Where fingers do the walking

Measuring the telecom effect

Mar 23rd 2013 |From the print edition

The Great Indian Phone Book: How Cheap Mobile Phones Change Business, Politics and Daily Life. By Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron. Hurst; 293 pages; £24.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

AT A time when Google is about to release a computer that fits on a pair of spectacles, and Apple and Samsung are racing to build a phone-like device to replace the wristwatch, it is easy to think of mobile phones as unremarkable. Yet in societies where communication has traditionally been restricted, they are still quite revolutionary.

In 2000 India had a population of more than 1 billion and 28.5m telephones, mostly landlines. By 2012 there were nearly 900m SIM cards alone. More Indians have used a mobile phone than a toilet. And millions of people now work in and around the telecoms industry.

How did India go from being a country in which making phone calls was “exquisite torture” to the world’s second-largest market for mobile phones in just ten years? And what did this rapid proliferation of communication do to Indian society? Assa Doron’s and Robin Jeffrey’s ambitious survey is a good place to find some answers.

India’s fixed-line network has long been outdated, unreliable and concentrated in urban areas. But the vast geography and stratified society posed special challenges. A state-controlled economy was incapable of producing the cable required to link the 600,000 villages where three-quarters of India’s people lived. Nor were the benefits of telephony immediately obvious to the Indian state. Phones were not a priority at independence in 1947, and they were still viewed with suspicion when a 1977 policy recommendation highlighted a “need to curb growth of telecommunication infrastructure”.

That changed in 1991, when India began opening itself up to the global economy. Indian telecoms rode the wave of reforms then being implemented. Despite a messy spectrum-allotment process, unfeasibly high prices and many vested interests, the industry grew, albeit slowly. By the time policies were streamlined in 2003, there was no stopping the deluge.

As phones spread, they wrought great changes. Fishermen in the south discovered they could use their phones while at sea to find out which port was offering the highest price for their catch. Northern river boatmen expanded their business by making calls to find new customers without breaking the community’s strict rules on picking up fares out of turn. Men and women about to enter into arranged marriages were able to get to know each other, and cloistered women found a connection to the outside world. The authors even make a case for ascribing a state election victory in 2007, at least in part, to the mobile phone.

“The Great Indian Phone Book” is actually two books in one. The first half is a whirlwind recap of how India was connected, told simply and with a wealth of numbers. The second is an ethnographic study that dives into the intricacies of Indian society without pretending to be comprehensive. It is far from perfect. Repetition—especially of the figure of 900m SIM cards—abounds. So many of these are inactive that the real figure is believed to be between 25% and 30% less than that. But the strength of the book lies in its repeated emphasis on technology as something that “does not eliminate political and social structures, though it may modify them”. In one example, a courting couple find their fledgling relationship abruptly terminated when the girl’s father confiscates her phone. The couple accept the diktat and move on.

From the print edition: Books and arts