An early innovation in telecom may have delayed India’s Independence by 90 years. One of the factors behind the British triumph in the 1857 First War of Independence was the British telegraph network, which gave its commanders almost real-time information on troop movements and logistics requirements.
Now, more than 150 years later, advancements in that same technology are giving 1.1 billion Indians the freedom to express, communicate, discuss and disseminate information.
The freedom to talk has also ushered in two other kinds of freedom – the freedom of opportunity and, for a large minority, a freedom from want.
“About 10 years ago, I used to pay Rs 50 every day to the local electric shop owner who would register client’s complaints for me,” said Kanhaiya, who goes by his first name, an electrician in New Delhi’s Pitampura area, which is a middle class locality. He would be lucky to get more than three calls a day.
“Now, my mobile phone is my office. My clients call me directly and I can go from one client to another,” said Kanhaiya. He gets at least six calls every day.
“My income has increased several fold, thanks to my mobile phone,” he said.
The late Reliance Industries founder Dhirajlal Hirachand (Dhirubhai) Ambani had once said: “If we can give Indians the freedom to make telephone calls at the price of a postcard, we’ll have a winning business model.”
His vision is now a reality. Indian telephony charges are the lowest in the world. And it is this model that is fuelling the telecom revolution sweeping across the length and breadth of India.
Kanhaiya is not alone.
Across the length and breadth of India, millions of Indians are subscribing to mobile phones every month, making it the fastest growing telecom market in the world. In July alone, India’s eight telecom companies added more than 12 million subscribers.
And in 2008, India overtook the US as the world’s second-largest telecom market after China. India’s subscriber base: 452 million. That means four out of 10 Indians have phones – a massive improvement from the figure of 1 in 85 in 1995, when mobile operators started offering services.
And this has ushered in multiple revolutions across the country. The biggest of them all is the IT revolution. In 1991, India’s IT exports stood at $40 million (Rs 108 crore then).
Last year, that figure had jumped to $46 billion (Rs 2.2 lakh crore), a 1,150-fold jump in dollar terms. The IT sector provides direct employment to 2.2 million people and three times that number in support services.
In Kerala, fishermen now call from mid-sea to check prices and choose their landing sites depending on which market is offering the best prices.
And farmers in most parts of India no longer have to depend only on their local mandi to get the best prices. The ubiquitous mobile phone allows them to check prices in neighbouring markets and choose their point of sale based on this.
“The telecom revolution has changed India’s rural landscape,” said Sanjay Kapoor, deputy CEO of Bharti Airtel, India’s largest telecom company.
Younger people will find it difficult to believe, but till as recently as 15 years ago, getting a telephone connection was next to impossible. One needed influence – a recommendation from an MP or a minister – and then had to wait years.
“When I got my first telephone in 1988, the waiting list for a new connection in Delhi was five years; in some parts of India, it was 15,” said K N Gupta, former executive director of C-DOT. And telephone penetration in rural India was almost zero.
Obviously, Indians then did not have the freedom to talk. Perhaps that’s why the world didn’t pay India too much attention.
Now, talk is cheap in this country – and the world is falling over itself to take part in this conversation.