Colombo, Media and Communications

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

One day a few years ago, I found my uncle in a really bad mood. Enjoying his retirement after long years as a senior civil servant, he was highly agitated about what I considered to be a perfectly harmless utility: the mobile phone.

“Everyone is carrying hand phones these days,” he complained. “The plumber, door-to-door salesmen — and even the paan kaaraya.”

What really irked my uncle was not so much what they were carrying as who was using the gadget. In his worldview, the mobile phone was a sophisticated technology tool not meant for the hoi polloi. (Especially when ‘respectable’ citizens like himself still didn’t own one.)

My arguments on social and economic benefits of enhanced access to telecom services didn’t convince him. “You just wait and see — it’s only a matter of time before these fellows start using hand phones for all sorts of mischief and crime!”

He was right: the rapid proliferation of mobile phones has indeed been followed by a rise in their use in petty and serious crimes, as well as in certain acts of terrorism. This was inevitable — after all, crooks have been using fixed phones and motor vehicles for decades, and the combined facility of talking on the move would have been too much to resist.  But I didn’t agree with my uncle’s assertion that only people perceived to be of lower social class resort to such abuse of mobiles. In saying so, he was revealing his deep-rooted class bias.

That bias seems to be widely shared, and not just among retired or current civil servants. The phenomenal popularity of mobiles in Sri Lanka — which now has over 11 million SIMs for a population of 20 million — has made it the favourite whipping boy for the overbearing bureaucracy, privilege-conscious elites and the incompetent law enforcement system.

The near-ubiquitous mobile has also replaced satellite television and Internet as the bête noire of self-appointed guardians of our cultural values and morals.

The market success of new technologies often inspires apprehensions in some people. In fact, mobiles spread in Sri Lankan society considerably faster than other information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as the fixed phone, radio and television. It was thanks largely to mobiles that the country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) reached 54 in 2007, up from 36 at the end of 2006. They now outnumber fixed phones by three to one.

Even though everyone does not seem to celebrate this accomplishment, telecom has been the fastest growing sector in our economy for a decade, recording 47 per cent growth in 2007 (and 58 per cent in 2006). And while telecom contributes significantly to growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Sri Lanka, it draws no public funds whatsoever — thanks to far-sighted regulatory reforms introduced in the mid 1990s and sustained by successive governments.


Bottom of the Pyramid

A good part of this growth has come from expanding telecom services to the lower income groups — or those at the bottom of the pyramid. For example, a quarter of the market leader Dialog’s mobile subscribers spends an average of just Rs. 100 (USD 1) per month on telecom use. Yet Dialog Telekom’s Group CEO Dr Hans Wijayasuriya sees “a composite or a cumulative potential which is much greater than one dollar” in such customers. He adds: “But we need to structure a product which enables him or her to spend as little as a dollar in any one month.”

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

Consider these developments in the past 12 months:

  • In September 2007, the telecom ministry proposed a fixed monthly levy of Rs. 50 from every mobile phone, which would have affected the tight budgets of many low income users. Under pressure, the levy was soon withdrawn, but a usage based charge (Cellular Mobile Telephone Subscriber Levy) was quadrupled, from 2.5 to 10 per cent. This smacked of discrimination against mobiles, because fixed phones providing the same service were spared.
  • In October 2007, the media reported that people carrying mobiles with ‘pornographic photos’, if caught, will be charged under new regulations introduced under the Indecent Publications Act. Newspapers carried photos of policemen peeping into citizens’ mobiles: the long-feared ‘Cultural Police’ had truly arrived!
  • Not to be outdone, the child welfare also got into the act. As The Sunday Times reported on 11 November 2007: “The Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs is hoping to introduce a ban or implement strict regulations in 2008 over the use of mobile phones by youth under 18.” What motivated the authorities to go after mobiles in a country where issues of child soldiers, malnutrition and sex abuse of minors are rampant?

The latest in this series is what the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) announced recently: new regulations on mobile users requiring them to always carry a certificate of ownership, while also barring them from using phones belonging to others. As always, these rules are said to be for our own good: to help combat crime and serve national security.

The practicability of these new rules is already the subject of heated debate on the blogosphere: can and must everyone carry letters from telecom operators authenticating ownership? How does this affect the common practice of household members sharing a single mobile? What happens at the bottom of the pyramid, where such sharing generates self-employment through re-selling?


Elites strike back?

In search of answers, we must return to the biggest question: where is this wide-spread suspicion and hostility towards mobiles coming from?

LIRNEasia Executive Director (and former telecom regulator) Prof Rohan Samarajiva attributes it to “an atavistic hatred on the modern”. That partly explains it — the digital empowerment enabled by relatively low-cost, easy-to-use mobiles must surely threaten some people.

Last November, during a television interview, I asked Dialog CEO Wijayasuriya if he’d sensed subtle social resistance to mobile phones. His cautious answer: as mobiles moved across social strata, and the net of inclusion widened, there was some resistance. He went on: “Those phases of resistance were very short because the consumer was very quick to understand that this digital empowerment was opening up a new world of opportunity.”

To get at the heart of the matter, however, we need to return to my uncle — who belatedly bought himself a mobile. He didn’t really need one, and hardly uses the gadget even now. But he just couldn’t bare the thought of being surrounded by people who owned and used mobiles regularly.

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.

The one-liner of wisdom on some three wheelers — whose owners are grateful mobile users — sums it up neatly: Rusiyawata wediya lokui irisiyawa (rough translation: jealousy is a country bigger than Russia).

Sri Lanka may be a long way from becoming fully egalitarian, but meanwhile, jealousy and insecurity are not the best basis for formulating state policies or regulating ICTs.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a commentator on ICTs, media and development, and blogs at