By Sirpa Tenhunen

My more than decade-long research on the appropriation of mobile telephony in rural India is finally coming to a completion as I am scheduled to finish my book manuscript for the Oxford University Press this year. The book will examine how mobile telephony contributes to social change in Janta, a village in the Bankura district in West Bengal on the basis of long-term ethnographic fieldwork before and after the introduction of mobile phones. At this stage of the research, I am in a good position to take stock of the changes induced by mobile telephony in this region: did mobile phones contribute to development in rural West Bengal and how?

By 2013, all households in the village I studied had phones, and most households possessed a smartphone. As phones became ubiquitous, differences in usage emerged. Low-income families share an understanding that phones need to be used sparingly, thus reflecting their financial means, whereas the upper classes can spend generously on phone calls. As especially the elder generations in this village only studied Bengali language at school, they are unable to read the English alphabet of their Chinese made cheap phones, and they find using their smart phones for leisure activities, such as listening to music, taking and storing photos, and watching movies, more interesting than browsing the internet.

Village of Janta in West Bengal. © Sirpa Tenhunen.

However, most phone owners do use the internet indirectly on their phones. They buy music, videos, and pictures, which are downloaded on their phone’s memory chip in shops selling chips, and content downloaded from the internet. The few people in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all have a college education, and therefore belong to a minority. The few who have tried the internet have found many uses for it: chatting on Facebook, downloading music and movies, learning about prices, products, jobs, and exam results, as well as sending e-mail and accessing study sources such as literature and dictionaries.

People mostly used their phones for calling their relatives and friends, and these calls contributed to changes in gender and kinship relations (Tenhunen 2014 and 2015). Mobile phones also helped to transform political practices by mediating political action and alternatives (Tenhunen 2011). When I asked mobile phone owners how they benefit from their phones, the prevalent answer was that a mobile phone enables one to do more in less time: One can now manage various errands within a fraction of the time and costs they previously required. 

My initial research on the mobile phone use of the early adapters in Janta supported earlier research findings on the economic benefits of phones for small scale businesses. It did not take the local entrepreneurs in Janta long to realize that mobile phones could help them extend their clientele. Phones helped people in diverse fields increase their income and their businesses’ efficiency (Tenhunen 2008). However, the picture of mobile phones’ economic benefits became more complicated after I had a chance to observe phone use in diverse economic fields over time.

While some entrepreneurs were able to extend their markets beyond the village with the help of phones, most small scale entrepreneurs still concentrate on selling their services to villagers. While the villagers do call stores to inquire about a product’s availability, phones have not increased shopkeepers’ business margins considerably. Instead, shopkeepers maintain that they use phones for the convenience and not to increase their income. Depending on their ability to obtain credit from wholesale sellers, store owners can order stock for their village store from the nearby town. Consequently, they now spend less time commuting. However, the convenience offered by phones for doing business has helped more people set up shops, which has led to increased competition.

A road in the village. © Juha Laitalainen.

The biggest economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to agricultural policies which led to small farmers’ decreasing profits. The price of fertilizers and gasoline has increased, while income from the sale of agricultural products has dwindled. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village. Fellow villagers, who have already emigrated to work outside the village, provide information on job opportunities over the phone.

Villagers perceive the ability to call for help as one of mobile phones’ most crucial benefits. I met people who had been motivated to purchase their first phone by a family member’s illness. Phones allow seriously ill patients in the village to be transported to a doctor, or a hospital, as it is possible to hire a car by phone. However, phones have not made it possible to summon trained medical help to the village in times of emergencies. Public health centers do not have sufficient staff to attend patients outside the center, and trained medical doctors in towns do not leave their clinics to attend patients in villages. 

The self-taught doctor who lives in the adjacent village is the only person family members can call if a villager is too sick to travel. People do not trust either the public or private health-care systems in the region, nor those in West Bengal state. Faced with serious illnesses, the villagers prefer to spend large sums of money to travel outside West Bengal to obtain proper treatment at the few hospitals with a good reputation for fair pricing and reliable care. Phones help raise money for medical treatment from relatives and help patients stay in touch with the health-care personal outside the village, or with previous patients who have travelled to other states to obtain medical treatment.

Phones thus cannot compensate for the shortcomings of the public health care systems nor do they make it possible to overcome the challenges farmers face due to changes in agricultural policies. The ways in which villagers cope with the over-priced private healthcare system through their phones shows the potential benefits of phones for healthcare. But identifying mobile telephony as belonging to the realm of the market hampers the use of mobile telephony for developmental purposes. Service provider companies have not been able to provide affordable healthcare solutions or useful information for low-income people as part of their business practices in sustainable ways.

The rapid spread of mobile telephony in developing countries has raised hopes about the developmental potential of economic liberalization in the form of mobile telephony. My ethnographic research on the appropriation of mobile telephony in rural India shows that despite their many benefits for users, mobile phones alone do not solve developmental problems: there is a need for multiple solutions due to the complexity of social processes.