THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
The transformation in telecommunications has accomplished what our socialist policies couldn't empower the less fortunate.
Photo: RAJEEV BHATT
No contradiction: Living in several centuries simultaneously.
ONE of my favourite photographs was from the last Kumbh Mela. It showed a sadhu right out of central casting naked body, long matted hair and beard, ash-smeared forehead and all chatting away on a mobile phone. The contrast says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today's India a country that, as I wrote many years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time.
There are other photographs I have seen over the years that illustrate the same phenomenon labourers carrying TV sets on their heads, a bullock-cart transporting rocket parts, a motorcar overtaking an elephant, and so on. But there's something particularly special about the sadhu and his cell phone. Because it is in communications that the transformation of India in recent years has been most dramatic. Last month, for the first time, seven million Indians subscribed to new mobile phones. That's a world record. In September 2006, India overtook China for the first time in the number of new telephone subscribers per month. We're still way behind China in the total number of cell phone users (just over 140 million against their 450 million), but each month the gap is narrowing. By 2010, the government tells us, we'll have 500 million Indian telephone users. China will probably still be ahead, but on a per capita basis there will be little to choose between us.
Now, to anyone who grew up in pre-liberalisation India, that's astonishing. Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India's telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn't also a tragedy and a man-made one at that. We had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world. The government's indifferent attitude to the need to improve India's communications infrastructure was epitomised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Communications Minister, C.M. Stephen, who declared in Parliament, in response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, that telephones were a luxury, not a right, and that any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.
Mr. Stephen's statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government's attitude. It was ignorant (he clearly had no idea of the colossal socio-economic losses caused by poor communications), wrong-headed (he saw a practical problem only as an opportunity to score a political point), unconstructive (responding to complaints by seeking a solution apparently did not occur to him), self-righteous (the socialist cant about telephones being a luxury, not a right), complacent (taking pride in a waiting-list the existence of which should have been a source of shame, since it pointed to the poor performance of his own Ministry in putting up telephone lines and manufacturing equipment), unresponsive (feeling no obligation to provide a service in return for the patience, and the fees, of the country's telephone subscribers) and insulting (asking long-suffering telephone subscribers to return their instruments instead of doing anything about their complaints). It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn't, in any case, care what anyone else thought.
So the cell phone revolution in India is exciting not only as a sign of India's economic transformation into a 21st century success story, but as a symptom of something far more important, a change in the attitude of our ruling classes. The government is marginal to this success story, since we don't need it to lay telephone lines across the country any more, and the private sector telecom companies develop their own connectivity. Perhaps the key contribution of the government has lain in getting out of the way in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.
All this is to the good. But I am not merely celebrating a triumph for the capitalists of India. What is truly wonderful about the "mobile miracle" (and I'm not embarrassed to call it that) is that it has accomplished something our socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve it has empowered the less fortunate. The beneficiaries of the new mobile telephones are not just the affluent, but people who in the old days would not even have dreamt of joining those 20-year-long waiting lists.
It's a source of constant delight to me to find cell phones in the hands of the unlikeliest of my fellow citizens: taxi drivers, paanwallahs, farmers, fisher folk. As long as our tax policies keep telecommunications costs low and it's cheap for people to call on their cell phones, the greatest growth in the use of mobile phones will be in this sector. Communications, in the new
India, is the great leveller. Pity Mr. Stephen is no longer around to see how wrong he was.
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