May 9, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Ravi Agrawal

Deep Dish: What Happens When a Billion Indians Finally Get Online?

The spread of internet-connected smartphones in India is upending everything from jobs and marriage to politics and education. In 2000, only 20 million Indians had internet access. By 2020, more than 700 million will. Ravi Agrawal, author of India Connected, joins Deep Dish to explain how the smartphone is transforming the world's largest democracy. 




Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about a highly disruptive and potentially even life changing technology. The standard smartphone today, it’s really a marvel. But in the United States smartphones have become so commonplace that we more or less take them for granted. However, in other parts of the world this technology is truly revolutionary. My guest today, he is Ravi Agrawal who is the managing editor of foreign policy and was previously CNN's India bureau chief. For the last few years he's been traveling across India studying how the smartphone is rewiring the world's largest democracy from the ground up. He's got a new book about what he's learned called India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy. Ravi it's great to have you on Deep Dish.

Ravi Agrawal: Thank you very much, pleasure to be with you.

Brian Hanson: So I want to start with just the pace of the technological adaptation that's occurred. It was really just so powerfully presented in your book. And you know, I'm a guy who's high-school graduation gift was a typewriter. So the advance of technology in my own lifetime seems like it's been breathtaking. But what's happened in India is really extraordinary. Share with us how quickly this has emerged there.

Ravi Agrawal: Sure, I mean, so as you were saying, I mean you were gifted a typewriter for graduation and the thing is, if you go back to the year 2000, most Americans, a majority of Americans at that stage had PCs and they had telephone landlines. So it made sense then that in the year 2000 a majority of Americans were online, because they put the two of those things together and then they got dial-up internet. And from there they sort of evolved to cable and broadband and then routers were invented and they got Wi-Fi. And then after that we had the advent of 3G and 4G on smartphones. And that evolution that America's seen, that much of the West has seen, took place in India as well, but that was only for the richest 2% or 3%. Because again, in the year 2000, only 2% of Indians had PCs, only about 3% of Indians had telephone landlines. So it would then follow that only 2%, or less than that number had access to the internet. So that was 20 million in the year 2000. And it's only when cellular phones were invented that we had the advent of internet on a phone, that India's numbers really began to change. And so it jumps to about 100 million internet users in the year 2010, to about 300 million users in 2015. In 2018 it jumped up to about 560 million internet users. And we're expecting that by the year 2025 there'll be about 800 million internet users in India and maybe even a billion. All of these people who are coming online Brian, are coming online because of smartphones. Not because of PCs, not because of internet anywhere else, it's because of cheap smartphones that are now accessible across the country.

Brian Hanson: So tell me a little bit about these phones. You say cheap smartphones. Here we typically think of the iPhone which can be $1,000 or more. And you know India's a country with a per capita income, I believe is something like $1,700. So how can so many people even afford these things?

Ravi Agrawal: That's right, well they certainly can't afford an Apple iPhone, which I mean, it's about $, 000 here in the US, but in India it's even more expensive because you add on import duties. And a new iPhone can retail for about $1,300, $1,400 in India. Which as you say, is pretty much the annual salary for the median Indian. So the way Indians are getting online are with very cheap smartphones that are either made locally in India by the likes of Reliance Jio or Micromax, or Chinese made phones by the likes of Huawei or Jami or Lava or any of these newer companies that you may not be very familiar with in the West. And so cheap phones, cheap data plans, you put those two together. Not only cheap data plans, but usually pay-as-go data plans. So they're not monthly, they're very flexible for people with lower incomes. And that's how Indians are getting online. And one thing I meant to say earlier is that much as though the West has sort of evolved with all of these things, India's rate of adoption is not an evolution, it is a revolution. And it's happening because of the smartphone. And the smartphone really is not just a phone for most Indians, it is many more things. It is also for many of them, their first and only computer. They will never use any other PCs in their lives. It is their first camera. It is there first radio. It is there first Walkman and an MP3 player, all of it rolled into one. And so because it is all of these things, they can invest in it. So a $50, $100 even $200 phone is something that poorer and middle-class Indians are willing to save up for and invest in.

Brian Hanson: And where do we see the arrival of these phones? Is this primarily an urban phenomenon? Or does this also penetrate the rural areas and countryside?

