, so it costs him nothing to find out where his services are needed.

Recently, I visited the country farm of a friend in Kerala. He asked if I wanted fresh coconut water; I said yes, and he pulled out his cellphone and dialed the local toddy tapper. A voice replied “I’m here;” we looked up, and there he was, on top of the nearest coconut tree, with his lungi tied up at his knees, a hatchet in one hand and a cellphone in the other.

Fishermen take cellphones out to sea to call the market towns on the coast on the way back to shore to see where they can get the best prices for their catch. Farmers used to have to send an able-bodied relative – perhaps a ten year-old boy – on a grueling walk to town in the hot sun to find out whether the market was open, whether their harvest could be sold, and, if so, at what price. Now they save a half-day’s time with a two-minute call.

The cellphone has empowered the Indian underclass in ways that 45 years of talk about socialism singularly failed to do. In the new India, communications has become the great leveler.