He took out two phones, gently placed them on the table. One rang. He stepped away to answer it. In the meantime, the other one rang as well. He held the phone wrapped in his hand as he attended to the first call. Polite and professional, he explained in Urdu, the door-to-door campaign would start promptly at 9 am, the workers had been briefed, and assured his regional coordinator that there would be no delay, no inconsistency. He smiled to me as he spoke, holding the other phone against his chest. “Yes, sir. Yes,” he said with assurance and in English. Click.
“Hanji, kaha ho aap?” (Yes, where are you?) Polite but more assertive this time. The other phone rested against his belly, rubbing against his shirt. He interrogated the health worker on the other end – where was he? What problem had arisen? Did he encounter some resistance in the field? He discussed it with fury, frustration evident on his fatigued face. “Okay, okay, aap kam karo. Mein dekhta hoon.” (Okay, you do your work. Let me see what I can do.)
The other phone slipped back in his ear. Again polite and professional. “Yes, sir. Problem identify ho gaya hai (the problem’s been identified). I’ll go now.” He nodded. His eyes scanned the other phone. He was searching for a contact. He scrolled up and down, pressing with force. The phone had clearly been a part of his immunization campaign for years- scratched at the corners and the screen sullied in the field.
He looked up. “Yes, sir. I’ll call again once I’m there and report.”
And again, he turned to his other mobile, the battered one, to make a call.
Umar is a health worker for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in a small city in Uttar Pradesh, India. He has been at this campaign for over seven years. His task: manage the immunization round, verify that there are no resistant households, attend to the ones that are questioning the vaccine, help orchestrate medical camps, consult with the local politicians and Rotary community, and coordinate with UNICEF and WHO workers, among his many other duties.
So, when I arrived in Aligarh, four hours outside of Delhi, to take part in another immunization round, I was keen to meet with him, get an update. I asked for his number via email and got two options. Which one would be better, I asked?
Both, he said. One in each pocket.
Turns out that this was quite common. Many have multiple phones to save: calls within a network are free or cheaper generally. He, however, had a specific reason for each. Reliance is India’s one of biggest telecomm companies with coverage spanning UP. So, naturally Umar had a Reliance SIM card. The other was with BSNL, the government-sponsored telecomm company. Though weak in coverage, dropping calls often and not as good as the private giants like Reliance and Airtel, BSNL is inexpensive and widely used by the poor. Because Umar routinely speaks with people can only afford the BSNL network, he keeps that one on hand as well.
So, being mindful of his work, he has one in each pocket.
What’s even more striking, though, than the abundance of mobiles, considering that more people in the developing world have access to a mobile than a clean toilet, is what entrepreneurs have been able to do with these phones. With the ability to educate and empower young girls through mobile games, provide telemedicine services, offer a market place of goods, access to loans, and more, they have become a catalyst for development. Even with just SMS-based programs, they have the capacity to rival the most polished “smartphones” in terms of utility.
Much of this innovation is taking place in the most unglamorous of offices – out in the dusty roads of villages, on the farms, in the fishing villages, at the heart of overcrowded slums and amidst populations who have not really been invited into the globalized world.
As I came back to the States and continued to communicate with him, it became apparent to me that even though India had become famous for its technical expertise, brainy computer scientists, and innovative engineers, Internet penetration had yet to reach those at the bottom-of-the-pyramid. His responses were delayed, by weeks, if not months. Many of them just directed me to give him a call to discuss instead. That would be easier, he said; he had to wait at Internet cafes, the prices were too high for him to pay regularly, and the process too tiresome and time-consuming. Even friends, living comfortably in the cities, complained of slow broadband services. Rather, they were glued to their mobiles.
For me, it meant many more late-night calls, trying to whisper but succumbing to loud conversations, as he battled the background noise of horns, traffic, and many others chattering away on their phones, to hear me. We coordinated on how we could use mobiles to identify more polio patients in the field, send their data to a doctor in Delhi, and get them the surgery they needed to walk again. Again, we used the mobile – note down the symptoms, take a few photos, and send it directly to a doctor who’d been doing the service for polio patients for years.
As I started to dabble in this space myself, I consulted the help of others, tried to learn from existing examples, and drew from their stories on how such simple devices, without any apps, without any Internet connection, without any bells and whistles, were able to challenge convention. Individuals who’d never had any contact with technology before used their phone with such ease. In contrast to ladies who lunched in the metros and still failed to send a SMS, village women were using it with confidence to access a marketplace.
Thus, this is a series of vignettes of a growing movement on how the mobile is bringing more people into the modern globalized world. And making us ask, who truly has the smartphone?