Asian Tsunami+5: Are we sure there won’t be a surprise next time?

A monumental failure in communication...

This is one of the most memorable cartoons about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. It was drawn by Jim Morin, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Miami Herald.

It summed up, brilliantly, one of the biggest shocks associated with that mega-disaster. As I wrote in my op ed essay to mark the fifth anniversary: “It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.”

Chanuka Wattegama

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, trained as an engineer and now working as a senior research manager at LIRNEasia, has studied this vital aspect of early warnings. He contributed a whole chapter on the subject to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

After doing a dispassionate analysis of what went wrong in Sri Lanka in the crucial hours just before and during the 2004 tsunami, he asked: “So what remedies one can suggest so that when the next disaster happens — which may or may not be a tsunami — we do not see the same series of events repeated? What exactly is the role that the media can play?”

He outlined five action areas, all of which can be read in his chapter available for free online access (as is the rest of the book).

Here’s an excerpt:

Disaster warning is everyone’s business: Life for most of us would have been easier had the government taken full charge of disaster warnings. Unfortunately, the things do not work that way. These are some of key stakeholders and they have specific roles that they can play:

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

• The scientific community: Develop the early warning systems based on their expertise, support the design of scientific and systematic monitoring and warning services and translate technical information to layman’s language.
• National governments: Adopt policies and frameworks that facilitate early warning, operate Early Warning Systems, issue warnings for their country in a timely and effective manner.
• Local governments: Analyse and store critical knowledge of the hazards to which the communities are exposed. Provide this information to the national governments
• International bodies: Provide financial and technical support for national early warning activities and foster the exchange of data and knowledge between individual countries.
• Regional institutions and organizations: Provide specialized knowledge and advice in support of national efforts, to develop or sustain operational capabilities experienced by countries that share a common geographical environment.
• Non-governmental organizations: Play a critical role in raising awareness among individuals and organizations involved in early warning and in the implementation of early warning systems, particularly at the community level.
• The private sector: Play an essential role in implementing the solutions, using their know-how or donations (in-kind or cash) of goods or services, especially for the communication, dissemination and response elements of early warning.
• The media: It has to play an important role in improving the disaster consciousness of the general population, and disseminating early warnings. This can be the critical link between the agency that offer the warning and the recipients.
• Communities: These are central to people-oriented early warning systems. Their input to system-design and their ability to respond ultimately determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards.

And here’s his conclusion:
“Technology is important. The sole reason behind the seemingly incredible advancements that have happened in the field of human development is the spurt in the growth of new technology. However without people to handle it properly, the technology per se can achieve little. What we can expect a sophisticate earthquake detecting device to do, if there are no human beings to take note what it indicates? So, while giving technology its due position, let us focus on the people-side of the problems. “

Spoken like an uncommon engineer, for sure.

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

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

‘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:

Sleeping easy along the shore: Going the Last Mile with hazard warnings


October 8 is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The United Nations system observes the day ‘to raise the profile of disaster risk reduction, and encourage every citizen and government to take part in building more resilient communities and nations’.

Disaster risk reduction (abbreviated as DRR) is the common term for many and varied techniques that focus on preventing or minimising the effects of disasters. DRR measures either seek to reduce the likelihood of a disaster occurring, or strengthen the people’s ability to respond to it.

DRR is not just another lofty piece of developmentspeak. Unlike many other development measures that are full of cold statistics and/or hot air, this one directly (and quietly) saves lives, jobs and properties.

And it gives people peace of mind – we can’t put a value on that. That was the point I made in a blog post written in December 2007, on the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Taking the personal example of J A Malani, an ordinary Sri Lankan woman living in Hambantota, on the island’s southern coast, I talked about how she has found peace of mind from a DRR initiative.

‘Evaluating Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project’ (HazInfo project for short) was an action research project by LIRNEasia to find out how communication technology and training can be used to safeguard grassroots communities from disasters. It involved Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, and several other partners including my own TVE Asia Pacific. It was supported by International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada.

