In 2012, India had 925 million mobile phone subscribers. The phones have helped organize protests by middle-class Indians, most recently against the savage rape and slaying of a young woman in Delhi.
They have also starred in one of India’s biggest-ever scandals. The country’s most prominent politicians, journalists and businessmen were incriminated in a rigged auction of 2G spectrum; they were exposed by the secretly taped phone conversations of a corporate lobbyist…
In the early 1990s, when I first started living in a village in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the local post office, which tellingly had a broken clock and a nonfunctional phone, was still the main center of communications.
Like most residents of Mashobra, I had no phone at home — the government’s waiting list for one extended indefinitely into the future. I went often to the bazaar to make calls from a public phone and to pick up my mail at the small post office, where a migrant laborer or two would invariably request I write brief messages on postcards and money-order forms to their loved ones…
My application for a phone was finally approved in 1999; and Daulatram, who had then started to officiate as a priest at weddings and funerals, become one of my Bakelite’s regular users, along with a couple of young men looking for jobs outside the village.
But the prohibitive cost of national and international calls meant that I had to monitor the conversations and put the phone in a padlocked wooden case, lest a reckless talker plunge me into penury.
Mobile phones had arrived by then in India. But they hadn’t reached our village. Doron and Jeffrey date their rapid proliferation to 2000, when the cost of mobile calls per minute collapsed from 16 rupees to 4 rupees (about 36 cents to 9 cents). But I kept scribbling messages in awkward Hindi at the post office until the middle of the decade, when cheap, prepaid connections became widely available and known.
Cold statistics tell the story of this dramatic transformation much more vividly. Subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of much more than articles for Bloomberg. That doesn’t diminish the information, the feeling of what this truly disruptive technology is beginning to mean to life in India.
RTFA and enjoy his descriptive color, experience. Learn more and more about the changes, good and bad, brought by a device small anough to fit in your pocket – and give you access to the whole world.