India’s telecommunication network is the second largest in the world by number of telephone users (both fixed and mobile phone) with close to 119 crore subscribers as on 31 August 2018. It has one of the lowest call tariffs in the world enabled by mega telecom operators and hyper-competition among them. India also has the world’s second-largest Internet user-base with 46 crores broadband internet subscribers in the country.

The rapid growth of mobile telephony in India ranks inarguably as one of India’s greatest success stories. Cheap telephone connectivity have empowered individuals from all strata of society in countless ways. However there are two facts about the telecom boom that are obvious but merit mention — first, the growth was driven by the private sector, not state-owned companies or the government; and second, the boom has been brought about by the rapid uptake of mobiles and not by not landline telephones or public call office (PCO) booths. To get the right perspective, the landline telephones started in India on 28th January 1882 with 93 subscribers and after 126 years, the total landline subscribers are only 2.2 crores. Whereas the mobiles have reached a figure of 117 crores in only 23 years.

I have been fortunate enough to witness this revolution first hand. When we were in schools, there were very few landlines phones in our society. Many people in the society had given our number as their emergency contact number. We also had no qualms in receiving their calls and calling them out to receive phones. I still remember my school friend got a landline connection in Dadar after waiting for, hold your breath, 10 years. And there was a big celebration in his house when phone finally started in his house. There was no concept of customer service back then and lines going dead at the drop of hat was a common phenomena. It used to be considered a miracle if the phones were working in monsoon season. And yes, the phones were only for local calls.

The long distance or STD calls were not possible as no direct dialing was available. One had to book a trunk call and specify whether it is under general, special or lightning category. The lightning calls would be generally get through in about a hour, special would take anytime between 4 to 8 hours and general category could even take 24 hours. Now if I had to talk to a person in Delhi, how can I ensure that he or she would be available when the call gets connected. Hence a concept known as PP (particular person) was prevalent then. If PP was unavailable, call will not be put through and you would not be charged. The tariffs then were so high that people had no other option. Once I remember wanting to call urgently my house from Delhi in 1984 and was told that even the lightning call would take around 8 hours as there was heavy rush. This was around 7 pm and hence had no alternative but to cancel the call.

We Indians are known for ability to bend the rules and frequent travellers would book trunk calls to their homes with specifying self as PP. Naturally the people at home would say, that the person is not available. But the trick here was that with such call, the people at home would know that their son or husband has reached destination. Even students after reaching UK or USA have known to use this trick to avoid paying money.

I got engaged in August 1986 and got married in November. There was no time for courtship. Now making a trunk call to my would be life partner was an ordeal. The call would get through after few hours. Then generally the landline would be in the drawing room for both of us with people around. काय घंटा बोलणार? On top of that the operator would interrupt every 3 minutes asking whether we wanted to extend the call for further 3 minutes. There used to be always a fear that the operator must be listening to our conversation. Added to all this drama, sometimes the voice audibility would be so poor that you had to talk at the top of the voice which will ensure our entire house would listen to what I am talking. It used to be so embarassing. The only real mode of communication was letters but when they would be delivered was a mystery. Compare this with today and we would realise how lucky the current generation is.

Around 1985, Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi along with his NRI friend, Sam Pitroda finally thought of doing something in this communication network. There may be debate as to how much was achieved in Rajiv Gandhi’s time, then PV Narasimha Rao’s time and finally in Vajpayee’s time and I am not interested in getting into that debate at all. What I know is it was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi and due credit must be given to him. Within span of about 4-5 years, direct dialing facility to many cities in India was introduced and one would also see PCO’s at few obscure locations from where such facility was also made available. That was a great relief for people like me who used to travel a lot.

Mobile phones were launched in 1995. Many of us were looking at that as a some sort of miracle. The phone on the go was just beyond our comprehension. The initial tariffs were so high that it would be unimaginable today. All calls including incoming, were charged at Rs. 16 per minute with pulse of 1 minute. Hence even if you spoke for 15 sec, you would be charged for one full minute. The mobile instruments then were very heavy, bulky and primitive compared to today. The internet was not available on the phone as it was meant to only receive and make calls. The SMS service was started little later and even I was unsure for a long time as to how to use that service. We were bloody dumbos, I must say.

Compare all this to today and we will realise the extent of leap frogging India has done in telephony. Now we are connected to the world on a click or should I say touch of a screen. The smart phones has changed the world so dramatically that we wouldn’t even dreamt few years back. The mobile phone camera has completely killed the digital camera companies. Leaders like Kodak etc have ceased to exist. Today I would not be surprised even to see a street beggar with a cell phone in his pocket.

However there is a flip side to all this. Today most of us are just glued to the mobile screen for WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, Social Media, Games and what not. It is saddening to see today that whenever there is any accident, mishap on roads or cities, the first thing you notice is there are thousands of cell phone camera’s trying to capture the tragedy. The thought of saving the people stuck in tragedy comes later. This was also very evident in the recent Amritsar Train tragedy.

The craze for a selfie has taken so many lives with youngsters wanting to take pictures of themselves on a cliff, in a waterfall etc.

Every few months companies like Apple, Samsung etc are launching faster, lighter and more technology savvy phones. But I feel that the technology has robbed of us the human touch in every walk of life. I really don’t know where all this is going to lead us.

कालाय तस्मे नमः

Yeshwant Marathe

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