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)
Page 2 of 3   <       >

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

For less than a penny a minute -- the world's cheapest cellphone call rates -- farmers in remote areas can check prices for their produce. They call around to local markets to find the best deal. They also track global trends using cellphone-based Internet services that show the price of pumpkins or bananas in London or Chicago.

Indian farmers use camera-phones to snap pictures of crop pests, then send the photos by cellphone to biologists who can identify the bug and suggest ways to combat it. In cities, painters, carpenters and plumbers who once begged for work door-to-door say they now have all the work they can handle because customers can reach them instantly by cellphone.

T.V. Ramachandran, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, a private industry group, said construction of new cell towers is expanding most rapidly in rural areas, and India's coverage area has tripled in the past year. He said cellphone growth is driven by the young -- more than half the population is under 25 -- and, increasingly, by people in neglected rural areas.

In a country where the World Bank calculates that nearly 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Ramachandran said cellphones have become the "poor man's phone."

Updating a Tradition

The sky was black and hot at 4:44 a.m. on a late September day when the Andavan, a 74-foot, steel-hulled boat owned by Rajan and 14 other fishermen, pulled away from the dock and headed into the Arabian Sea. A candle and two sticks of incense burned in a little Hindu shrine in the bow, which curved skyward like the nose of a giant canoe. Rajan sat there in the flickering light, while the rest of the crew mingled about the open deck, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and listening to Indian pop music.

They fish these waters as their fathers and grandfathers did -- barefoot, with their lower bodies wrapped in a sarong-like cotton cloth called a lungi. Like generations of their families, they fish with a seine, a traditional net, a half-mile-long web that surrounds and captures sardines -- a cheap staple that fills bellies from dirt-floor Kerala kitchens to fancy New Delhi restaurants.

For the millions of fishermen who work off of India's 4,350 miles of coastline, change is rare.

"The two crucial changes that have happened in my lifetime," said Jayan Kadavunkassery, 37, an Andavan crewman in a pink button-down shirt and a lungi, "are the inboard motor and the mobile phone."

Rajan said that before he got his first cellphone a few years ago, he used to arrive at port with a load of fish and hope for the best. The wholesaler on the dock knew that Rajan's un-iced catch wouldn't last long in the fiery Indian sun. So, Rajan said, he was forced to take whatever price was offered -- without having any idea whether dealers in the next port were offering twice as much.

Now he calls several ports while he's still at sea to find the best prices, playing the dealers against one another to drive up the price.

New Balance of Power

Rajan said the dealers don't necessarily like the new balance of power, but they are paying better prices to him and thousands of other fishermen who work this lush stretch of coastline. "They are forced to give us more money because there is competition," said Rajan, who estimated that his income has at least tripled to an average of $150 a month since 2000, when cellphones began booming in India. He said he is providing for his family in ways that his fisherman father never could, including a house with electricity and a television.

"When I was a kid we never had enough money for clothes and books, so we never really went to school," said Rajan, 50. "Now everything is different."


<       2        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company