Ravi Agrawal: Oh it's a national phenomenon. It's penetrated the length and breadth of the country, deep into villages. Obviously it begins in the cities and then goes deeper from there. But the reason why so many Indians are getting online is because rural Indians are discovering it. And you know, most Indians are still living in villages in the country and that's where the biggest growth in internet users is coming from.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that was so striking to me in your book is that you talk about the kinds of challenges that smartphones can be used to help people overcome. And one of the areas that you talk about is the impact on jobs and employment. How does a smartphone, access to a smartphone, actually address some of those issues? The ability to get paid work?

Ravi Agrawal: Well if you think about it, I mean again, in the West most people who have phones have also had some other form of computing before then. So the smartphone for them is an incremental gain in terms of how they live their lives, in terms of efficiencies, productivity, access to the internet, access to job seeking sites, education, all of those things. But in India, if you consider that for most people the smartphone is their very first and only computer, it is a way for them to access things that they couldn't have done before. So it could be being able to access a blue collar version of LinkedIn which connects you to, say, Domino's Pizza which is looking for a delivery person for the next month. Having a phone allows you to be able to access those kinds of jobs. Having a phone allows you to be a part of the gig economy. So Uber for example, when it entered India in 2014, in just a few years has created more than half a million jobs, and they expect to create many more jobs. Uber's bigger India competitor Ola, claims to have created a million jobs so far. And these are fairly well paying middle-class jobs in India, for which there's a lot of demand. So the gig economy on the one hand, while it creates so many uncertainties in places like the West, because you don't have pensions and you don't have healthcare and all of those things. But in a place like India where the skill profile of people is actually well set for the kinds of jobs that the gig economy creates, for all of those reasons the smartphone is leading according to some research, to job creation. It may also end up destroying jobs in the long run, we don't know that. But in the short term, if you consider how the e-commerce market is growing and with that there's a boom in warehousing jobs and delivery jobs. Those are all the exactly the kinds of jobs that India needs to create more of, because it has a small army of younger Indians entering the workforce every year. I believe the number is about 12 million every year. So those are the kinds of jobs that India needs to create.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that is striking about the Indian economy is the tremendous disparity between the wealthy and the poor.

Ravi Agrawal: That's right.

Brian Hanson: Is this transformation benefiting folks from throughout society, including the poorest? Is this, I guess the question is, is this smartphone revolution and access to internet also capable of addressing some of the deep income disparities that exist in India?

Ravi Agrawal: The jury's out on that. I mean as much as the smartphone is a tool for good, it can also be a tool for bad. And the thing is that India is changing in so many different ways all at the same time. And what something like a smartphone does is it ends up being a catalyst for all of the change that is already underway. So inequality just has so many other forces that drive it that it's difficult to pin that to the phone. But what I can say is this. The smartphone is bringing things to people who would've otherwise never gotten those things. So, more than half a billion Indians are online, if it wasn't for the smartphone that number would be less than half of that amount. If it wasn't for the smartphone for example, people who are illiterate or poorly literate, would never have had a chance to go online. One of the first people I profile in the book is a woman in a village who is training illiterate women how to get online. And basically they can speak to their phone in Hindi or Bengali or Marathi and the phone understands it. Google translates it instantly and is able to show them videos of say, how to cook a samosa or it can show them which plants to grow this season or it can tell you about the weather to help you as a farmer. So all of those things were never something that Indians could've accessed before. Remember, more than 250 million Indians are illiterate. So there's a whole group of people in India who were never serviced, as it were, by modernity because they were left behind, for so many reasons. I think that's the place where the biggest change is going to take place. And no matter what else happens, net-net, that in and of itself is good.

Brian Hanson: That's fascinating. And in addition to being able to serve people who are illiterate, how is the smartphone and the access to the internet changing education possibilities in India?

Ravi Agrawal: Well a fair bit. So the same person I was mentioning who was teaching illiterate rural women how to access the internet, I spent a fair bit of time with her, her name is Phoolwati, and she lives in a village in Rajasthan in the country's north-west. Her children were quite young and she has a son who's three years old, she has daughters who are between the ages of seven and 14. They're beginning to use her smartphone and her tablet to begin to access things on YouTube. And again in a village as remote as theirs is, with no good schooling, no real access to the rest of the world, no TVs, spotty electricity. For them to be able to use YouTube and access videos that can teach them about the alphabet or can teach them basic things about the world and history and geography is incredibly useful. It's something that they could have never had before. Now of course, this could come ... there are several negative things that could come with the internet as well and we can get into that. But there's no doubt that basic education could be boosted with mass access to smartphones and software that allows people to teach with smartphones. It'll never replace teachers, but it will certainly end up being a tool that will boost what students can do with the curriculum they already have.

