August, Mobiles & the Calling of New India: How Digital Revolution Empowered Us

Mobile telephones have played the most critical role in poverty reduction and facilitated the rise of middle class.

6 min read

(This is part one of a four-part 'August' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part two here, part three here, and part four here.)

It would not be an exaggeration to say that mobile telephones have transformed Indian society, family life, entertainment, economics, and politics in India like nothing else has. As a matter of fact, it holds true for the entire world. But in the case of India, the changes triggered by mobile telephones have been so profound and far-reaching that it defies even imagination.

Mobile telephony and the services associated with it have played the most critical role in poverty reduction and the emergence of a genuine middle class in 21st-century India. Just one example will showcase how profound the impact has been.

The driver of the co-author gets a monthly salary of Rs 18,000. Till about six years ago, his wife managed to earn a wee bit here and there as a beautician. After joining the digital platform Urban Company, she comfortably earns at least Rs 35,000 per month.

In just about half a decade, the driver and his family have pole-vaulted from near poverty to middle class. There are tens of millions of similar stories spread across India.
Mobile telephones have played the most critical role in poverty reduction and facilitated the rise of middle class.

Number of Mobile Phone Subscribers in Millions

Credit: Author 


When Landline Was a Lifeline

It all started 24 years ago in August 1995 when mobile phone services were launched formally. On 31 July 1995, the first mobile phone call in India was made when the chief minister of Wet Bengal – Jyoti Basu – exchanged pleasantries with the Union Telecom Minister Sukh Ram.

Back then, less than 2 out of every 100 Indians had access to a telephone at home. The wealthy and the elite had telephones at home. Can you believe that before PVNR and MMS opened up the Indian economy after the 1991 elections, landline telephony was available only to about, hold your breath, less than 1% of households in India?

Even if you had enough money and wanted to apply for a landline connection, you would be waitlisted for anywhere between 3 to 10 years to get that connection in your home.

The MPs had a quota to “recommend” telephone connections and LPG cylinders to be given on priority to a select few.


How Mobile Phones Became Campaign Essentials

The big number of "independent” candidates contesting the Lok Sabha elections in the 60s, 70s, and 80s had everything to do with getting a telephone connection on priority rather than anything with a democratic spirit.

In those days, anyone furnishing a bond and contesting parliamentary elections was given a telephone connection 'out of term’ and a policeman for security during the campaign period. It was not unusual to see these independent candidates carrying that "Security Personnel” on the back of their bicycles or scooters or campaign rickshaws. But that was a small inconvenience in order to get a landline telephone in their home 'out of term’.

So next time when you come across any "academic” paper mourning the health of Indian democracy because the number of independents & smaller party contestants dropped big time in the last few decades, have a good hearty laugh because now you know that a big number of those smart candidates contested just to get a landline telephone.

If you have time, you should dig in the archives looking for candidates who would end up getting just two votes, their own, and their wife thanking her husband for that telephone connection. Try it.

Calling: A Community Act

For the 70s and 80s kids, giving a PP number (Private Party) was the routine thing. In simple terms it meant, I don’t have a telephone, but if you call this number belonging to a person who is a friend or a relative, they will let me know.

Now imagine, just one household having a telephone in the entire mohalla or neighbourhood and that number being circulated by dozens of neighbours or relatives for getting any emergency messages. And much before STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) became a norm in the 80s, the thing to do was to book a “Trunk Call” when one wanted to call any other city. You were supposed to call the Telephone Operator, book the Trunk Call, and then wait for a few hours to a few days when the government telephone operator would call you back and connect you to the desired number, for a royal duration of 3 mins only.

And that royal talk would be interrupted right after two mins by the same operator who would remind you in a really rude voice “do minat ho gaye aapke, kewal ek minat bacha hai” and that reminder itself was to remind that a third person is listening to whatever you are talking on your trunk call, that too officially. Did we hear someone muttering “Privacy”??

The 70s and 80s generation had no idea what that term meant. All this changed with the arrival of STD in the early 90s when queuing up for STD booths was customary.

For youngsters born in 1995 or after that, all this might sound like a fantasy. And why not? Today, more than 90 out of every 100 Indians have access to a personal mobile phone. What is more important, 1050 million Indians now have access to the internet via mobile telephone.


Cell Phones Mark the Onset of Digital Revolution

In contrast, just about 30 million Indians have access to wired or Wi-Fi broadband internet access. Without a shadow of a doubt, the digital revolution that is sweeping across India would not have been possible without the mobile phone; more particularly the smartphone. The smartphone is an incredibly powerful device that has made a lot of gadgets, products, and services obsolete and irrelevant.

We still remember the jangling and jarring sound of the good old-fashioned alarm clock that gave time and woke you up early morning when required. Alarm clocks have disappeared. The wristwatch is no longer a device to signal what time it is; it is just a fashion statement or an aide for fitness freaks.

The authors also remember the long-dead Casio calculator. The smartphone with Google Maps has made old-fashioned printed maps redundant. Your smartphone enables you to buy anything from a kilogram of potatoes to a 400-liter refrigerator with the click of a button. It helps you order food, book flight, train, and bus tickets, movie tickets, and do countless other things.

Who could have imagined even a decade ago that your mobile phone would also become your wallet and your bank branch rolled into one?

Most importantly, it has enabled plumbers, electricians, carpenters, masons, beauticians, delivery agents, taxi operators, and others dramatically improve livelihood opportunities.

Yet, the revolution nearly failed in the first few years after mobile telephone services were formally launched in August 1995. The reason was costs and price. The Ministry of Telecom decided that companies allotted licenses would be required to pay a fixed license fee every year. Private players were then invited to bid for various telecom circles of the country via a tender. Lured by rosy projections, there was reckless bidding and the license winners were then committed to paying the massive sums they had promised to pay during the bidding process.

To be able to cover the extremely high fixed costs, the new companies were forced to fix call rates that were astronomically higher by Indian standards in those days. The authors still recall outgoing calls costing Rs 8.40 per minute and even incoming calls costing Rs 8.20 per minute.

The authors, like most other Indians who had a mobile phone back then avoided making or receiving calls on their mobile phones as the cost was prohibitively expensive. An overwhelming majority of Indians simply refused to become mobile phone subscribers. One year after its launch in 1995, just about half a million Indians were mobile phone subscribers. Five years down the road at the turn of the century, the number had gone up to just about 3 million.

To be continued in Part 2..

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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