By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 15, 2006; A01
Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/14/AR2006101400342_pf.html. Accessed on 10/15/2006. Reprinted with permission.
In choppy, gray seas four miles from shore near
Within five minutes, the cellphone hanging around his neck rang.
"Hallo!" he shouted, struggling to hear over the big diesel engines of his 74-foot boat, Andavan. "Medium sized! Medium sized!" he said, estimating the haul for a wholesale agent calling from port, who had heard by cellphone from other skippers that Rajan had just set his nets.
Minutes later Rajan's phone rang again -- another agent at a different port.
"When I have a big catch, the phone rings 60 or 70 times before I get to port," he said.
The cellphone is bringing new economic clout,
profit and productivity to Rajan and millions of
other poor laborers in
At the beginning of 2000,
That explosive growth has meant greater access to markets, more information about prices and new customers for tens of millions of Indian farmers and fishermen.
A convenience taken for granted in wealthy nations, the cellphone is putting cash in the pockets of people for whom a dollar is a good day's wage. And it has made market-savvy entrepreneurs out of sheepherders, rickshaw drivers and even the acrobatic men who shinny up palm trees to harvest coconuts here in Kerala state.
"This has changed the entire dynamics of communications and how they
organize their lives," said C.K. Prahalad, an
India-born business professor at the
"One element of poverty is the lack of information," Prahalad said. "The cellphone gives poor people as much information as the middleman."
For less than a penny a minute -- the world's cheapest cellphone
call rates -- farmers in remote areas can check prices for their produce. They
call around to local markets to find the best deal. They also track global
trends using cellphone-based Internet services that
show the price of pumpkins or bananas in
Indian farmers use camera-phones to snap pictures of crop pests, then send the photos by cellphone to biologists who can identify the bug and suggest ways to combat it. In cities, painters, carpenters and plumbers who once begged for work door-to-door say they now have all the work they can handle because customers can reach them instantly by cellphone.
T.V. Ramachandran, director general of the
Cellular Operators Association of India, a private industry group, said
construction of new cell towers is expanding most rapidly in rural areas, and
In a country where the World Bank calculates that nearly 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Ramachandran said cellphones have become the "poor man's phone."
Updating a Tradition
The sky was black and hot at 4:44 a.m. on a late September day when the Andavan, a 74-foot, steel-hulled boat owned by Rajan and 14 other fishermen, pulled away from the dock and headed into the Arabian Sea. A candle and two sticks of incense burned in a little Hindu shrine in the bow, which curved skyward like the nose of a giant canoe. Rajan sat there in the flickering light, while the rest of the crew mingled about the open deck, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and listening to Indian pop music.
They fish these waters as their fathers and grandfathers did -- barefoot,
with their lower bodies wrapped in a sarong-like cotton cloth called a lungi. Like generations
of their families, they fish with a seine, a traditional net, a half-mile-long
web that surrounds and captures sardines -- a cheap staple that fills bellies
from dirt-floor Kerala kitchens to fancy
For the millions of fishermen who work off of
"The two crucial changes that have happened in my lifetime," said Jayan Kadavunkassery, 37, an Andavan crewman in a pink button-down shirt and a lungi, "are the inboard motor and the mobile phone."
Rajan said that before he got his first cellphone a few years ago, he used to arrive at port with a load of fish and hope for the best. The wholesaler on the dock knew that Rajan's un-iced catch wouldn't last long in the fiery Indian sun. So, Rajan said, he was forced to take whatever price was offered -- without having any idea whether dealers in the next port were offering twice as much.
Now he calls several ports while he's still at sea to find the best prices, playing the dealers against one another to drive up the price.
New Balance of Power
Rajan said the dealers don't necessarily like the
new balance of power, but they are paying better prices to him and thousands of
other fishermen who work this lush stretch of coastline. "They are forced
to give us more money because there is competition," said Rajan, who estimated that his income has at least tripled
to an average of $150 a month since 2000, when cellphones
began booming in
"When I was a kid we never had enough money for clothes and books, so we never really went to school," said Rajan, 50. "Now everything is different."
At 5:30 a.m., Rajan's cellphone rang for the first of dozens of times that day. Rajan pulled it out of his breast pocket, where he keeps it at the end of a red cord around his neck, in a plastic protective case. The captain of another boat cutting through the dark sea, visible only by its red and green running lights, was calling to plot strategy.
