Age of Mobiles

Mobile phones are having a transformative impact on developing societies like ours. The phenomenal spread of mobile technology holds out great promise to deliver some of the key government programmes. Mobile banking is one of the services that many public sector banks are using to reach out to the unbanked. Hardnews explores mobile phones and m-banking in this special supplement.
Shaweta Anand Delhi

It is quite common to see upmarket convenience-product stores thriving in centrally air-conditioned malls on one side of the road, while on the other side there are rickshaw pullers and street vendors, braving the sweltering heat or the biting cold, desperately trying to sell their products and services. However, there is one thing that buyers and sellers on both sides of the street have in common - a mobile phone.  

Pradeep is a migrant from Bihar who sells vegetables in the Tagore Garden market. He gets about 50 phone calls from local residents every day demanding delivery of select vegetables to their doorstep. "When I get orders on phone, I end up selling more vegetables compared to others who cannot be contacted directly. Some people don't mind paying me a little extra since I give them the convenience of ordering from home," he told Hardnews

For someone who has migrated to an unknown city, a mobile phone helps that person to stay in touch with family members with greater ease. "Where is the time to write letters and wait for weeks till the communication reaches home? Obviously, a much easier way today is to dial a number and talk to one's family," said Hariram, a rickshaw puller, who migrated from UP a few years ago. 

He transports people and even household items like coolers, tables etc whenever he receives such a call on his phone. "This has increased the money I earn every day but it is nothing compared to the kind of money people like you make and spend in malls in a jiffy," he said. 

"Increasing use of mobile phones among the 'small and medium enterprises' - cab drivers, henna artists, ice-cream or vegetable vendors, cobblers, plumbers etc - not only spurs overall economic growth but also helps these people make a transition from street corners to the formal economy," said Prof Rajat Kathuria. He teaches at the Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). 

Stressing the emotional purpose the phone fulfils for her, Rani, a housemaid, said, "My family stays in Tamil Nadu whereas I work in Delhi. I cannot afford to travel, so the only way I can be in regular touch with them is through my phone, though it doesn't really add to my income at this stage."

"Didiji (my employer) maintains contact with me through this phone, so we both are able to handle the household more efficiently, thanks to this gadget," said the 34-year-old who works in a house in Trilokpuri. Azad, a security guard in Kalyanvas, also feels that mobile phones help in making work-life more efficient as well as keeping in constant touch with the family.

If we look around, we can see hundreds of Harirams, Ranis and Azads assisting us - the middle class - in leading more convenient lives by becoming available at our beck and call, 24x7. From the dhobi (washerman), watchman and kudawala (ragpicker) to those who relish football matches on wide-screen mobile sets while commuting for work, dependence on mobile technology has deeply impacted lifestyles, almost for everyone who owns a set. 

It is no wonder that mobile density (subscription per hundred people) in India has shot up from less than 1 per cent in 1998 to 55.38 per cent in May 2010 as per figures put out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, even though the numbers are skewed in favour of urban areas compared to the rural. Our telecom industry is the fastest growing in the world and, globally, we house the second largest wireless network, deemed to surpass world-leader China in near future.  

"From our experience of interviewing 1,774 poor urban people living in 84 authorised areas of Delhi, Ahmedabad and Kolkata, we too have figured that few innovations have been as pervasive as the mobile phone," said Prof Ankur Sarin from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He jointly conducted a study for ICRIER on socio-economic impact of mobile phones on the lives of the urban poor.   

"The persons we interviewed showed increase in income due to the use of mobile phones for work-related purposes. There has been a positive impact on social ties and relationships too but, simultaneously, there is also a tendency not to meet friends and relatives face-to-face as it is much easier to talk on the phone instead," he said.

