Mobile phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile Phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

This is the title of my latest op ed essay, published this week on Groundviews, the leading citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka.

In this, I try to place in a social and cultural context a series of discriminatory laws, regulations and taxes that my native Sri Lanka has introduced – or threatened – in the past few months all aimed at mobile phones, and only mobiles.

This, despite the fact that the proliferation of mobiles has brought telecom services within reach of millions of Sri Lankans in the past decade, helping raise the country’s overall tele-density (mobiles+fixed phones) to 54 telephones per 100 population. With over 11 million SIMs issued, mobiles today outnumber fixed phones by three to one.

In my essay, I cite specific examples, and ask the crucial questions:

Why is this already licensed and regulated technology often targeted for ‘special treatment’ by different arms of government?

Where is this wide-spread suspicion and hostility towards mobiles coming from?

I argue that it is rear-guard action by the traditional elite and bureaucracy who’d rather not allow such digital empowerment to spread. And this has historical parallels.

Here’s the crux of it:

“There is a numerically small (but influential) privileged class that resents information and communication access becoming universal. They might talk glibly in public on using ICTs for social development or poverty reduction. But back inside the corridors of power, they make policies and regulations to undermine the very utility of these tools. This is no accident.

“The mobile phone is the biggest social leveller in Sri Lankan society since the trouser became ubiquitous (initially for men, and belatedly for women). Our elders can probably recall various arguments heard 30 or 40 years ago on who should be allowed to wear the western garb: it was okay for the educated and/or wealthy mahattayas, but not for the rest. Absurd and hilarious as these debates might seem today, they were taken very seriously at the time.

“Make no mistake: the mobile is the trouser of our times –- and thus becomes the lightning rod for class tensions, petty jealousies and accumulated frustrations of an elite that sees the last vestiges of control slipping away.

Read the full essay on Groundviews

Relevant to this discussion is a short film that TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007, summarising the findings of the latter’s large sample survey on tele-use at the bottom of the pyramid in five emerging markets (which included Sri Lanka).

TVEAP News, Nov 2007: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets

Watch the film online:

Teleuse@BOP – Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP – Part 2 of 2

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

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TV Southasia: Nothing official about this, yipee!

TV South Asia

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post titled: Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

My closing words at the time were:
“I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them. I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.”

Chevaan Daniel, head of Sri Lanka’s enterprising Channel One MTV, posted a comment soon afterwards, on 27 July 2007, saying: “Maharaja Channels have pioneered this for Sri Lanka, by joining together in an initiative involving media companies from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to launch ‘The SouthAsian’. This collaboration includes a weekly programme produced in Calcutta, aired at the same time in the region. The next step is indeed a SouthAsian Channel, which we are working towards.

Well, I’m delighted to find that over the past 12 months, they have indeed been investing time, creative effort and money in this venture. TV Southasia is now a reality!

It’s a collaborative venture of commercial broadcasters in five countries of South Asia, who have joined hands to produce and share content across their national borders. Mercifully, no governments are involved and certainly none of the state-owned broadcasters (Babu TVs) whose lack of vision and creativity is only matched by their depleting audiences these days.

TV Southasia

Indeed, there’s nothing official about TV Southasia (TVSA), and that’s to be celebrated on its own merit. And if they get it right, TVSA founders — Rtv of Bangladesh, TARANEWS of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and News 1st of Sri Lanka — can tap into an enviably large audience. Between them, their countries have more than 1.5 billion people, most of who have access to television.

TVSA founders are taking one step at a time, perhaps knowing very well that cross-border ventures in South Asia need to be nursed slowly and incrementally, while dealing with assorted historical hang-ups and tonnes of red tape (or these days the colour could well be saffron or khaki, depending on where you live!).

It all started when a group of broadcasters and activists from across South Asia came together in Kolkata in December 2006 and agreed to forge the Southasian initiative. They swapped content to start producing a half-hour magazine programme (containing news analysis, music, features and interviews) from April 2007. Called Southasian, it was produced by Taranewz drawing on content from the participating channels, who then broadcast it weekly and also made it available online.

Taking the next logical step, the five broadcasters decided in August 2007 to form a channel, branded as TV Southasia. It started being previewed on 19 April 2008.
Read more about TV Southasia on its own website

The channel is being distributed by Thailand’s ThaiCom5 satellite, and would be available through cable operators across South Asia. It’s an English language channel, based on the reality that English is the only link language shared and understood by all countries of South Asia.

TVSA says it’s concentrating on talk shows, interviews, lifestyle, music, short films, sports, cuisine and quiz — most of this content is already available through many national channels and occasionally from global channels too. But TVSA can bring in a trans-boundary, pan South Asian outlook which is largely missing in these channels. In fact, it would be refreshing to see a TV channel covering South Asia as a whole, without giving into the frequent pressures or temptations of national tribalism and geopolitical posturing that we see all the time on both BabuTVs and many commercial channels.

Click here for programme lineup on TV Southasia

I have so far only caught glimpses of their offering, when Channel One MTV shows the Southasian magazine show. Going by this limited exposure, I can confirm that the products of this collaboration are superior to what BabuTVs have been struggling to do for two decades through the very official (read: officious and unimaginative) framework of SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, or SAVE.

Started in 1987, just two years after the South Asian governments formed the regional grouping called South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, SAVE brought together the so-called national broadcasters in radio and TV. Trapped in inter-governmental bureaucracies, they tried to share and carry each other’s broadcast content. The officially sanctioned programmes, often made by committees, completely failed to capture the diversity and vibrancy of what’s going on in each South Asian country that interests the rest of the sub-region. I have no idea if SAVE still exists, because I don’t watch BabuTV anymore (does anybody?). Even in its formative days, I could tell that SAVE was beyond saving…

TV Southasia

Enter TV Southasia – and not a moment too soon. As its website says: “It is for the first time in history that the private electronic media channels have come together and have formed a collaborative channel sharing the same view points on diversity, heritage, bondage and possibilities.”

