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The talkative Indian

Jeffrey and Doron's scholarly and engaging account shows how the mobile revolution empowered Indians like never before

Rajat Kathuria 

The United Nations declared 1979 as the year of telecommunications, but it took India another 15 years, long waiting lists and a paralytic telecom system to introduce a National Telecom Policy in 1994 aimed at breaking the dirigiste monopoly. It happened as things often do in India, slowly, and required a cluster of other things to occur in the interim, such as Rajiv Gandhi inviting Sam Pitroda to set up the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) in 1984 to recognise that controls on telecom needed to be dismantled. The opposition to reform was naturally immense and C-DoT's detractors pilloried Pitroda after Rajiv Gandhi's defeat in 1989. Forces compelling the loosening of the state's grip on telecom versus those reinforcing them are charmingly explored in this fascinating account of the mobile revolution in India. But to read this as a tale of India's tryst with only the mobile phone would be unjust to this scholarly and analytical account of India's changing society and government through the lens of the disruptive mobile technology. There are 30 pages of copious notes and 16 pages of references to back the several claims made by Jeffrey and Doron, many serious and some amusing but all studiously honest and compiled through painstaking research enabled, I assume in large part, by accessing the Internet.

The authors concede that the book is also about "subversion and spying". Control over information and over the movement of people has always reinforced power. The Mughals and the British did it for reasons of strategy and at the time of Independence and after, the Government of India maintained departments for radio and television that ensured that the aam aadmi rarely benefited from them. The elitist nature of communication networks received a severe jolt with the onset of mobile technology, although it was not until 2004 that we truly began to see the developmental and social impacts of improved communications in India. The phone gave people the capacity to connect and mobilise. Such capacity was once the preserve of the privileged few.

The mass ownership of mobile phones expectedly had remarkable transformational impacts and it has been disruptive in a number of respects. Mobiles are arguably the most ubiquitous of all modern technologies and the authors' claim that it's also the most disruptive is perhaps justified, though there will be takers for the automobile, railways, roads, civil aviation, television, computers and the Internet. Whatever the verdict, the impact of mobile telephony in India has been profound.

The Argumentative Indian, the title Amartya Sen gave one of his books, evocatively captures the Indian trait of speaking. Spoken language, according to the authors, has always been relatively egalitarian. The mobile catalysed this convergence since freer flow of information contributes to egalitarian ideas and practices too. And because of the long-standing discrimination and structures of authority, the mobile proved more disruptive in India than elsewhere. There are several delightful anecdotes cited as evidence of their assertions from a host of diverse disciplines - religion, business, politics, health, education, banking - where traditional structures are giving way to new ones, thanks to mobile networks. Mobile communications have done more than give Indians a voice. "By unlocking the genie in the phone", they have empowered people to make their own choices and decisions.

The mobile has succeeded in India where Internet has not since education and literacy (or lack thereof) have limited the mass spread of the Internet, along with several other policy constraints. What has been breathtaking about the mobile is the pace of its adoption - there have been periods when India added more mobile phones in a month than it did phones in 50 years since Independence. When India awoke to life and freedom in 1947, it had 100,000 fixed line phones for a population of 340 million. In September 2012, it had more than 900 million mobiles. Teledensity has increased from one-third of 1 per cent to over 75 per cent, underlying clearly a "mobile first" development trajectory. It is now folklore that more people in India have access to a mobile phone than to a bank account, electricity, clean water and even a toilet.

Cell Phone Nation is divided conceptually into three parts -Controlling, Connecting and Consuming - each well researched and analytical, yet extremely enjoyable. What adds to the pleasure of reading this account are the constant references rooted in the local context - why SMS-ing proved more popular in Philippines than in India or why mobile banking does not require one to be literate are only two examples in a list that is incredibly exhaustive.

The efficacy of the mobile in organisational tasks can inevitably have downsides too. The authors graphically describe the role of the mobile phone in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. One suspects that the supply chain of any terrorist organisation would be helped as much as a business is by the existence of mobile networks. The technology also allows invasions of privacy as the leaked conversations popularly known as the "Radia tapes" have revealed. Indeed the events surrounding the Radia tapes marked the nadir of the mobile revolution in India. The authors capture in meticulous detail the nexus between politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats in the run up to and aftermath of the spectrum auctions of 2010 - a manifestation of crony capitalism that is delectably described as the "wheeling and dealing that can put phones into villages, entrepreneurs in penthouses and politicians in jail". The huge value of the spectrum-air waves that are the lifeblood of mobile systems proved irresistible.

Cell Phone Nation delivers what it sets out to do. It is a scholarly and engaging account of India's mobile revolution, Part I. Part II is in the making and that will be enabled by the development of inexpensive smartphones, the spread of mobile broadband networks and a range of possible mobile applications or apps. Jeffery and Doron have set an impossible standard for anyone who will attempt to chronicle India's second mobile revolution.

The reviewer is Director and Chief Executive, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations

Editor: Robin Jeffrey
Assa Doron
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 308
Price: Rs 499

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First Published: Fri, March 29 2013. 20:48 IST