His observation is seconded by Delhi-based psychologist Dr Niru Kumar who believes that relying too much on anything is bad. "People who talk for long hours on mobile phones tend to get addicted to them. As with any addiction, the core issue here too is one of low self-esteem, aloofness and depression. With mobile phones increasingly substituting real friends, the basic issues remain unaddressed despite rapid advancements in communication technology," she elaborated.   

Other than the psychological aspect, Sarin's study also revealed that although more than 90 per cent of the men among the urban poor use mobiles while women hardly use them. "So the phone hasn't quite overcome the gendered power hierarchies in our social structure though they may be on the way to covering the rural-urban digital divide," he said. 

It is common knowledge that India suffers from high levels of gender discrimination. In the context of mobile phones, an interesting study by California-based researcher Dayoung Lee from the University of Stanford concludes that mobile usage by women has had a 'liberating' effect on them. "They are not only able to connect more to the outside world, they are also able to deal better with domestic abuse by voicing it to others through the phone."

The study was completed in 2009 and correlated the impact of mobile phones on the status of women in India. "Maybe there should be subsidised mobile phone services for women here to encourage its usage and their subsequent empowerment," Lee suggested. 

The reason why people are increasingly using mobile phones is because of their user-friendliness and the relatively low prices, often less than Rs 1,000 for a set," said Kathuria. There is also scope for benefiting from all kinds of low-priced, innovative Value-Added Services (VAS) that cater to the changing needs of urban or rural markets. 

Moreover, the option of getting top-ups for small denominations in prepaid services makes it possible for the poor to afford mobile phones. For operators too, recharging electronically is a more profitable choice as it saves them the cost of printing vouchers, transporting and storing them etc.

Commenting on the popularity of some VAS over others, Kathuria said that text messaging is one of the lesser used services in our country because of widespread illiteracy. However, interactive voice response technology (for accessing database by pressing keys on the phone), voice SMSing and services like ringtone downloads are gaining popularity in rural areas. "The attempt is to contextualise the information and impart it in the local languages," said Kathuria.

In the field of agri-value-added services, organisations like Reuters Market Light (RML) and IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL)-Bharti Airtel are predominant in India. They provide information about crop care, market prices and even weather forecasts in local languages through mobile phones. IKSL's network has already spread to as many as 18 states of India reaching out to millions of farmers already. 

RML is a subscription-based service that gives farmers information over text SMSes. To access services by IKSL, the farmer is required to purchase a special 'green SIM card' for receiving five free voice SMSes daily. 

ICRIER's first-of-its-kind study on the impact of mobile phones on agricultural productivity in five states shows that many small farmers preferred RML to IKSL as the former provided customised information along with weather information and delivered SMSes at a preset time suitable to each subscriber. IKSL, on the other hand, gave the same information to people spread all over the state at unpredictable times during the day. 

However, many farmers have benefited from mobile telephony, which is why the subscription base in rural areas is on the rise. From a mere 33,404 subscriptions in March 2008 to 5,508,532 subscriptions in March 2010, rural mobile penetration is increasing rapidly. 

Farmers are indeed benefiting from the information they get directly on their phones, unlike through TV or radio. "I get to know about which pesticide to apply, at what time, and how to keep my cattle healthy," said Raghunath, a farmer from Lucknow. Ghasiram, a farmer from Jaipur, expressed contentment about the information regarding crop price that gets him a relatively better deal when he sells his produce in the market.

However, the study also concluded that for farmers to realise the full potential of access to new information, other infrastructure also needs to be well-developed. For instance, a farmer might get information about where to get the best market rate for selling his produce but lack of storage space and physical infrastructure (roads, inexpensive transportation etc) make it difficult for him to take advantage of the information he now has access to. 

"The impact of mobile telephony by itself is therefore limited. It can only complement existing agricultural infrastructure," said Dr Surabhi Mittal, one of the researchers who conducted the study. Kathuria, however, feels that the situation today is not one of choosing this or that. "We need to develop mobile-based solutions along with developing other infrastructure simultaneously to address issues of development," he said.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2010