India did not participate in the landline phone revolution but has seen an unprecedented growth in mobile phones, with over 919 million subscribers by the end of March 2012, making it second only to China in this sphere. The tele-density in rural India, where nearly 69 percent of the total population lives, grew from below 1 percent in 2000 to around 40 percent in 2012. In these areas, people face several developmental constraints, such as low literacy, poor healthcare facilities, low per capita income, a high degree of poverty and problems related to poor infrastructure. Mobile phones can facilitate need-based and user-centric information and services at a cost that is affordable to India’s rural population, which was hitherto unreachable.
Given this context, this study explores the socioeconomic impact of mobile phone usage in rural areas on the basis of a field survey conducted in two states of India: Punjab – a relatively developed state – and Bihar – a relatively underdeveloped state. The field survey revealed that mobile phones helped users gather information for both agricultural and non-agricultural purposes, as well as enabling them to keep in touch with their relatives and migrant family members. Mobile users benefit by obtaining timely information on a variety of subjects, including on employment opportunities and higher education for their children, by transferring funds and even by calling family members during emergencies. However, there is a marked difference in the usage of mobile phones among those in Punjab compared with those in Bihar. In developed areas, people were found to be early users of new technologies, reflected also in high usage of mobile value-added services (MVAS) and innovative uses like money transfer and agricultural information in Punjab.
Meanwhile, a major and somewhat neglected dimension of mobile phone usage is that making communication substantially cheaper promotes social interaction. Multi-locational households with at least one migrant worker are increasing in numbers. Cheap mobile phones help such households keep in touch and remit money. Social relations can also cross traditional boundaries. The study also reveals that there are many innovations in the use of mobile phones, often carried out by users of different kinds, pointing to the importance of users in innovation processes.