Recently, IDRC’s inhouse series ‘Research that Matters’ has published an article about the project. Titled “For Easy Sleep Along the Shore: Making Hazard Warnings More Effective” its blurb reads: “In Sri Lanka, a grassroots pilot study combines advanced communication technologies with local volunteer networks to alert coastal villages to danger coming from the sea.”

The article has adapted a lot of the information and quotes I originally compiled for a project introductory note in April 2006.

The outcome of the project’s first phase, which ended in mid 2007, is well documented. My own reflective essay on this project is included as a chapter in our book Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, published by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP in December 2007.

TVE Asia Pacific also made a short video film in late 2007. Called The Long Last Mile , it can be viewed on YouTube in two parts:

The Long Last Mile, part 1 of 2:

The Long Last Mile, part 2 of 2:

The recent IDRC article ends with this para: “A related challenge concerns the shortness of any society’s attention span. In the absence of frequent crises and alerts, how can a nation — or even a village — sustain the continuing levels of preparedness essential to ensure that, when the next big wave comes rolling in and the sirens sound, its people will have the motivation and the capacity to act? The follow-up project seeks to address this worry by preparing the hotels and villages to respond to different types of hazards, rather than only to the relatively rare tsunamis.”

Watch this space.

Download pdf of IDRC’s Research That Matters profile on Last Mile Hazard Warning Project

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

Telecom Without Tears: Book Review

My review of the book, ICT Infrastructure in Emerging Asia: Policy and Regulatory Roadblocks, was printed in Financial Times on Sunday, Sri Lanka, on 18 May 2008.

The book, co-edited by Rohan Samarajiva (in photo, below) and Ayesha Zainudeen, is published jointly by Sage Books and Canada’s IDRC. It is based largely on the work of my friends and colleagues at LIRNEasia.

Although the book showcases recent telecom and ICT reform experiences in five economies in South and Southeast Asia (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka), my review takes a closer look at the Sri Lankan situation partly because I live and work there, and because the review was intended more at a Sri Lankan readership.

Here’s my opening:

“In the early 1990s, I had to wait for nearly six years for my first (fixed) telephone – I refused to pay bribes or use ‘connections’ to bypass thousands of others on the notorious waiting list. Earlier this year, when I bought an extra mobile phone SIM from Dialog GSM, it took six hours for the company to connect it. I found that a bit too long.

“How things have changed! Connectivity without (social) connections, and practically off-the-shelf, is now possible in most parts of Sri Lanka. Telecommunications is the fastest growing sector in the economy, recording 47 per cent growth in 2007 (and 58 per cent in 2006). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 54 in 2007, from 36 at the end of 2006 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones, which now outnumber fixed phones by three to one.”

One quick – albeit a bit unfortunate – way to introduce this book is that it apparently scared some sections of Sri Lanka’s state bureaucracy. When copies arrived from the Indian publisher earlier this year, they were held up at Customs for over three months for no logical or coherent reason. The editors speculated whether it had something to do with one chapter (among 13) looking at telephone use in war-ravaged Jaffna during the ceasefire (which lasted from 2002 to 2008), but this was neither confirmed nor denied.

In my review, I make the point: “It was a stark reminder, if any were needed, of the turbulent settings and often paranoid times in which telecom liberalisation has been taking place in many parts of emerging Asia.”

And I return to the larger political reality in my conclusion, as follows:
“Now that the ICT genie has been set loose, it’s impossible to push it back into the dusty lamp of the monopolist past, even under that much-abused bogey of ‘national security’ (or its new, freshly squeezed version, ‘war against terror’). Despite this, the officialdom and its ultra-nationalist cohorts don’t give up easily. While this book was in ‘state custody’, Sri Lankans experienced the first government-sanctioned blocking of mobile phone SMS – ironically on the day marking 60 years of political independence.

Photo below shows several contributing authors at the book’s launch in Chennai in December 2007

Read the review online

Download the review as a pdf document (47kb)

Read or download the book electronically from IDRC website