Brian Hanson: So another area that I was really interested in, in reading your book about parts of life that are being transformed through the smartphones, was that you talked about the way that smartphones are changing dating and marriage. What did you find there?

Ravi Agrawal: Well on the one hand, I mean India's still a fairly conservative society and a vast majority of marriages that take place in India take place through the arranged marriage system, which means that a bride and groom don't really meet at a bar, they end up being introduced by their parents or by family friends. The number of people who meet just through dating or through meeting at the workplace or on apps or any of that stuff, is still very small as a percentage of the total pie. But it's growing. And one way in which it's growing is through smartphone dating apps. And I was really fascinated by how people were using these dating apps. On the one hand it was allowing them to date, even as they were chatting with people it was allowing them to flirt and text in ways that wasn't something that they grew up with or wasn't easy to do in public. It was a private device, sort of chat, which again allowed them to be bolder in ways that wouldn't necessarily fly openly in society. And yet for all of the openings that it provided younger Indians, the many that I spoke to in big cities, but also smaller towns, it also seemed that these smartphone dating apps were reinforcing some Indian inequalities. So for example, I found that there were many young Indians who were filtering on the app according to ethnicity, according to languages spoken, sometimes by income levels or schooling. But then more interestingly, because I always thought that the advent of smartphone dating apps would necessarily make younger Indians more westernized, but it also reinforced certain Indian tendencies. So many of the people I spoke to told me that they would meet after being connected on a dating app and then one of the first things they would try to do is match each other's astrological charts. Because they believed in astrology and they wanted to make sure that everything was going to be okay. So it's one of those strange things where as much as tech will change India, India will also change tech. And so the dating scene will change in its own way at its own pace in a way that Indians are comfortable with.

Brian Hanson: That's fascinating. You mentioned a moment ago that technology has dark sides as well as good sides. And we've really been exploring so far the possibilities and the positive sides that internet and access through a smartphone provides in India. I want to visit some of the other possibilities. One of the things that we've seen here in the United States of course is fake news and social media advancing stories that go viral, run wild. And India has also had this kind of phenomenon. Could you talk a little bit about what has occurred in this regard in India?

Ravi Agrawal: Sure. You know, I'll use an example. Probably the first time you used the internet would've been, I'm guessing, the 1990's. And do you remember chain mails from back then? People would send you an email and say, "If you don't forward this to 10 other people you'll be unlucky in love." And then you hit forward and you send it to 10 people and then one of your friends goes, "Hey that was silly." And then you don't do it again, and you learn from your mistake as it were. Americans have sort of evolved with chain mail, to fake news, but they sort of, as they've evolved they've also grown in their sensitivity to these things. And despite that, fake news can still be quite dangerous here. Now Indians are going through all of those changes that Americans have gone through over the past 20 years, they're going through it now in the space of one or two years. And so they are not as sensitized, they are not as skeptical of information that they see on their smartphones. So when they are forwarded a video or they're forwarded a news story, they're not immediately skeptical in the way that someone in the West may be, not necessarily, but may be. So Indians in that sense are a little bit behind the curve. And it's had really damaging repercussions. There have been instances where Hindu-Muslim mob violence has been set off by videos that have been forwarded in communities. There are examples of fake news leading to lynchings, again between Hindus and Muslims. There are all sorts of cases where fake news spreads virally on WhatsApp, a messaging app that's very popular in India, owned by Facebook, that is really leading both the tech sector in India and the public sector to really worry and think long and hard about what to do with fake news in India. And there are many problems here. As much as fake news is a problem in a place like America, it's a far greater problem in a place like India where digital literacy is still in it's infancy, media literacy is quite rare to any great degree of sophistication. And people are still coming to grips with technology and what to believe. And so for all of those reasons, fake news is a massive, massive problem in India. Add in the fact that there's so many languages and people aren't properly sensitized to knowing what's a fake video and what's not, that this is a problem that many are worrying will adversely effect the country in many ways. But also more immediately, the elections.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, I was going to ask about that because of course this has been one of the most important concerns in the United States, is the effect on elections. What has been seen so far and how are people trying to mitigate the negative effects of fake news vis-a-vis the election?

