In America, February 3, 1959, was dubbed “the day the music died” by singer Don McLean to commemorate the date on which musician Buddy Holly and three others died when their plane crashed into an Iowa cornfield. In India, July 31, 1995, can be dubbed “the day the landline telephone learned that it was terminally ill.”

That was the day India’s first phone call was made on a mobile device. For disruption and social change, the mobile may have been the biggest thing since shoes. It wasn’t sudden death for the landline. There were still 26 million landline subscribers in April 2015. But there were 970 million mobile subscribers. They owned devices with powers that would have seemed magical to most of India 20 years ago.

Manuel Castells, the celebrated Spanish sociologist, hit the electronic nail on its digital head when he wrote: “It’s not the mobility. It’s the autonomy.”  Until the cheap mobile phone, media were controlled almost exclusively by elites and served their interests. From the earliest forms of writing on clay tablets to the expensive parchment of the Middle Ages and the titanic printing presses of the Hearsts and Murdochs, controlling and disseminating information required wealth and reinforced power.

“Freedom of the press,” the American writer A. J. Liebling declared, “is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The mobile phone shifted the balance. A little.

 Homo hierarchicus

This was especially true in a caste-conscious society in which the “lower orders” were banned from reading or even hearing the sacred scriptures. Ritually sanctioned restrictions meant that reading, writing and communicating were not for lower-caste hoi polloi.

The British, too, were happy to restrict and control dissemination of information in India. Things did not change all that much after independence. The first amendment to the Indian constitution curtailed freedom of the press, unlike the first amendment to the American constitution, which aimed to guarantee it. The fact that there are still no news broadcasts on radio, except through Akashvani and its clones, results from the fear of the trouble that unchained media can cause for law and order.

Satellite communication as a means of providing television transmission wasn’t anticipated by the British or India’s constitution-makers. By the time satellite television sneaked into India in the early 1990s, using facilities beyond India’s borders, it was too late and too difficult to bring TV to heel.

Equalising force

Everywhere in the world, cheap mobile phones have changed behaviour. But the effect in India has been more dramatic than anywhere else. The mobile phone is so small and concealable. A young person (and an old one too) can have a mobile, hide it and relish secret conversations. No wonder village greybeards get nervous.

The autonomy that Castells wrote about makes the mobile an explosive device for gender relations and families. A staple of newspapers and television for the past several years is the story of the village or the caste panchayat that bans women under a particular age from having a mobile phone. They might get up to mischief, ignore their duties, run their own bank accounts, receive payments for their work (like the accredited social health activists of Bihar) or arrange meetings.

Tens of millions of families have had to establish rules for who controls the mobile. Simply having to ask the question is a disruption.

In politics and social organisation, the cheap mobile brings new capacity to poor people. The Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, owed a fair measure of its success in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh elections to the fact that its highly motivated workers for the first time could communicate with the party organization and each other as often as they needed to. They had an unlikely programme to sell: the idea that Brahmins and Dalits had interests in common and needed to vote for the BSP. An elaborate booth-based organization spread the message and brought an outright victory in a low-turnout election. The BSP ran a tech-based, Obama-style campaign before Obama did.

The cheap mobile also stirs up economic and cultural activity. Some regional music traditions, once thought to be confined to their neighbourhood and slowly dying, have found national audiences through transmission via mobile phones.

Shopkeepers have become small-time technicians as they learn how to recharge phones and explain their workings to customers. India’s 12 competing telecom companies introduce employees and customers to the joys and sorrows of capitalism. New value added services – from social media to gaming – pop up daily.

Small irony

That first mobile phone call 20 years ago carried a certain irony. The man who placed the call was Sukh Ram, then Minister of Communications, who earlier this month was convicted of bribe-taking. (He had his five-year sentence suspended by the Delhi High Court on the grounds of old age and ill health). Sukh Ram enjoyed handsome benefits from his role in the first allocations of radio frequency spectrum, on which mobile telephony is based.

And though those allocation processes were often deeply flawed, the explosive spread of the mobile phone eventually provided a success story for champions of free enterprise. The irony stemmed from the fact that the recipient of that first call was the respected chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, doyen of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

It took another six years for Prime Minister Vajpayee’s BJP-led government to abandon earlier telecom policies and knock holes in some of the barriers that kept private capital out of the mouth-watering mobile phone business. Once that happened, the figures were spectacular. In 2003, India had 13 million mobile-phone subscribers; by 2008, it had 261 million, a 20-fold increase in five years. By 2013, the figure trebled again to 868 million.

In 2003, the two government telecom companies had 97 per cent of all telephone subscribers. Their share today is about 8 per cent. The country’s ten private telecom companies control 92 per cent.

The big-money corruption and dreadful public policy that have accompanied the expansion of telecommunications aren’t unique to India. They recall the expansion of railways in North America 130 years ago when corrupt acquisition of public land was rife. Stanford University was founded by a railway tycoon, about whom Wikipedia delicately says, “Many consider him a robber baron.”

In some ways, India is doing better than the Americans and Canadians did in managing railway growth. Since the 2G scandal involving A Raja and the Radia tapes, spectrum auctions appear to have been handled honestly. Though telecom policy remains a mishmash of authorities and regulations, what is important for most people is that they can afford a handheld device that is so much more than “a phone.” They will cry out in anger if they ever have to do without it.

Double-edged instrument

However, before anyone suggests erecting a statue of a Nokia 2110 to stand next to the world’s largest statue of Vallabhbhai Patel as twin monuments to India’s freedom, one needs to recognize the insidious side of the technology.

If mobiles help ordinary people to learn, organize and do things, they also allow dirty deeds to be done more widely and effectively than ever before. From small-time scams to take money from gullible phone users, to the mobile-phone directives that the Mumbai terrorists received in November 2008, mobiles make crime and terror easier. Extortion, harassment and pornography can flourish.

So does garbage. With new phone models released almost daily, the life of a mobile is short. Advertisers implore us to change our phones as if they were shirts and socks. What is to be done with the mountains of toxic, electronic waste? Those mountains are mostly dealt with by poor, low-status people who jeopardize their lives to salvage value from the tiny device that hundreds of millions now take for granted.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey are the authors of Cell Phone Nation, published by Hachette India in 2013. They are writing a book about garbage.