From a public phone booth in India

My winter break travels in India (January 2008) turned out to be great. Visited Delhi,Mumbai(Bombay),Goa and Kolkata (Calcutta)and got the distinct feel that the economy was on the move. Yes ITES ( Information Technology Enabled Services) are important and this sector feeds the notion of India as the global powerhouse of IT services. But what is more incredible is the booming growth of the local market and consumer demand. Consider the phone booth where Devinder helped me set up my local India cell phone account and helped “refill” my phone balance several times.

This phone booth is a temporary shack like structure and is actually owned by a blind relative of Devinder who has been awarded the space as part of India’s efforts to help its disabled. There seemed to be about 10 people constantly on the counter , either making long distance phone calls or adding money to their cell phone accounts. So I asked – what’s your sale per day? “About Rupees 5000 ( about $120 a day),”replied Devinder and I was skeptical because I was pretty certain that the guy had several hundred customers a day. “The customers buy small perhaps Rs. 20 ( 50 cents) of talk time by a cart puller or day laborer” explained Devinder. Incoming calls on India cell phones are free and the poorest are able to get on the mobile phone network by just arranging to receive “blank” calls that they don’t pick up and understand when a pal or business associate is trying to reach out. Such communication turns out to be free- next best is the booming use of SMS via cell phones. SMS’s are cheap and over 1 Billion ( yes billion) were exchanged when people wished each other Happy 2008 over the new year.

Transactions at the phone booth are both paperless and computer less. You ask for a re-charge and the phone booth attendant has a cell phone agent’s access to the phone company ( there are several companies) and the customer gets a SMS confirming the amount credited. Amazingly the poorest almost illiterate customers seem to be dealing with all this with aplomb and confidence.

Seeing the continuing boom in India had left me wondering about the “bottom of the pyramid” and what was happening there. Close observation of these BoP folks at the phone booth assured me that the economic growth in India is far more deep rooted and fundamental than I had earlier thought!

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