Wednesday, February 16, 2011

India's mobile phones, a universal resource?

(photo courtesy of

By: Hiram Foster
Edited by: Alex Stuckey

Reka Bera is a maid who rents a “cubbyhole” in a shantytown. Shantytowns are a type of organized slum, where residents have their own governing body, law enforcement and membership requirements.

“My family and I live in a small rented compartment, Bera said. “Of course, the community hygiene is poor since we don’t have constant access to electricity or water, so it’s pretty miserable living here.”

While she did not have the ability to gain access to these basic needs, Bera purchased a mobile phone about three years ago.

Today, the number of active mobile phones in India is twice that of mobile phone subscribers in the U.S. and covers nearly half of the Indian population, a nearly 1,300 percent increase of availability over the past decade.

In twenty years, the Republic of India has become the world’s fastest growing economy and the second most populous country.

Robert Blake, the United States assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, recently commended India for its economic development fueled by technological advancements and free-market approach.

Dr. Rajenbra Fhrandi, professor at Xavier University in Mumbai, recalls the first mobile phones coming to India at expensive prices.

“Ten years ago, one call was almost ten rupees per minute,” Fhrandi said. “The cell phone came to India very late.”

In 2000, 10 rupees were about 30 cents.

But since 2000, the price of one phone call in India has dropped by nearly 95 percent, Fhrandi said, adding that the price per minute is now lower than one rupee per minute, about an American penny.

Most phones that cost more than 1,500 rupees have most of the capabilities cell phones in industrialized nations have including camera, Internet access, radio and music, email and appointment scheduling. The sheer number of phone companies contributes to the wide availability and low prices.

“Every major area in the country has at least seven different mobile phone providers,” Fhrandi said.

Because of the boom in cell phone throughout the country, schools have made it a rule that students cannot carry their phones during school hours, he said.

“The common age for children to get phones is between fourteen and fifteen,” he said. “I gave my daughter one when she turned sixteen.”

Mobile phones vs. landlines
Landlines are more difficult to obtain than mobile phones because it is more expensive and requires more personal documents that many people do not have, said Latha, a representative of a non-profit organization that works with women.

“In order to get a landline, you need various documents and a permanent address, which an everyday shopkeeper would not have,” Fhrandi said. “But if you want a mobile phone, you simply need to prove where you are living and then you can take your mobile phone anywhere.”

Abhirup Bhunia, a student in Calcutta, said there are also many unregistered phones, which people without means of proof can obtain illegally.

The leaps and bounds of technological advancements in India have lead to an unusual disparity between the availability of modern technology and basic infrastructural resources, such as housing, electricity and running water.

Impoverished with cell phones
The United Nations released a report last May stating that there is more access to mobile phones in India than there is to basic sanitation facilities.

Many impoverished areas are skipping over increasingly obsolete landlines and simply purchasing mobile phones, according to the report.

The wide availability of mobile phones to those without other basic resources enables them to find and keep a steady source of income.

Bera said she has found that owning a mobile phone is essential in her profession.

“I use the cell to attend to calls from my employer because I have to call my boss whenever I’m needed,” Bera said. “It cost me 1,800 rupees (about $40), so I had to save up for this purpose.”

Since she mainly receives calls, which are free, Bera said her expenses are only around 50 rupees per month, a little over $1.

Other women are more wary of using mobile phones and fear it will create a bad image for their families.

Latha said a woman she spoke with said, “I’m very careful with how I use my phone because it can reflect badly on my family.”

However, you could almost detect a sense of pride in Bera’s responses, “I bought it myself,” she boasted.

Within her community, there is not much to provide entertainment, so Bera said she and her family look to the tiny device for fun.

“We have very little money to save, so we don’t get to spend on any leisurely activities,” Bera said. “Entertainment doesn’t mean much, but I listen to songs here. My son loves to play music on my phone.”

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