Living with diversity: Salad or soup, asks Mallika Sarabhai

Standing up for a pluralistic society

Standing up for a pluralistic society


The recently concluded general election in India saw thousands of candidates contest to enter the Indian Parliament. Among the candidates I watched closely were writer Shashi Tharoor (who ran on the Congress ticket and was elected from Kerala state) and dancer Mallika Sarabhai (who ran as an independent candidate in the Gujarat state and didn’t win).

The classical dancer turned social activist had one of the more colourful campaigns in the world’s largest election: her public rallies included dance numbers, and her website (UPDATE in March 2013: no longer online) – featuring interactive elements like blogging, flickr images and online fund raising – was ranked the best by a communication research agency.

But where Mallika – whose performances I have enjoyed watching on successive visits to her home town of Ahmedabad – really stood out was in whom she opposed. She was the independent candidate from Gandhinagar, one of India’s most high-profile constituencies, a state capital that has been polarized along Hindu-Muslim lines since riots in 2002. Her opponent was Lal Krishna Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.

Mallika Sarabhai dances during campaign trail

Mallika Sarabhai dances during campaign trail

The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. The 82-year-old veteran politician epitomised Hindu nationalism and majority hegemony with its attendant intolerance of minorities. Mallika, hailing from an upper class Indian family of freedom fighters, industrialists and intellectuals (her father Vikram Sarabhai was father of the Indian space programme), stood for pluralism, non-violence and tolerance. When she entered the fray in March 2009, she described her candidature as a Satyagraha against the politics of hatred.

She didn’t win the election, but lost with grace and dignity. Within days, she wrote in Outlook magazine one of the most remarkable pieces coming out of the cacophonous Indian election. She made it into an open letter addressed it to L K Advani, her main opponent.

“As a proud Hindu and a proud Indian, I feel vilified by you,” she wrote. “You have reduced the great Sanatana philosophy to a Taliban-style Hindutva. As an Indian, you have tried to reduce my identity to a single factor—Hindu or not. You let your goons, saffron-clad terror units wielding lathis and worse, terrorise us and live above the laws of this country.”

For me, the most insightful paragraph is this where she takes on what it means to live with the huge cultural, social and political diversity that makes up India: “I am a post-Independence Indian. I was brought up to value and treasure my unique Indianness, to value our Constitution, which gives equal rights to all Indians, irrespective of belief, culture, practice or language. I learnt to revel in the differences that made us a rainbow country. We are a salad-like melange of cultures and not a soup where all variations get reduced to a homogeneous pulp—this, to me, is our greatest strength.”

Read full text of Dear Shri Advani by Mallika Sarabhai

Eschewing grand speeches, microphones, banners and slogans, she just listened to voters

Eschewing grand speeches, microphones, banners and slogans, she just listened to voters

Salad or soup – that’s an interesting way of framing the challenge. And not just in the delightful melting pot that is India, but in many other mixed-up, tossed up cultures and societies of today…not the least in my native Sri Lanka, where we have seen the primitive forces of tribalism over-ride all other considerations in recent years. One released, it’s very hard to put this genie back in the bottle.

And how I wish our own privileged upper middle classes would take to the rough and dirty game of politics, if only to stand up against the peddlers of hatred and hegemony. If only…

Mallika could easily have continued her cultural work through the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and her social activism. She decided to take the plunge this year because she thought the time had come to get into active politics. She was encouraged by her friends, mainly social activists, united under the banner of Friends of Democracy. Mallika is one of the several petitioners demanding justice in the post-Godhra riot cases. She was quoted in The Times of India as saying she decided not to join any party as she believed that there was no party free of corruption, criminalization and horse-trading.

As the Washington Post reported during her campaign trail: “Sarabhai, one of a handful of professional people running as independents in the upcoming elections, rejects the standard Indian political appeals to caste, religion and linguistic ethnicity, and speaks of empowering voters to unseat corrupt and ineffective politicians. Her campaign, she said, seeks to reclaim the shrinking space left for ordinary people’s voices in a democracy dominated by political parties that too often rely on mudslinging, muscle-flexing and money power.”