Unlike many broadcast ventures, TVSA declares its agenda – and it’s a lofty one. It wants to promote highly desirable values like liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Rather courageously, it also declares what it is explicitly opposed to, which includes superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism — the long and depressing list of evils that keeps hundreds of millions of South Asians in misery, fear and trapped at the bottom of the development ladder. Read TVSA’s vision, mission and ideals

This agenda resonates with the equally passionate, secular idealism of Ujala TV, another satellite broadcast venture aimed at beaming to South Asia since mid 2006. I have been cheering them from the beginning, while my organisation TVE Asia Pacific has been a regular supplier of factual programming for them. Read my July 2007 blog post on Ujala TV – Enriching South Asian airwaves

Well, we need as many idealists as we can find in South Asia. Encouragingly, TV Southasia has already involved Himal Southasian founder and editor Kanak Mani Dixit, a great champion of people-to-people collaboration in South Asia. Perhaps it’s due to Kanak’s influence that the brave new channel is spelling Southasia as one word, as Himal Southasian has been doing for some years now. It might seem an aberration in spelling to some, but in fact, it separates these entirely unofficial, people’s ventures from the many committees and initiatives of the official SAARC, which are endlessly meeting yet constantly failing to forge regional trust, cooperation and cohesion.

The official, officious and unproductive SAARC will be on parade once again at the next Summit due in late July 2008. My SAARCasm is shared by many journalists, intellectuals and activists across South Asia who have tracked the origins and evolution of this grouping since its founding in Dhaka in 1985. To put it charitably, at 23 years of age, SAARC has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). We only need to take a look at the People’s SAARC Declaration, adopted in Kathmandu in March 2007, to realise how much the official SAARC has failed to accomplish.

That’s in spite of its frequent and highly expensive meetings. Alas, this time they have chosen to meet in my city of Colombo, which means – after footing a massive Summit bill of LKR 2.8 billion (over USD 27 million) – we ordinary citizens will very likely be kept under virtual house arrest for its duration. All in the name of security, of course.

I hope I can catch a bit more of TV Southasia when the visiting SAARC-babus drive us off our own streets.

Photos and images all courtesy TV Southasia

Below – photos from TV Southasia launch

The price of light: Insights from The Willow Tree

The Willow Tree

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”

These words, by George Bernard Shaw (in “Man and Superman”, 1903), came to my mind as we watched Iranian director Majid Majidi’s 2005 film The Willow Tree (96 mins, in Farsi with English subtitles) as TVE Asia Pacific’s monthly feature film screening this week.

The Willow Tree chronicles the revelations and shocks experienced by Youssef (Parvis Parastui), a blind professor of literature whose eyesight is miraculously restored 38 years after he lost it in a childhood firecracker accident. For nearly four decades, he lived in the care of his comfort zone, first in biological and then married family. But when he regained the ability to see, it opens up a whole new world — one which he is not fully prepared to face.

Some critics see The Willow Tree as closely linked to Majidi’s 1999 film, The Color of Paradise, the story of the lonely but strangely happy Mohammad, a blind 8-year-old boy whose widowed father reluctantly abandons him to the care of a rural carpenter. (Not having seen the latter film yet, I can’t comment.)

As Stephen Holden wrote in a New York Times review: “If the two films are viewed as a matched pair, as I think they should be, Youssef could be Mohammad’s urban grown-up counterpart. Both films are explicitly religious, intensely poetic meditations, filled with recurrent symbols and suffused with a spirit of divine apprehension. Both are sad beyond measure, and both risk seeming mawkishly sentimental.”

The Willow Tree is a soulful, emotionally moving film where Majidi once again proves his dexterity with multi-layered symbolicism and clever use of soundtrack, especially music, to convey much that is unsaid in dialogue.

At one level, the film reinforces the cautionary tale to be careful of what you wish for. At another, it makes us question the whole notion of what it means to be able to see the world with our eyes — something many of us take for granted, but is the defining attribute in Professor Youssef’s life.

It’s easy for us who work in moving images to forget that there is a wholly different world for those who cannot see, or whose vision is impaired as in, say, astigmatism or colour blindness. We sometimes tend to picture perfect our creations – with extra touches of visual effects, some of which are so subtle that they could easily be lost in the fleeting playback. We argue over the shades of gray, the seamlessness of a fade-in and fade-out, or the precise colour corrections, as if those choices were matters of life and death. We who play with light like to get things exactly right.

Well, it’s fine to strive for excellence, but it’s sobering to note that there are some who will never see and appreciate our hard-laboured visual subtleties. A few among them may listen to the soundtrack of our audio-visual creations. But on the whole, cinema, television and video are media catering to those who can both see and hear. Watching films like The Willow Tree, therefore, gives a sense of perspective to us that is not typically part of our daily work milieu.

In the end, we are what our sensory perceptions make us. Yes, it’s a blessing to have all or most of our five senses (and some among us seem to have an as yet undefined sixth sense). But before we rejoice, it’s good to reflect that there may be other beings in the vast universe (or in other dimensions) with far greater powers of sensory perception in realms we have no way of knowing.

This is what American poet Harry Kemp (1883—1960) hinted at in his most famous poem, ‘Blind’:

THE SPRING blew trumpets of color;
Her Green sang in my brain—
I heard a blind man groping
“Tap—tap” with his cane;

I pitied him in his blindness;
But can I boast, “I see”?
Perhaps there walks a spirit
Close by, who pities me,—

A spirit who hears me tapping
The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such unguessed glories—
That I am worse than blind.

The Willow Tree