Ravi Agrawal: Sure, well let's just look at the numbers first. India has about 300 million Facebook users, more than any other country on earth. It has about 250 million WhatsApp users, again, more than any other country on earth. It has about 50 million Twitter users. So you know, Indians are getting a lot of their information from all of these social media platforms. And there are real fears that it's very easy for news to go viral and few checks and balances about whether the news reports are robust or have been fact checked. Now to combat that, Facebook has announced that it will launch an internal fact checking service in partnership with six, I believe, Indian news organizations. WhatsApp has limited the number of people you can forward a message to and it also has included a label that clearly shows that the message was forwarded as opposed to originating from the person who sent it to you. So there are a few measures that are being taken by the private sector already. But the jury's out whether any of that is enough. It's very clear that the political parties in India have become very good at using social media to rally support. And in some cases also spread fake news about their opponents. It's also very clear that with the ongoing India and Pakistan violence recently, and the tensions between the two countries, that social media plays an important role there, where the governments on both sides are keenly playing to the gallery and trying to show what they've done in response and try and get positive responses from the people on social media. So there's an immediate feedback loop as well that that's created that I think will play an important role in the elections.

Brian Hanson: So one of the related ideas that I found really intriguing in the book was you talked about India be inherently a low trust society. But the phone, the smartphone, access to the internet, can actually help overcome the lack of trust and build trust within society. What do you mean by that? What's the diagnosis and how can smartphones help?

Ravi Agrawal: Yeah, what I mean by low trust is to say that things often just don't work in India. Frank Fukuyama had this great book called Trust and he sort of divided the world up into high trust societies and low trust societies. A high trust society for example would be Germany, where supply chains are big, there are giant conglomerates where everything seems to work seamlessly. Trains show up on time, planes take off on time, systems work because everyone trusts each other in the system. A low trust society on the other hand, Fukuyama would have classified say, the South of Italy as a low trust society where companies are smaller, they're family run. Systems tend to break down frequently. The society in general was a low trust society according to him. He didn't quite describe India in his book, but India's certainly traditionally a low trust society where businesses have been small, they have sort of functioned or existed largely within communities. Parsis would hire Parsis. Marwaris would hire Marwaris and so on and so forth. To end up creating a system where people didn't really trust each other that much. Systems would break down. Indians, for example, in India often show up late for meetings. And the reason is that, not because they like to show up late, but because they know that the person they're meeting is likely going to show up late. So their economic incentive is to show up late. The same Indian in New York would likely show up for a meeting on time because they would be penalized for not showing up on time. So that's an example of how India's currently a low trust system and it's locked into it. Where people are now acting in ways to bake in the fact that it is a low trust system. For that to change, many things will have to change. India will have to become more industrialized. People will need to be richer. The society at large will need to progress. And those are things that are already under way. The question is whether the smartphone will speed things up. Will having access to Google Maps make it more likely that can navigate well? Will having an alarm clock make it more likely that you will wake up on time? These things may sound trivial, but again, if you consider that India is a very poor country with, as you said, a per capita income of under $1,700 a year where half of all Indians are under the age of 27, and then you take something like a smartphone as a nascent technology that will allow a new generation to be digitally native, that will allow them to use technology to be more efficient, to be more productive and then you can image how it could be something that would build trust in society. And thereby accelerate the pace at which India becomes a higher trust society.

Brian Hanson: So given all of the potential that exists the smartphone as well as some of the downsides that we've talked about, what role has the Indian state played in either supporting and helping drive what's primarily a market driven phenomenon, the adoption of this technology I can image, but what role has the state played in either supporting it or hindering this kind of development?