She and other courageous Indians have miles to go before they can sleep. Encouragingly, she has pledged that her campaign will continue.

As she says signing off her essay in Outlook: “I may have lost this election, but I will continue to work for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, and to ensure that their voice shall be silenced no more.”

Images courtesy Mallika Sarabhai campaign website and Friends of Democracy Flickr account

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Sri Lanka: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

This is one of my favourite images. Showing southern part of India and my native Sri Lanka, it was captured by one of the early US space missions, nearly four decades ago.

Much has happened on the tear-drop shaped island since this image was taken: among other things, we’ve been through a civil war that lasted a generation, and robbed the dreams of at least two generations. That war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

The Day After, on 19 May 2009, I wrote a 1,500-word essay titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. The editor of Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism website, published it in full, and within minutes of my emailing the text to him.

I’m humbled and gratified that in the past few days, it has been widely read, commented on, quoted online and reproduced. Some have agreed with me; others have dismissed me as a naive dreamer. A writer cannot ask for more.

20 May 2009: MediaChannel.org (New York) reproduces the essay in full


24 May 2009: The Sunday Leader (Colombo) reprints the essay in full

I look back briefly on the brutal and tragic war – not in anger, but in great sadness. I then look forward in a wistful, dreamy mode. My premise was: “Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.”

This is not exactly what I’ve been trained to do. As a science writer and film-maker, I gather and analyse information, which I try to present in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In recent years, I’ve also been writing op ed essays in areas where I have some competence and experience. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions, which others have already started in earnest. I wrote this at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

But my training did come in handy in framing the timely and necessary questions. My chosen ‘author intro’ for this essay thus reads: “Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer.”

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions this week are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers on Groundviews pointed out in their comments, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? I don’t think so. We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again.

There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams. One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Post-war Sri Lanka: Can we dial up a better future?

Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)

Chamara Pahalawattage: At 18, he is already using his 6th mobile (Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP)


When many able-bodied young men and women of his age were joining the armed forces in large numbers, Sri Lankan school-leaver Chamara Pahalawattage chose differently. He decided to try his luck with odd jobs at construction sites.

That, by itself, was nothing unusual. Tens of thousands of young men and women like Chamara join the labour market every year. Schools don’t equip them with attitudes or skills for self employment, so most would idle years away looking for regular jobs in Sri Lanka’s public and private sectors. Frustration would prompt some to take to political agitation, or worse.

Chamara is at such crossroads in his own life, but he is unlikely to go astray. The enterprising young man has boosted his chances of part-time work by getting himself a mobile phone.

“After buying a phone, I get calls asking me to come for work. The phone makes it so easy,” he says. “Otherwise people will have to come looking for me…or I have to go to them.”

If a skilled mason or carpenter takes him on as an assistant, Chamara gets a daily wage of LKR 700 (US$ 6 approx) plus a mid-day meal. That income augments the modest LKR 4,000 a month (US$35) his mother makes cooking meals at a nearby factory.

In February 2009, we filmed a day in the life of Chamara, a resident of Gonapola, in Sri Lanka’s western province. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia.

Watch our short video profile of Chamara Pahalawattage:

Going by his household income, Chamara is BOP at the moment – but his aspirations extend above and beyond. An only child raised by his widowed mother, Chamara developed an interest in mobiles while still in his mid teens. He bought his first mobile two years ago, when in Grade 11 at school.

“Almost everyone had phones, so I also wanted one,” he recalls. “From then on, I got used to having a phone!”

And has he been keeping up with technology! He buys second-hand phones for better features: he currently owns his sixth phone in just over two years. He had paid LKR 7,500 (US$ 65) for his latest phone at the beginning of 2009.

