When the 74-foot Andavan docks in Pallipuram, India, workers unload the day's catch and carefully record each sale. By cellphone, fisherman Babu Rajan has negotiated with a dealer who then sells the fish to restaurants, households and shops in the area. (Kevin Sullivan - The Washington Post)
When the 74-foot Andavan docks in Pallipuram, India, workers unload the day's catch and carefully record each sale. By cellphone, fisherman Babu Rajan has negotiated with a dealer who then sells the fish to restaurants, households and shops in the area. (Kevin Sullivan - The Washington Post)

For India's Traditional Fishermen, Cellphones Deliver a Sea Change

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 15, 2006

PALLIPURAM, India -- Babu Rajan pointed off the starboard bow and shouted: "There! There!"

In choppy, gray seas four miles from shore near India's tropical southern tip, Rajan spotted the tinselly sparkle of a school of sardines. He ordered his three dozen crewmen to quickly drop their five-ton net overboard.

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 India, the world's fastest-growing cellphone market.

At the beginning of 2000, India had 1.6 million cellphone subscribers; today there are 125 million -- three times the number of land lines in the country. With 6 million new cellphone subscribers each month, industry analysts predict that in four years nearly half of India's 1.1 billion people will be connected by cellphone.

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 University of Michigan who has written extensively about how commerce -- and cellphones -- are used to combat poverty.

"One element of poverty is the lack of information," Prahalad said. "The cellphone gives poor people as much information as the middleman."


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