Ravi Agrawal: So historically in the '70's and '80's, India, the state was fairly protectionist and that explains why it took so long for India to have basic landline telephony, it explains why it took so long for computer companies and tech companies to take off in the '80's and '90's. But one of the best things that the Indian government did with the advent of 3G and 4G was to largely get out of the way. I mean there was a big government run cellular company called BSNL that, in the beginning, did make life very difficult for the private sector and for private players. But in the end, those private players won out through being more efficient, through spending more on marketing, through being more aggressive in acquiring spectrum, especially when 4G came around. And so for all of those reasons, the Indian internet story, the smartphone story, is largely a private sector story. The biggest players are private sector companies like Airtel, Vodafone. And now a new entrant called Reliance Jio, which has flooded the market with very cheap data plans. In fact when it launched it had free data for six months. Essentially telling Indians to just get online for free. Jio also has a very cheap phone which people can lease for about $23 over a period of three years. It's not quite a smartphone but it's almost there. It's sort of somewhere between a regular and a smartphone. So the story really is a private sector story, India's internet story that is. But that's beginning to change. The Indian state has begun to become a little bit more heavy handed in terms of how it controls the internet, in terms of internet shutdowns in places like Kashmir, in terms of some of the new regulations it's trying to put in place to boost local companies as opposed to foreign companies, in terms of some of the pressure it's putting on tech companies like Facebook to curtail fake news. But not only that, to also allow the government to be able to access some of the private messages on its server to make sure that fake news isn't being spread, or at least one of the things. So the Indian state, I think, it's sort of looking around the world and realizing that data is a commodity, realizing that security is increasingly not just a private sector issue but a national security issue and that it needs to get involved. And I imagine India looks to China sometimes, with some envy in terms of what the Chinese state can do and how it can harness the power of the internet.

Brian Hanson: And do you have a sense of where things are going in terms of Indian policy? And will that get in the way of the kind of phenomenal revolution and transformation possibilities that you described in the book? Is this something that could derail this?

Ravi Agrawal: I don't think it'll derail the speed at which people are getting online. By and large, most Indians want to get online. The ones who aren't especially want to get online. They understand that smartphones are transformative for them. Much as though the West seems to have soured on technology in the last couple of years because of fake news, because of addictions, because of clear linkages to depression and even suicide in some cases, despite all of those reasons, India's still at its infancy when it comes to tech adoption. And by and large most Indians want to get online and they will. That is an unstoppable force at this stage. The question is, given that that is happening in a parallel way, how much will the Indian state try and control that pie? How much will it try and introduce new regulations to foster domestic companies instead of international ones? To try and control fake news in a heavy handed way versus in a way that is more open ended. But remember at the same time, India's supreme court has been fairly activist in terms of protecting basic rights, free speech, privacy is a fundamental right according to India's supreme court in the country. Not only that, net neutrality has been enshrined by India's supreme court as something that is essential for freedom. Even the United States wasn't able to do that. So for all of those reasons I'm more positive about what the internet can do in India than I am worried about the things, the problems that it could unleash. Even though those problems are very real and need to be addressed.

Brian Hanson: So as we close I want to pick up on that positive sense, that optimism that you just talked about. And one of the things that really struck me that I thought you captured very, very well in the book was the optimism you see not only personally, but that you see among Indians about the rise of the smartphone and internet. And I thought you captured it very well when you wrote, quote, "The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian dream." What does that mean? And when we look back in 10 years, do you think that there will be the same optimism.

Ravi Agrawal: Well I think the optimism will wane over time as it does with any new invention. But what we can't question is the optimism right now. And it comes at a moment, at a confluence of things for India. India's getting richer, its younger people are less fatalistic. They have dreams and aspirations that are king sized. And India's going through a rapid process of urbanization as well all at the same time. And Indian companies now have more muscle to be able to invest domestically in a way that they didn't 15 years ago. So for all of those reasons, the smartphone has arrived at the perfect moment to turbocharge certain aspects of India's development. And for all of those reasons, when young Indians look at the smartphone they see it as a motif for freedom, they see it as a symbol of hope, they see it a as a way to potentially change their lives. Much as Americans did with the car 100 years ago, in terms of the car being a literal vehicle for social mobility and a way not just to get around, but as something that defined them and their generation. I think Indians see smartphones in much the same way. And the question again is, is whether they will use that tool for good or for bad. And this is where I think the state could play a role in terms of really funding digital literacy, in terms of, just as governments and the private sector in the West and around the world have invested in for cars, campaigns to educate people about wearing a seatbelt, or to not drink and drive. I think in the same way we need campaigns in India to explain to people how to use their phones, to explain that a phone can be a weapon of mass destruction if used in the wrong way. That's a discussion that needs to take place there. But even so, net-net, I'm very positive about what the phone could do for a place like India.

Brian Hanson: Ravi Agrawal, author of India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy, thank you so much for being here on Deep Dish and sharing what you found with our audience. It was great to talk to you today.

Ravi Agrawal: Thanks Brian, it was a pleasure to be with you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you liked the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you think you know someone who will enjoy today's episode, please take a moment to tap the share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, where you can ask our guest follow up questions about anything you heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by John Cookson, our audio engineers Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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