Besides voice and SMS (texting), his phone supports MP3, video recording, song downloading, voice recording and some other functions. After a hard day’s work, he unwinds listening to the radio, or swapping songs with friends — all using their mobiles.

Chamra spends an average of US$3 to 4.50 per month on phone use, and – like all other BOP telephone users we interviewed in India, Philippines and Thailand – he is thrifty with value added services that cost extra. This is something that has been confirmed by LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP 2008 survey.

“Some of my friends access the internet through their phones and download songs,” he says. “I then get these songs from them. My phone has bluetooth. I use it to transfer songs from my friends’ phones.”

Chamara has every intention of moving up the labour market – someday, he wants to hold a more regular job, with an assured monthly income. Right now, in spite of being connected, he can’t predict how many days a month he’d find work.

Hello, can you hear our dreams?

Hello, can you hear our dreams? Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

“I don’t check newspapers for jobs. Instead I ask the people I know…mostly my friends,” he says. This probably indicates another shift from a wide-spread habit among literate Sri Lankans scanning newspapers for recruitment notices.

LBO 9 March 2009: Sri Lankan low income customers can use mobiles more for business: study

The official end of the 30-year-long war should be good news for Chamara and millions of other tech-savvy, eager youth like him. Like me, they can once again start dreaming of better tomorrows.

Telecommunications would be a good place to start. For several years, it has been the fastest growing sector in the Sri Lankan economy — one that has not only connected people across distances and cultures, but also been a ‘social leveller’.

The telephone subscriber base grew by 35.5% in 2008 (and 47% in 2007). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 71.9 in 2008, from 53.4 in 2007 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

As I noted last year: “It is not by accident that telecom has remained the fastest growing sector in the economy for a decade. This was triggered and sustained by the far-reaching policy and regulatory reforms which ended the then fully state-owned telecom operator’s monopoly, and allowed the entry of new players, technologies and business models.”

Of course, improved telecommunications are necessary, but not sufficient by itself, for us to evolve into an inclusive information society. Building on technology and systems, we must become discerning creators and users of information. Knowledge – not paranoia or rhetoric – needs to form the basis of policy and actions that propel us to the future.

Photos courtesy Niroshan Fernando, TVE Asia Pacific

I remember Auden: We must love one another or die…

W H Auden (1907 - 1973)

W H Auden (1907 - 1973)

It begins in a bar, and ends with a prayer. It was written in another century by a poet on the opposite side of the planet on the day the deadliest war in history broke out.

Almost 70 years later, at the end of my own 30-year-long war, I have been reading and re-reading September 1, 1939. I’m trying to make sense of what is happening around me. The near hysterical mass euphoria on one side, and bewildered dejection on the other.

I was just six when the poet W H Auden died, and only 13 when this bloody, protracted war started. As I wrote in an essay published on the day after the war ended, I have lived all my adult years with this war providing a constantly grim, sometimes highly disruptive backdrop.

I survived the war in its various phases, including uneasy lulls when guns were temporarily silent. I watched most of my own friends join the exodus of genes and talent from a land where they saw no hope or future. I chose to stay on, but questioned the wisdom of it each time a major atrocity took place. I went through six jobs and one marriage, and raised a child who would soon be the same age as I was when the war started.

Are we at the end of the long, dark tunnel? Is the promised land of peace and prosperity now at hand? Have we seen the last of multi-barrel guns, grenade launchers, helicopter gunships, claymore mines and the deadly suicide bombers? Or will national security and anti-terrorism continue to dictate what we can or cannot do as citizens in a free, democratic and finally peaceful country?

I honestly don’t know. Probably it’s too early to tell. But I’m uneasy with celebrations when so much healing and rebuilding need to be done. I’m worried about continuing the simplistic division of people into patriots and traitors. As I wrote earlier this week, this perception of Us and Them is our first landmine on the long road to peace. I don’t know why we as a people continue to insist on everything being in black and white. What happened to the myriad shades of grey?

