mobile phones in village Tamil Nadu

Post was created on March 9th, 2011

India made international headlines last year, when it was claimed that the country has more people with mobile phones than toilets. The articles highlighted slums in Mumbai without running water, but where families have four or five phones. Whilst the continued uptake of communications technology in urban India is predictable, how has its ready availability and affordability affected life in villages?

As mobile phone providers move into rural areas and improve services, the technology has been embraced by the majority of villagers, and some have even struck it rich by leasing their land to mobile phone companies for transmission towers. Shankar, from Eyanchavadi village near Pondicherry, claims that mobile phones have been primarily a positive force for communication and village relationships. “When something bad, like a death, used to happen, we would have to find a person from the Dalit [‘untouchable’] area, who would go around and tell all the people, because Dalits do the distasteful jobs in our village. If I had gone to tell people, they would say ‘it’s bad you are coming’. Now, we can just call people on the mobile and tell them.”

Even in poor villages where houses are made from mud and thatched roofs, all adult family members will have their own phone. Shankar says, “Even my mother, who is uneducated, has a phone. My brothers and I bought it for her, and we showed her the on and off buttons. We can ring her to let her know when we are not coming home for dinner.”

Village youths claim communication between lovers is one of the main profit-making avenues for mobile phone companies. “There is more romance now,” says Shankar. “Girls and boys can communicate without their parents’ knowledge.” Lakshmi, a 19-year-old girl who lives in Kulaipalyam village and attends college in Pondicherry, says that ‘almost all’ the girls in her first year class at college have phones that have been given to them by their boyfriends, including her. “Our boyfriends buy the phone and they pay for the recharge. We usually hide the phone from our parents. In the home, we will put it on silent, cover ourselves with a bedsheet and chat [SMS message] with our lover until it is late. Parents think we are sleeping. Some girls use their phones at college during the day, and then give it to a friend to mind in the evenings, so that their parents will not find it. The friend will bring it to college in the morning. I exchange about 200 messages per day with my boyfriend. It’s mostly just ‘Where are you? What did you eat? What do you like and don’t like?’ With my girlfriends, we clarify doubts about our studies during exam time and tell the page number of text books for information.”


Previously, there were a couple of houses per village street that had a landline phone, and neighbours and relatives would prevail on the phone owner to let them make a call. Now, most households have cancelled landlines because mobiles offer greater benefits and better value for money. Lakshmi says that her grandmother had a landline phone that her extended family used, but this is obsolete now. “For just Rs1500, my father bought a mobile phone with a camera, bluetooth, memory card and free messaging. Even touch screen phones are now only about Rs3000 ($70).”

Lakshmi says her family is typical in that all the family members over 16 years have a mobile phone. Her father gave his old phone to her mother, but her mother only uses it to call her father if he is late. “My father thinks mobile phones are good. If I’m late from college, I have to call him and let him know. During monsoon time, the school can ring and let him know if it is closed due to flooding, and inform that my sisters should not go.”

Lakshmi says that before getting a phone she only communicated with about five friends, but she now feels she has more friends because she messages regularly with 35 people. She explains that some girls even get new friends or boyfriends via ‘wrong call’ – where young men will randomly call numbers in the hope of speaking with young women and making friends with them. “My friends do that – receive calls from boys they don’t know. One young man rang me, and said ‘your voice is so sweet’ and said he liked my way of speaking. He rang me again and again. Eventually, my boyfriend took the phone and scolded him. My girlfriend also took a wrong call from a boy who said she had a sweet voice. He said he was a cinema actor in Chennai. She was daily speaking with him. He traveled to Pondy and they met. We told her at college ‘this is not good. If your boyfriend finds out, you will be fighting’.”

Villagers generally take pre-paid phones and will spend about Rs50-100 ($2-3) per month. Many men have two SIM cards – one each for official and personal purposes. Because SMS chatting is very popular with youths, they will often buy a ‘booster’ – which means that for an extra Rs27 (80 cents) per month, they can send 6000 free messages. Shankar points out that only literate people use this option, and they will tend to write in Tamil but with English letters. “We try to use up all the free messages each month, so we will forward a lot of messages to all our friends. We will share comedy jokes, and send important information about disasters abroad, swine flu, exercise tips, unhealthy food, or an appeal for blood. By forwarding, this information can get out to thousands of people within minutes. Also, messaging is very useful to send information to the cricket team about practice timings and matches. I usually use all of my 6000 free messages each month.” Lakshmi says that girls use up most of their message allocation through ‘wishing’ – morning messages that exhort the recipient to have a good day, or evening messages that wish sweet dreams.

Shankar points out some of the negatives of mobile phones, such as unwanted calls from promotional companies, calls at inconvenient times, and the fact that ‘terrorist people are using’. But he claims the positives far outweigh the negatives. “If there is a road accident, someone will pick up the injured person’s phone and ring people in the contacts to notify the relatives. This happened to a friend, and the people rang me. The accident took place near his village which is some distance from me, but I rang the village and told them, and they went quickly to my friend.” He also points out that mobile phones more easily facilitate ‘escapes’ (elopements between lovers), where parents have opposed the match, usually because of caste differences. “Before, the boy had to send messages through a friend about where he would wait for the girl. Now, the boy and girl coordinate themselves via the phone. But the number of escapes is going down now, as families begin to accept love relationships and then turn them into arranged marriages.”

Internet and email usage is less of a phenomenon in the villages near Pondicherry. Only a few houses have a computer or internet connection. Lakshmi says that girls are not allowed to go to internet shops, as their parents are worried they are ‘roaming’ and will get a bad name. There are no computers for students in her college, so assignments are all hand-written. Shankar says he is probably typical of educated boys in his village, in that he got an email ID a few years ago, which was facilitated by his brother who was working in an office with internet access. “He would print out emails I had received and would bring them home. I would hand-write my response, and then he would type and send the next day. It was a good way for me to keep in contact with the foreigners who funded my post-graduate studies.” Now that Shankar has an office job, he maintains his own email, and facilitates his girlfriend’s email. He is often on Yahoo Chat, and Facebook occasionally. “Only a few village mates are on Facebook. It’s mostly friends from college or people I know through my office, no village girls.”

While internet and computer uptake still has much space to grow in the villages, mobile phones have become an integrated part of daily life in the village, as they transcend all classes and education levels. “All people feel a mobile phone is necessary,” says Shankar. “It’s a basic need now.”




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