How The Cell Phone Revolution Can Raise Millions Out Of Poverty And Help Fix The Climate

Squatting in a dusty field in the village of Rataul, two hours north of Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a young woman, like uncounted generations of women before her, is shaping a small mountain of cow dung into Frisbee-size cakes that will fire the family’s cookstove. Perhaps she will make a couple of phone calls before preparing dinner, using her new mobile. She’ll get a five-bar signal: barely a hundred yards away, across a patch of waste ground where some water buffalo are nosing around in the dirt, is a tall, slender cell phone tower. The photovoltaic panels that power it glitter in the late-morning sunlight. That strip of waste ground is a bridge between past and future, and hundreds of millions of Indians may now be poised to cross it.

Ask any Indian to name the quintessential symbol of the bad old days, the era of rigid state control of the economy and stultifying bureaucracy, and the answer will often be simple: getting a telephone. You could wait many years for a landline, the only way of speeding things up being whom you knew — and how many rupees you were prepared to slip them under the table. Ask for a symbol of the new India, the thing that most dramatically improves a person’s life prospects, and the answer will be equally straightforward: the cell phone. No further need for insider contacts or bribes; all that counts is the basic law of supply and demand.

India has 1.2 billion people and almost 900 million mobile subscribers, a figure that has more than doubled in the past three years. This growth spurt has gone hand in hand with the country’s economic boom. Which is cause and which is effect is hard to say, but Indian telecom executives like to cite a study by the consulting firm Deloitte, showing that a 10 percentage-point increase in “mobile penetration” corresponds to a 1.2 percent increase in the rate of growth of the gross domestic product.

There’s a hitch, however. The fruits of the boom have not been equitably shared; about a third of the population, most living in villages like Rataul, still have few paths to the economic mainstream because they lack reliable access to electricity. Energy is India’s biggest problem. True, there are utility poles here, and sagging wires, but the juice flows through them for only a few hours each day. Maybe this spurt of power will come in the morning, maybe in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll tell you those hours in advance, and maybe they won’t. And that’s a huge headache for the cell phone providers as well as for the villagers.

India’s urban market is now saturated, with more phones than people, but only about 35 percent of the rural population have gone mobile. The remaining 65 percent are the next market frontier, but if the industry is to reach these people it needs to keep building towers. Today there are about 350,000 of these towers, where “base transceiver stations” convert electricity into radio waves. Ten percent of them are completely off the grid; 30 percent are in places like Rataul, which have power for less than 12 hours a day. To tap the rural market, the mobile companies plan to add at least 200,000 towers in the next three to five years, and almost all of them will be in areas without a reliable — or any — power supply. So where will the electricity come from? For now, the answer is diesel generators, which are both dirty and expensive. But in the future, the logic (strongly endorsed by the Indian government) lies with solar power and other renewables.

Before driving out to Rataul, I’d gone to see Rajiv Bawa, the energetic chief representative officer for the Telenor group in India, at his office in Gurgaon, the smog-choked boomtown on the outskirts of Delhi where many of the country’s telecom companies have their headquarters. Telenor, based in Norway, is one of the world’s largest mobile providers, although Uninor, a joint venture in which it holds a majority share, entered the crowded Indian cell phone market only two years ago. “We already have 35 million subscribers,” Bawa told me, “but that’s still quite small. In India, everything has to have at least seven zeros.” Uninor’s target audience, he said, is “the common man” — and even more than that, given the gender gap in mobile ownership here, the common woman. There will be no bells and whistles, no endorsements from Bollywood stars, no data plans or smart phone apps, just basic voice and text services. “We want to be the Southwest Airlines of the mobile industry,” he said.

Bawa, a native of Delhi, worked in the United States for 16 years, much of that time for IBM, before returning home. “In an emerging economy like India’s, environmental issues arise immediately; it’s the nature of the beast,” he said. The most urgent of these, he added, was the industry’s dependence on diesel. “As a Scandinavian company,” he went on, “we have particular standards about how we do business, in terms of the environment, emissions, and CO2 targets.” Yet even without this corporate ethic, in a brutally competitive marketplace where profit margins are razor-thin, there are potent economic arguments for phasing out diesel.

The telecom sector is the second-largest consumer of diesel in India, Bawa told me; only the railways use more. “It’s an unbelievable amount on our balance sheets,” he said — energy accounts for up to a third of the industry’s operating costs. The price of diesel has almost tripled since 2000, although the true cost is still masked by government subsidies. But those won’t last forever. In the meantime, the price of photovoltaics, like the array of 21 panels on the Rataul tower, has come down by half in the past three years and continues to fall. The initial capital expense is higher, but after that solar is an almost free ride: the technology is proven, maintenance is minimal, there’s no fuel to truck in, and, best of all, for most of the year India bakes under a tropical sun.

