Saturday, April 26, 2008

MOBILE TELEPHONY: UNSHACKLED INDIA ZIPS PAST US


Sometime in March 2008, the ‘phone revolution’ that began in India in 1995 with the launch of commercial mobile telephone services, achieved a landmark that no one in India would have thought was possible. During the month, the total number of mobile phone subscribers in India exceeded those in the US, to make India the second largest mobile market in the world, next only to China.

With a record addition of 10.16 million subscribers in March 2008, India had 261.1 million wireless subscribers as on March 31, against an estimated 257.9 million in the US. Just 12 years back, India had a zero mobile phone base. A little over five years back, in December 2002, the total number of mobile subscribers were only 10.5 million; now almost that many are being added on a monthly basis!

In 1991, economic reforms were initiated in the country to break it free from the crippling stranglehold of politicians and bureaucrats who had discovered that socialism was the perfect mantra with which they could amass undreamt personal fortunes under the guise of helping the poor and punishing the rich, with the latter being projected as immorally exploitative and anti-poor.

That year, the total number of telephones in the country was a mere 5.07 million! How dramatically the scenario has changed since then.

Then, a telephone was made to look like a ‘status symbol’. You had to apply for and book a telephone almost before your child was born because the waiting list to get a phone was as long as 10 years! If you wanted it faster, a deposit of Rs10, 000 had to be made with the government’s Posts and Telegraph Department. The fun did not end there. After a phone was finally sanctioned by an arrogant and often greedy official blatantly displaying his power, it was the turn of the lower staff to extract their pound of flesh. They would lay the line into your office/ residence only after they were rewarded. Then the line would lie dead till you paid to another lot who would activate it so that at last, exhausted but exhilarated, you could make that call which announced your arrival into that exclusive club of those who had a phone! Then, of course, would start the repetitive ‘line dead’ mysteries. For no reason, phones would go dead and would return to life only if you bribed the government employees paid to do the job; unless you knew somebody important enough in the government or a policeman. Then the job was done for free and the line also rarely went dead after that.

Now, fierce competition has ensured that companies are falling over each other to give phones and additional services at the cheapest rates in the world. The death of distance is now a reality. A call to any place in India can be made for as low as 40 paise, 10 cents, a minute, and the rates are still falling. Earlier, when India’s politicians and bureaucrats were working overtime to draft mind-numbing rules and regulations to give dishonest lessons to their countrymen about the virtues of socialism, peak charges per minute were Rs42, i.e. more than $2 at the then prevailing exchange rate. That is if you were able to get through on the line in the first place! That dismal scenario spawned another income stream for officials who, for a fee, let preferred clients make calls ‘free’ by either technical tinkering or by debiting their bills to other often unsuspecting subscribers.

The unshackling of the competitive ability and spirit of Indians, long stifled under the uncompromising and failed tyranny of socialism, has yielded results that were almost unthinkable even a decade ago. The explosive growth of mobile telephony in India is one more dramatic example of what the country can achieve if only it is set free of the corrupt whims of ignorant politicians and self serving generalist career bureaucrats. Fortunately, milestone achievements like this one are acting as a sort of “Push Model” to more than nudge entrenched mindsets and empires in the government to change and learn to flow with the current of economic progress that is gaining momentum with each passing day.

But, even pushing leads to some loss of time and momentum, something that should not be acceptable. It is only when such retardants are finally pushed aside into the irrelevance where they should have been to begin with, will India move ahead at full throttle and realize the potential of its economic strength and creative genius. The sooner that happens, the better for India.

For now, it is time to savor the spectacular success of India’s mobile phone industry as India zips past the US in numbers, and look forward to the day when the same happens in tele density as well. Chak De India!