For some months now, I’ve been turning to classical and modern poems for solace and comfort. When prose fails, verse must take over. Auden himself disliked this poem, but few words in English move me as his line: “We must love one another or die.”

So here it is, the full and original words of September 1, 1939 – for whatever resonance it may offer us across the gulf of seven decades straddling two centuries:

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

– W. H. Auden

Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune

Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune

In our troubled times, cartoonists often provide more than mere caricature and entertainment. War and peace are no laughing matters, and neither is the profound advice some cartoons offer us. As a product of our image-saturated, popular culture driven world, I derive part of my insights from cartoonist-philosophers whose economy of words is unbeatable.

I haven’t discovered exactly what provoked the American cartoonist Jeff MacNelly (1947 – 2000) to draw this brilliantly perceptive cartoon in May 1992. But the three-time Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Chicago Tribune (and creator of popular comic strip Shoe) has captured a sentiment that has characterised so many tensions and suspicions in his land and mine: us and them.

It’s at the root of so much conflict and grief, be it between Islam and the West, or Israel and Palestine, or Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Its entirely a matter of perception, largely a creation of our insecure and insular minds. Yet we argue, wage war and kill each other for the sake of this strong tribal perception.

In an op ed essay published on Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews today, titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace, I asked:

“Can we as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa? How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow political violence and war ever again? Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?”

Indeed, one of the first – and hardest – challenges as we try to unify Sri Lankans and rebuild our war-ravaged country is to get over this division.

Read the full essay: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Can our suspended dreams resume after the war?

Once thought extinct, this rare bird has reportedly been seen again in Sri Lanka...now we await confirmation!

Once thought extinct, this rare bird has reportedly been seen again in Sri Lanka...but we await confirmation!

22 May 2009: I remember Auden: We must love one another or die…
19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace

They say the long and bloody Sri Lankan civil war is over, and I’d say not a moment too soon. I really want to believe it. I simply must: the alternative is too depressing to consider.

Sure, there is no independent verification – it has been a war without witnesses for the last few years. But I am willing to take an unusual leap of faith if that’s what it takes to usher in the long-elusive peace. I will go to the ends of the earth, and suspend disbelief if I have to, in return for lasting and meaningful peace.

As we stand on the threshold of change – with the promise of peace – I am overwhelmed with memories of a tragic past. And I hope we can once again start dreaming of a better future – and make it happen.

After a hiatus of three decades – three quarters of my own life – I dare to dream again. I hope other Lankans will soon revive and resume their suspended dreams.

So what kind of a future Sri Lanka can we, must we, should we now dare to dream about? Where do we look for the vision and inspiration?

One of the greatest poet philosophers of the East had articulated many decades ago the very essence of my dream for a post-war Sri Lanka. I once heard the late Lakshman Kadirgamar – another tragic casualty of our war – render these momentous words at a South Asian gathering in his impeccable English which brought out all its nuances.

Across the gulf of space and time, Rabindranath Tagore speaks for many of us:

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

Posted on 19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace

Op ed published on 19 May 2009: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

‘Can you hear us now?’ India’s bottom millions connect to information society

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

At the end of the world’s largest general election that lasted nearly a month, Indians have just re-elected the Congress Party to govern over the world’s largest democracy for another five year term.

It’s too early to discuss what role, if any, the recently enhanced telecommunications services played in this outcome. But there is no doubt that access to telephones – especially mobiles – has revolutionised the life of the billion plus Indians in the past few years.

Farmer Sayar Singh epitomises this change. Earlier this year, we filmed a day in the life of Sayar, a resident of Pushkar Nala in India’s Rajasthan state. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of LIRNEasia.

Sayar is definitely BOP: growing wheat and flowers on his ancestral land, he makes around INR 6,000 (USD 115) a month – on which income he sustains an extended family that comprises his wife, four children, elderly father and an unmarried sister. Life isn’t easy for this 33-year-old, but his spirit of enterprise is as abundant as his praise for his newly acquired mobile phone.