Even here, of course, the sun doesn’t shine around the clock. As I strolled around the Rataul tower site with a bevy of Bawa’s technical experts, they explained that it’s actually a solar-diesel hybrid. But instead of running 16 hours a day or more, the generator kicks in for only a brief spell at night. Uninor is experimenting with a whole menu of other techniques and technologies to reduce energy use. The main draw on power is air-conditioning the enclosed shelters that house the generator and other equipment; the company’s alternative is “free cooling,” pulling in the naturally colder air from outside (cold being a relative term in India), while also using heat exchangers to draw up even colder air from belowground. Add fuel catalysts that make the diesel-combustion process more efficient and smart technologies that automatically shut off the power when there’s no phone traffic, and you can slash energy use by up to 30 percent, one of the engineers said. Radical cost-cutting, a smaller carbon footprint, and an entry point into the coveted rural market: where these three motives converge, the mobile revolution may also be the catalyst for a revolution in clean energy and social equity.

In the cow belt

Once the towers have leapfrogged over the power outages and people hold a phone in their hands — usually just an entry-level Nokia or Samsung, with airtime at about one cent a minute, the lowest rate in the world — the possibilities are limitless. To see a few of them, I spent a week in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

U.P., as it is commonly known, is the heart of what is variously called the Cow Belt or the Hindi Belt — although almost one in five inhabitants is a Muslim and several of U.P.’s celebrated cities, like Agra, Allahabad, and the state capital, Lucknow, are former strongholds of the Mughal Empire, which swept through the Hindu lands from Central Asia in the 1500s and controlled most of the subcontinent for the next two centuries. More technically, U.P. is the heart of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the vast, fertile floodplain of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and other rivers both great and sacred.

Much of the state is a monotonous, unbroken carpet of wheat fields and rice paddies. But the fertility is deceptive. With 200 million people — almost as many as Brazil, but compacted into 3 percent of the land area — Uttar Pradesh encompasses the full range of India’s problems. Other Indians call it backward — a word they use without apology or embarrassment. Most of the population struggles to get by on less than two dollars a day. Official corruption is off the charts. The gender gap is a yawning gulf. As a result, U.P. has become a laboratory for all manner of social experiments — government projects, NGO pilot studies, renewable energy schemes, and private-sector initiatives from the likes of Uninor. If you can fix a problem here, the thinking goes, you can fix it anywhere.

The gender gap in cell phone use is much larger in South Asia than in any other region of the world, and U.P.’s deep cultural conservatism is manifest in a sometimes ferocious backlash against women who want to go mobile. In November 2010, in the village of Lank, an hour or so north of Rataul, the local elected council, the panchayat, issued an edict banning the use of phones by unmarried girls; boys would be allowed to make calls, but only under adult supervision. The village elders feared flirtation, romance, violation of the strictures of home, family, and arranged marriage — offenses that can carry the gravest of sanctions. Honor killings are often thought of as a mark of conservative Islam, but they are common in Hindu villages too. In the month leading up to the episode in Lank, local police said, eight young people from the surrounding district had been killed after eloping. Three were girls beheaded by male relatives.

Uninor responded to these events by creating Mera Mobile, Mera Saathi (My Mobile, My Companion), a program that sent voice messages to rural subscribers on health, education, and personal safety. To avoid a hostile reaction from conservatives, the wording was carefully uncontentious: Rekha’s child is sick; she used her phone to get him medical attention. The phone is Rekha’s friend; is it yours?

Farther east, in the villages around Gorakhpur, a typically chaotic, ramshackle city of 700,000 close to the border of U.P. and the equally impoverished state of Bihar, Uninor has embarked on the pilot phase of Aditi Urja Vikas (roughly translatable as Boundless Energy and Development). Here the environmental dimension is more explicit, a slow, patient build-out in which one effort to bring the rural poor into the economic mainstream nourishes another. In this case, mobile phones meet solar lighting.

The Achilles’ heel of the cell phone is the need to keep it charged, not an easy thing if you live in a village like Arazibanshi Jaiswal. You can hook it up to the battery of your tractor (assuming you’re one of the handful of villagers prosperous enough to own one). You can hope that the need for a charge coincides with the odd hours when the grid is cooperating. Or you can catch an autorickshaw into Gorakhpur, 10 miles away, and pay a shopkeeper 10 or 15 rupees for the privilege — 20 or 30 cents, no small amount for an Uttar Pradeshi.

