Nowadays, it has become a common sight. Wherever you go, in whichever direction you turn, on a walk, on a visit, on the bus, in public or private functions and gatherings, you see almost everyone with his/her hand to the ear, and chattering away. Vegetable vendors, drivers of vehicles of all descriptions, domestic helpers of all kinds, young and old alike — all have mobiles.

So much so, Darwinists predict the occurrence of mutation of genes resulting very soon in babies being born with one of their hands stuck to the ear. Gynaecology text-books may have to add a new chapter on delivering such babies!

Mobile phones now dominate communications system. There are now around 3.2 billion of them in use in the world, covering more than half its population. A study of the impact of mobiles in 24 countries of sub-Saharan Africa undertaken for the World Bank has found that 57 per cent of the people there were already within the range of a mobile signal, and by increasing the efficiency of existing markets, the reach could easily be extended to a further 40 per cent of the population.

India had 149.5 million mobile subscribers at the end of December 2007, and the number is growing at the rate of seven million every month.

It is quite possible that, as of this month, the total number of mobiles has gone past 250 million. Can you believe it? One in four is enjoying the benefits of this facility.

Do those benefits pertain just to individual exchanges of views and news in furtherance of matters of personal, official or professional interest, or do mobiles conduce to a larger public good?

Under the title of Mobile phones and Development, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the Sussex University in the UK has devoted the entire September 2007 issue of its newsletter id21 insights to research findings of relevance to policymakers and practitioners on the implications for development of the phenomenon of explosive growth in the use of mobiles.

It throws light on the interesting and notable role played by the exponentially burgeoning spread of mobiles in serving a variety of purposes. For instance, mobile ownership has helped increase trade by micro-entrepreneurs of Nigeria in its informal textile sector.

The ‘Mobile Ladies’ initiative launched in Bangladesh is operating a Helpline through which it provides advice on health, education, human rights, and farm and non-farm activities. It was accessed by more than 4000 women over a period of 15 months, and 95 per cent of the queries were answered to the satisfaction of 80 per cent of the users.

‘Sousveillance’

Mobiles have not been an unmixed blessing in Zambia; on the one hand, they have gone some way towards strengthening of family, friend and business-related social networks and on the other, they have reinforced unequal gender relations and become a source of oppression of women by men and aggravation of economic gender differentials. They have, however, happily been a Godsend in Jamaica, multiplying livelihood opportunities.

Considering that mobile users outnumber bank account holders in every country, we can be sure that M-banking, whereby a variety of financial services can be extended to all sections of the people, is round the corner.

The IDS gives accounts of the use of mobiles in Sierra Leone and Ghana for checking malpractices and intimidation during elections.

Combining mobile phone cameras with Web sites has proved effective in combating electoral misdeeds in a number of countries.

A time may not be far-off when mobiles will turn out to be powerful instruments of ‘sousveillance’, or the reverse of surveillance, enabling ‘bottom-up monitoring of the state by citizens’, for good governance and prompt service delivery.

Bravo, mobile!

B. S. RAGHAVAN

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 3, 2007)
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