I had been away from India for only three years. Agreed, this is probably longer than the annual pilgrimage most NRIs make. But three years is not that long. You don’t expect drastic changes in three years. Heck, you don’t even expect significant changes in the storyline of most TV soaps. What happened during the last three years in a TV soap opera can usually be summed up in three lines.
But outside the soap operas, I was prepared for many changes. The landscape will not look the same, I told myself. Many new buildings would have come up, new flyovers, new shopping malls. At an anecdotal level, I had heard a lot about call centers, disposable income and the changes they have wrought.
Still, there were many big surprises. One of them was cellphone usage. I found that everybody in India now has a cellphone – paan shop owners, cab drivers, autorickshaw drivers, day-wage laborers, everyone. Senior citizens are getting up to speed on text messages or SMS, and some eight year olds already have their first cellphone.
Perhaps it is not so surprising. India is apparently now the second largest market in the world in mobile subscribers (after China). India has more than 250 million subscribers, growing at the rate of 8 to 9 million subscribers a month. Eight million new subscribers a month. Imagine. That’s roughly twice the population of Singapore being added each month.
The other thing I noticed was that everyone’s cellphones seem to have been made by Nokia. No, I am not being paid by Nokia to say this. Although, if you are reading this, dear Nokia representative, I’d like a free phone too 😉
This should not have been such a surprise, for India is Nokia’s second largest market. But forget BlackBerrys and iPhones, does no one like Motorola, or LG, or Sony Ericsson? Especially Sony Ericsson, given that Ericsson was one of the first mobile phones in India? Remember that terrific “One Black Coffee” ad?
Twelve years ago, when I first saw that Ericsson ad, cellphones were so expensive. I could never have imagined that one day, construction workers in India would have a smaller, sleeker phone with more features than the “small” phone in that ad.
I walked into a Nokia store and checked out the models there. You have models starting from the basic, no-frills versions (priced at around Rs 2000 or $50) to high end ones like one sleek beauty I saw which was around Rs 13,000 or $300. But even the basic models are quite sleek, not like the chunky, ugly free phones you get in the US.
No wonder everyone had cellphones, if they are so affordable (more on that later). Perhaps that’s why so many tiny stores have sprung up, all selling cellphones and cellphone plans. You will find them in every narrow, winding lane, sometimes several adjacent to each other, yet they are all crowded, all the time.
Then there is the whole issue of choice, of being able to switch from one provider to another whenever I want to. No contracts like we have in the US. That’s how one would think the free market should function..
But more thoughts on all that, and all my cellphone escapades, in my next post..