It is migrants and not the geeks who are the early adopters of mobile phones!
– Stefana Broadbent, The Economist
That day on my way back from Kurla, I saw a man sitting at the edge of his hand-cart, speaking on his mobile. The contrast was striking – scruffy and full of sweat clothes (as if he had just finished delivering goods) and the peaceful smile on his face as he spoke over his mobile, most probably to his family back home. That smile was infectious. I smiled too and thought of the bond between migrant workers and their mobile – how quickly this community had taken to the usage of this tiny little gadget and how indispensable it had become for them.
At Aajeevika, when we started work with the migrant community, communication was one of the leading services in our basket. A number of people walking into our Shramik Kendras [migrant resource centers] dropped in primarily to call up their family in cities. That was our outreach strategy and it worked well for a year or two, till 2006. Slowly, the demand for the telephone service came down. This happened while we were busy expanding our operations and consolidating other services and somehow skipped our attention. It was our migrant registration data that drew our attention to the rising incidence of mobile ownership among migrant workforce – out of 38,000 registered migrants, 54 percent gave their mobile number at the time of registration. From 2008 to 2009, number of migrants owning a mobile had also grown from 38 to 54 percent!
A flurry of questions followed – how come workers, who struggle to earn 3000 a month, have taken to mobile usage? Does it make economic sense to them and has it had an impact on their incomes, prospects to finding jobs? How do illiterate people manage to use their phones etc? Driven by curiosity, last year, we did a small study to find what difference it was making in their lives. We spoke to a sample of 100 migrant workers in three cities – Ahmedabad, Udaipur and Jaipur. For the curious ones among the readers, our respondents were predominantly male with an average age of 27, 60 % were from the ST and SC community and most were employed in the construction sector as masons, helpers, and plumbers.
Many workers reported that mobiles had a favorable impact on finding work for daily wage labor. 84 percent said that they have greater access to information about work availability and finding work had now become easier. One of the respondents shared that if he found a big opportunity for work, he would immediately call his unemployed friends within the city and sometimes even from home. In the mandis, headloaders frequently helped each other in finding overtime using mobile phones. Some people also shared that could now contact employers directly, bringing down the dependence on contractors and middlemen!
Close to 2/3rd of the migrants reported a drop in frequency of going home after owning a mobile. With help of the gadget they were able to stay in touch with family and the anxiety related to family’s well-being was reduced. Close to 1/3rd spoke with family on a daily basis. For the short distance migrants, this had a positive impact on their stability at work, making them more employable. One crucial question was how much did mobile usage cost and if it had a positive impact on their net income? Majority of the workers spent Rs. 200 per month on their mobile. Given that mobiles reduced the frequency of going home and helped them find more work, this cost did not appear very high.
Notably, mobile was also an answer to their lonelinessin the city and the anxiety it caused. 86 per cent of migrants said that they felt safer in the city after owning a mobile. In the cities, as they said, they hardly knew anyone except few relatives/friends from their home village, who in some cases stayed afar. Now, with the mobiles in their hands, it has become easy to contact relatives in case of an emergency – whether it was shortage of money, ill health, accidents, or some payment issue with contractor/employer they could now reach out for help instantly.
Among the most significant findings was the increasing familiarity with mobile technology. Workers exhibited knowledge of what the ‘menu’ means, and how one had to ‘select’ one option out of the various options available. Mobile was serving as the first step, introducing them to such technology, which they could later use to access service at ATMs, railway ticket booking machines etc. Figure 1 gives % of respondents showing familiarity with select English words common in mobiles.
The high penetration and heavy usage of mobiles within this group, opens a new vista for Aajeevika’s migration services. 68 percent said that they could read messages in Hindi. Some recent trials of sending updates on insurance premium deadlines (based on this information) through sms has met with an encouraging response. This brings forth the possibility of integrating more sms-based services in our basket in future.
To end, it will not be an exaggeration to say that mobiles are changing the way workers communicate with family and their peers – it has become their electronic diary, their radio, their conduit of information, companion in loneliness – truly helping obtain a greater control on the world surrounding them and bringing alive Reliance’s ad call “Kar lo Gayi Duniya Mutthi Mein”
– Rahul Jain and Amrita Sharma, Aajeevika Bureau
[based on a study done by Rahul Jain, Aajeevika Bureau namely “Ho Gayi Duniya Muthhi Mein” The study report is available in Hindi, at request.]