The skippers agreed that they would steam about 14 miles offshore, where Rajan's crew had landed almost $2,000 worth of sardines two days earlier, a great catch. In a flurry of calls, Rajan and other skippers were all clearly worried because yesterday had been a disaster. After 12 hours at sea under a broiling sun, nobody had caught enough sardines to make a decent lunch for a cat.
"I can't imagine life without my phone," said Rajan, who has curly hair, a graying beard and a body hardened by work. Before cellphones, he said, he couldn't communicate with other boat captains. Few of them could afford expensive marine radios, so if someone hit upon a massive school of sardines, there was no way to alert friends on other boats.
And if the boat broke down, as they frequently do, Rajan said he'd have to wait at sea and hope that help happened along. Now he can call his mechanic, who also carries a cellphone, to ask for emergency service. And if the crew has a family emergency on shore, the news arrives instantly -- as it did a week ago when a crewman's father-in-law died suddenly.
"We should have had this power a long time ago," Rajan said, as a pink-orange sunrise peeked through the clouds.
After nine hours at sea, at 1:44 p.m., Rajan was ready to give up for the day. The wind was kicking up a choppy sea, making it hard to spot the ripples and sparkles made by schools of sardines. Then, from his perch high in the bow, he spotted them about 50 yards away. He jumped up and down and shouted to the crew members, who scrambled to their places.
The crewman at the wheel pushed the throttle all the way forward, and the Andavan kicked into high gear, making a huge circle around the fish. Crewmen played out the net from the stern, where it had been neatly packed. The net has floats at the top and weights at the bottom. Once it's set around the fish, the crewmen use a winch to close it like a giant purse. The crew then hauls in the net and the fish inside by hand -- a process that can take hours.
Eyeing the six-inch fish flailing against the net, Rajan could see he had a decent catch, on the small side of average. As they hauled the net, the delighted crew sang a work song, whose refrain in Hindi meant, "Together we can do this."
Rajan's phone rang a half-dozen times in a half-hour, with calls from dealers in different ports, buyers and other boat captains. Rajan talked quickly and kept hauling. When most of the net was in, the crew used small nets to scoop the fish from the water and dump them into the 45-foot open boat that is towed behind the Andavan.
By 3 p.m., the open boat was loaded with fish and the Andavan turned toward port, an hour away. Standing on the deck soaked with sweat, Rajan started returning phone calls. He dialed the number of the wholesale agent at his home port, who offered about $13 for each 110-pound box of fish -- about 12 cents a pound.
Rajan agreed to the deal. He said if his load had been bigger and it had been earlier in the day, he would have called around to check prices at other ports. But he said for a smallish load late in the day, the first price offered was fair. And he said the dealer was forced to offer a decent price, knowing that Rajan could still go elsewhere. As insurance, Rajan returned the call of the other dealer who had called him, just to keep good relations for another day.
Rajan said that without his phone, his catch might have gone to waste. Because he called ahead to the port, buyers there knew that he was coming, what kind of fish he had and the size of his catch. In the past, Rajan said, he would sometimes arrive at port late in the day only to find that all the buyers had gone home, unaware that another boat was coming. His catch would go unsold, and he and his crew would go unpaid.
"Even if it takes us one or two hours to get there, they will still be waiting for us," Rajan said, smoking a cigarette on the Andavan's deck. "It was never like that before."
At least 100 people were waiting on the dock when the Andavan arrived. Workers in bright orange shirts hustled into the 45-foot boat and, standing knee-deep in silvery sardines, began scooping tens of thousands of fish into plastic milk crates and tossing them onto the wharf. Buyers -- women in long dresses, men in lungi -- crammed in tight to buy fish, passing cash to the wholesale agent, who recorded each sale in a notebook.
Rajan and his crew had landed just under 1,800 pounds of fish -- better than the previous day's washout, but barely one-tenth the size of their haul two days earlier. Even technology can't make the sea predictable, Rajan said. The fish brought $220, which barely paid for the crew and the diesel. But Rajan said it was probably twice what he might have earned for the same catch in the days before cellphones.
And, he said, counting soggy bills on the wharf, the fishing is always better tomorrow.
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