Now you can also visit Vidyawati Chaudhary. I found Chaudhary on the front porch of her home in Arazibanshi Jaiswal, a shy but good-natured 24-year-old, dressed in a black sari with silver horizontal stripes and Rajasthani-style mirrored embroidery. In a storeroom behind her, tucked in among barrels of cooking oil, pots and pans, and sacks of animal feed, was a shelf of bright yellow solar lanterns. In the living room, next to a collection of lurid portraits and statues of the Hindu deity Shiva and his wife, Parvati, and the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was a large battery that drew its power from a bank of photovoltaic panels on the roof. What was more natural than to use that same power to recharge both lanterns and cell phones? This simple logic led Uninor into a partnership with the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a think tank-cum-scientific research center in New Delhi that specializes in off-the-grid renewable energy technologies and is headed by Rajendra Pachauri, who happens also to be the chairman of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Arazibanshi Jaiswal is one of 150 villages in U.P. and Bihar where TERI’s Lighting a Billion Lives program (see “India, Enlightened,” OnEarth, Summer 2009) and Uninor’s Aditi Urja Vikas project intend to collaborate. Everything will be run by local women. Chaudhary told me that her charging station and lantern business had been up and running for three months. Business was the key word here, both for her and for Uninor, and Chaudhary herself was the entrepreneur — a word that is a kind of magical incantation in India today. She had rented out 32 lanterns the previous evening, she said, at two rupees apiece. A good night. Phone charging costs five rupees, and for a tiny commission she’ll also add more minutes to a Uninor subscriber’s account electronically. If she gets someone to sign up for the company’s service and fills out their paperwork, that brings another small commission of eight rupees. It takes about two hours a day to run the business, seven days a week, and it brings in about 500 rupees a week — $10, enough for a few small luxuries.
Such as? I asked. Jewelry and clothes, she answered, but also schoolbooks. She was the first girl in her family to go to school, and now she was studying English literature at the local college in Gorakhpur. You had to know English to get ahead in India these days, she said. Her ambition was to join the U.P. police force.

I asked what kind of literature she liked best. She covered her eyes with a hand and giggled. “Love stories,” she said.

Then she straightened up, looking abashed. “It isn’t a lot of money,” she said, “but it seems to be changing the way people think. Our neighbors have two daughters. One of them was at school with me, but they took her out after grade eight. The younger girl is in sixth now, but they’ve decided to let her stay on. Because they’ve seen what I’m doing.”

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At first, leaving a city like Gorakhpur, you may take the brown haze that hangs over the land as the drifting residue of urban smog. But then you realize that it goes on and on, blanketing the rural hinterlands too. Flying over the Himalayas, which border Uttar Pradesh to the north, you can see it edging over the mountains like an approaching storm front.

Some years ago, Veerabhadran (V.) Ramanathan, a renowned Indian-born climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, dubbed this the Asian Brown Cloud. Over time, the name evolved to Atmospheric Brown Clouds, because the phenomenon is not limited to Asia. In either case, ABC. Peaking in the dry winter months from November to March, much of the haze over U.P. is created by smoke from the dung and firewood that people burn in their primitive mud cookstoves.

The main constituent is particulate matter like black carbon, with smaller amounts of carbon monoxide and the so-called precursor gases that react with solar radiation to create ozone. Black carbon is not a greenhouse gas as such — it’s made up of airborne particles of soot that absorb sunlight and heat the air — but as a “climate forcer,” its impact on atmospheric warming is much the same. As it spreads northward, the soot darkens the snow and ice of the Himalayas, warming them in the process. It’s responsible, in fact, for as much as half of the loss of the glaciers that feed the Ganges and the other great rivers of the plain. And there’s another perverse effect: by dimming sunlight, the brown haze lowers ground temperatures. So less warm air rises, which means fewer clouds and reduced rainfall, on which U.P.’s wheat and rice harvests depend. Ozone, a ground-level pollutant, adds to the misery, causing billions of dollars a year in crop losses.

Four years ago, having established himself as an authority on black carbon, Ramanathan approached Rajendra Pachauri at TERI to see if they might work together. Pachauri told him about the high-efficiency cookstoves that the organization was developing to cut black carbon emissions and introduced him to Ibrahim Hafeez Rehman, the director of TERI’s division of social transformation (see “The Brown Cloud,” OnEarth, Spring 2012). Ramanathan was obviously a world-class climate scientist, Rehman told me, “but what really appealed to me was his sincerity and genuineness about making a difference at the grassroots level.”

But what did all this have to do with mobile phones? To answer that question, I had to travel deeper into U.P., to a cluster of villages just off the road to Lucknow. In Gorakhpur, women were making modest, incremental change. Here, potentially, they were changing the world, one meal and one mobile at a time.

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