The great leveller: Mobile phones in India flag potential for m-gov elsewhere too

The NY Times has a great story on mobiles in India. From 1997 to 2000 I experienced as a student how the introduction of cybercafes in Delhi – at the time far more expensive then their Sri Lankan counterparts per hour – changed the way I communicated with family back home and Indians communicated with family out of Delhi and abroad.

There are aspects the NY Times article does not touch upon, more disturbing. India has repeatedly asked Blackberry to allow access to its secure network. There is also the need to critically look at the impact of mobiles on strengthening the participatory nature of democracy, especially at local government level. It is not clear for example in Sri Lanka that heady mobile growth has contributed meaningfully to better governance at the grassroots or national level.Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? is key reading in this regard, and a useful flip side to the optimism of the NYT article.

Having said this, in all the visits to India’s cities after my graduation, I have seen how prevalent mobile phones have become over the years, cutting across class and economic groups, and importantly, across caste as well. As the NYT article notes,

There are 65 times more cellphone connections than broadband Internet links, and the gap is widening. And so those who wish to influence Indians are not waiting for the computer to catch on, but are seeking ways to adapt the cellphone to the things Westerners do online. Indian companies have invented methods, via simple cellphone text-messaging, to wire money to temples, pay for groceries, find jobs and send and receive e-mail messages (on humble phones with no data connection). But the most intriguing notion is that cellphones could transform Indian democracy. Even in this voting season — the results of a four-week election will be announced May 16 — Indians are famously cynical about their senior-citizen-dominated, dynastic, corrupt politics. The educated often sit out elections. But with cellphones becoming near universal, experiments are sprouting with the goal of forging a new bond between citizen and state, through real-time, 24-hour cellular participation.

Initiatives such as the Ushahidi based Vote Report India only work because of the high penetration of and access to mobiles. As last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai demonstrated, citizens with mobiles are creating their own media.

I have written extensively about the potential of mobiles for governance. One risks dissapointment by hoping that ICTA in Sri Lanka will stop its nonsensical scatter of PC’s around the country and more meaningfully think of ways citizens can use their mobiles (voice + data + SMS) for public services and engagements with each other and representatives in government.

One comment on “The great leveller: Mobile phones in India flag potential for m-gov elsewhere too

  1. Don
    May 16, 2009 at 7:32 am #

    What about the linguistic dimension? Ten years ago when there was a lot of talk of how computers and the internet would revolutionize development, education, and governance, there was a corresponding interest in localization. That is how to handle India’s diverse languages and scripts in the medium.

    What is the case with mobile technology now? One presumes this is not an English-only medium, but how easy is it to use India’s languages in SMS etc?

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