He only bought a mobile in mid 2008, but eight months later, that investment had definitely improved business and social life for him. So much so that his life’s narrative is clearly divided as Before Mobile and After Mobile.

“Our life before the mobile phone was hard,” he says. “I took two days to do what I can now do in a day. Now I can get in touch immediately and all my work happens faster and more easily!”

He now tracks market prices and moves his produce quickly for better profits. With workload reduced and income doubled, Sayar has reaped dual benefits from his mobile.

Watch our short profile of Sayar Singh, ardent promoter of mobile phones in rural India:

This isn’t Sayar’s first experience with owning a telephone. Earlier, he was frustrated with a fixed phone that didn’t work half the time. The service was so bad that he gave up the phone after a while.

He recalls: “Phone wires in our village were often faulty. They used to be out of order for 2 or 4 days, sometimes even half a month! All my work was affected. I couldn’t talk to my brothers and sisters. Call charges were also high. When my phone line was down, I had to call from STD booths or neighbours’ phones.”

In our interview, Sayar kept referring to his fixed phone connection as ‘government phone’ – a reflection of the state-owned former monopoly. It was a reminder of just how bad telecom services were in India until only a few years ago.

As Shashi Tharoor, the former UN Undersecretary General – who, incidentally, has just been elected into Indian Parliament from his native Kerala state – has remarked, India had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world.

He wrote in 2007: “Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that.”

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Tharoor recalled the infamous words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister in the 1970s, C.M. Stephen. In response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, the minister declared in Parliament that telephones were a luxury, not a right. He added that ‘any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone’ — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

According to Tharoor, Mr Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude: ignorant, wrong-headed, unconstructive, self-righteous, complacent, unresponsive and insulting. “It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.”

All this didn’t change overnight, and as Tharoor reflects, the key contribution of the government was ‘in getting out of the way’ — in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.”

It still took time for this revolution to be felt at the bottom of the pyramid. As LIRNEasia says: “Just five years ago, the Indian telecom industry’s massive momentum barely included the poor. The country had slightly over seven access paths (fixed and mobile connections) per 100 people, but in rural India 100 people were served by only 1.5 access paths. Even in urban India, the poor were unconnected.”

Then things started changing rapidly. According to LIRNEasia’s latest teleuse@BOP survey, 45 per cent of Indian BOP teleuser households had a phone in late 2008: 37% had a mobile only; 5% had a fixed phone only; and 3% had both. This is massive progress from the 19 percent of BOP homes with a phone just two years ago. Read more about BOP telephone penetration and use in India.

Tharoor has called this the “mobile miracle” — one that has accomplished something socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve: empowering the less fortunate. Rapid mobile penetration in my native Sri Lanka has had a comparable social transformation – in a commentary last year, I called the ubiquitous mobile ‘Everyman’s new trousers’.

Of course, the mobile revolution is far from over. There are many more millions yet to be connected, and those already connected expect affordable, reliable and value-added services.

“Indian BOP is still in the mobile 1.0 mode using mainly voice and missed calls functionality. Messaging is being used by only a third of the BOP population. Mobile payment and government services use is almost non-existent,” Rohan Samarajiva, chairman and CEO, LIRNEasia, was quoted as saying soon after the latest study was presented in India in February 2009.

How far and how much value added mobile services can penetrate the BOP remains to be seen. Sayar Singh, for example, currently spends US$ 8.6 to 9.5 a month on phone services – over 8% of his enhanced monthly income.

“I haven’t subscribed to any services like cricket news or astrological forecasts. I don’t need them…and I don’t want to spend on them,” he said in our interview.

But mobile telephony is an area where the boldest projections have been exceeded – so never say never.

Photos by Suchit Nanda for TVE Asia Pacific

Cellphones and the Economic Modernization of India: Listen to Shashi Tharoor at Asia Society, NY, in 2007: