In India the discussion on rural telephony has remained confined to technological solutions to the problem of extending coverage to areas with low subscriber density. Yet it has been widely observed that mere provision of access does not necessarily ensure its use because of a number of social and economic factors. This article, based on observations of telecommunication operations at the village level, argues that unless the problems of universal service coverage are adequately solved, universal service will continue to remain a myth, even if the supply side of the problem is taken care of.
In India the discussion on rural telephony has remained confined to technological solutions to the problem of extending coverage to areas with low subscriber density. The usage side of the problem has been largely ignored. Yet it has been widely observed that mere provision of access does not necessarily ensure its use because of a number of social and economic factors. On the one hand the State is struggling to allocate funds to provide access to the remote villages while on the other hand, the Village Public Telephone (VPT) becomes faulty within months of its installation. This paradoxical situation undermines the concept of universal service coverage. As such, unless these problems are adequately solved, universal service will continue to remain a myth, even if the supply side of the problem is taken care of. Extent and Quality of Coverage Of the 600,000 villages in the country, only about 330,000 have telephones. 5% of these villages have rural exchanges and the rest have public telephones (VPTs) connected to the nearest rural or urban exchange. Considering the size of the country and the scattered nature of its villages this is a great achievement. This remarkable coverage has actually been achieved in the last 3-4 years, during which period more than 50% of the villages have been covered. Considering the size of the country and the scattered nature of its villages this is a great achievement. However, it raises the issue of how many of these VPTs do actually work or are in use. In the Kutchchh district of Gujarat, of the 284 VPTs in the district, about a fifth are wireline and the rest are radio based Multi Access Rural Radio (MARR). 143 of the MARR VPTs - about 62% - are faulty. Of these, 80 reported a faulty Base Switching Unit (BSU) (exchange end); the rest had a faulty Remote Switching Unit (RSP) (VPT end) - predominantly owing to battery problems. This is just a snap shot picture at a particular point of time. At the Khavda rural exchange which has a 2/15 MARR BSU, of the 14 VPTs installed since August 1994, eight are disconnected due to non-payment of past dues, five have RSU faults and only one is in actual use. An examination of the status of these VPTs during the past 2 years, month-by-month, reveals that on average 48% are disconnected, 17% are faulty and the remaining 35% are in actual use. In addition there are six landline VPTs; and except from one, which has a line fault, the rest are in use. A distinction needs to be made between 'not in use' and 'faulty': a VPT which is not faulty may not be in use, being disconnected for non-payment of past dues. The distinction, however, gets blurred because a disconnected VPT is typically left unattended and soon becomes faulty (usually it is the battery which is not recharged or misused and goes out of action). The Problems Cases of misuse are often reported. Villagers often use the RSU batteries in their tractors or radios. The overall picture which emerges is that no more than a third of the installed VPTs are in actual use; the rest are either disconnected or faulty or both. What are the reasons for this evident lack of maintenance and frequent disconnections? Location MARR VPTs have been mostly deployed at the panchayat (the village level adn1inistrative body) premises since 1991. It is only in recent times that the DoT allows VPTs to be installed in village shops - usually a grocery store. Earlier most of the VPTs were landline and installed in the village post office where people had to pay for the calls. A panchayat is a political institution and the sarpanch, who is the locally elected head of this institution, is susceptible to 'popular' pressures - most take it as a benefit provided free by the government. In some cases it was found that the sarpanch paid the entire VPT bill out of his or her own pocket or allocated a part of the funds at his or her disposal for this purpose. In the majority of cases the telephone gets disconnected due to non-payment of arrears, after being in use for a few months. The post office, on the other hand, is under no obligation to provide a 'free' service, and calls get paid for. Other possible sites for location are the village school or the temple/ mosque. The idea is to locate the telephone in a place where it can be accessed by everyone for the longest possible duration. In addition there must be someone near at hand to collect the money and to receive messages from incoming calls. Finally someone in the village must be responsible for the maintenance. During the survey almost all the VPT premises were found locked and unmanned. Significantly, wherever VPTs were found to be in use and could be readily accessed one invariably finds a person who took a personal interest in its use. Maintenance The landline VPTs are convenient because of the simplicity of the technology but they are not viable on account of high costs beyond a distance of 5 km. As the rural penetration increased, the DoT was faced with the problem of having to reach out to distant villages and therefore opted for the MARR VPTs. However, who personifies the DoT in these villages? The village exchange is usually manned by a single person - the lineman. Typically he comes from afar and, having started his career as a Casual Majdoor (labourer), he has over the years acquired the necessary skills. His main priority is the maintenance of the trunk lines that connect the rural exchange to the parent exchange in the nearest town. For the village exchange at Khavda, this means a 80 km. stretch of overhead wires; the last 20 km which stretches from Bhirindiara falls under the jurisdiction of the lineman at Khavda. His logbook reveals that in the past 45 months there has been 290 cases of 'trunk line faults' – more than one per week. Reasons for failures could range from an offending tree branch to earthquakes. Manning a 20km. stretch on a bicycle and locating the fault is no mean feat. The maintenance of local subscriber lines is his next priority. There are 50 odd lines served by this village exchange; of these nine are institutional subscribers - police, bank, hospital, district board, guest house, cold storage, panchayat, post office and irrigation department; six VPTs in adjoining villages connected by overhead lines at an average distance of 14 km.; 15 MARR VPTs located in the more distant villages at an average distance of 28 km; the rest are local households and shops and the only industrial enterprise - a bromine plant 3 km from the village. The faulty lines are usually a case of broken drop-wire or a faulty Central Processing Unit (CPU). If the problem appears to be the latter, the erring instrument has to be sent 80 km. away to Bhuj (district town) for repair. It is thus evident that attending to the problems of the VPTs has the last priority. What makes it even worse is that typically the VPT is also the least revenue generating line. ' These two problems derive merely from the absence of any strong interest group, which could potentially derive benefits from the use of the VPT; it is improbable that one will find such groups in villages that are not strongly tied up with the market.. Usage It has often been argued that most of these problems can be solved by franchising the VPTs. However, commissions/incentives are based upon volumes. If the call volume is a mere two to five calls a day no amount of commission can prove attractive. Even if we assume that these villages have the economic potential to generate more calls, this cannot happen unless the VPT has a Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) facility. None of the VPTs in the district has STD; in most cases the village exchange itself does not have an STD facility. Rural exchanges in Kutchchh, are typically connected to the parent exchange by means of overhead open wire trunks. An STD facility may not be provided in cases where the exchange is very far from the parent exchange, which is usually the case. If the rural exchange has insurmountable problems operating its STD facility it will be very difficult to facilitate VPT, which extends even further into the countryside, at least for the time being. Examples of Telephone Usage in the Villages The VPT usually serves a host of surrounding villages. In the case of Mokhana, which is a prosperous village, it was found to serve the adjoining villages of Jawahamagar, Dagar and Modsar; Jawahamagar is as far as 8 km away. This distance is not a deterrent to those who come daily to make calls; these users are local businessmen, including labour contractors and truck owners whose business is tied to the local lignite mines and who usually own some means of transport. This scenario, where a centrally located VPT serves a cluster of adjoining villages, is precisely what has been envisaged in the definition of Universal Access (as opposed to coverage). Unfortunately this idea does not always work: the average villager, wanting to make a call, will usually take the daily bus to the nearest town (rather than the nearest village with a telephone) where he will have an occasion to attend to other personal needs as well. Arjanbhai, a rich farmer is the Mukhia and has the VPT in his house. He pays the entire VPT bill out of his own pocket. This accounts for the local Short Distance Charging Area (SDCA) calls that he and his fellow villagers make in a month. Over and above this, he has an arrangement with a STD Public Call Office (PCO) operator in Bhuj (40 km away), which allows him to make long distance calls from the VPT by means of the 'conferencing' mode. The village has 45 wait listed applications for connection and soon it will have an exchange of its own. It is only too obvious that the DoT is losing a lot of revenue by failing to provide adequate service. There are several communities in the village - Harijans, Muslims and Rabbari (shepherds), and they all have access to the VPTs. Among Arjanbhai's employees are harijans and Muslims who have relatives abroad in the Gulf countries. There are about 15 incoming calls per day, some of them being from people contacting the employees. The picture changes drastically as one moves on to the less prosperous villages. In Kuran - the last Indian village in this part of the country – the MARR VPT is kept in the post office. The postmaster attends to the phone and is responsible for its maintenance, which includes replenishing the battery, once in fifteen days, with distilled water, brought from the nearest town, Bhuj (80 km away). The VPT is in working condition; an average of 2 or 3 calls are being made per day to Bhuj; and 1 or 2 long distance calls, usually to close relatives who work in the big towns, are booked per month. Again, the telephone bill is paid by the sarpanch, only this time she takes recourse to the panchayat funds. Will it not be better to have an STDPCO in the village? The Gujarat Handicrafts Board officials visit once in a while to place orders and supply raw materials (wool, thread, designs), and come back after the usual gap to collect the finished pieces and make payments. There are 3 buses per day from the nearest town from where a qualified doctor does the rounds every week. The system of communication has adequately served the needs of normal commercial activity and personal needs. It is only when daily activity is much more strongly linked with the nexus of commerce that the element of immediacy of communication becomes vital. Conclusion The DoT has plans of providing a telephone in every village by the year 2000 and expects the private operators to share this responsibility. But as the network reaches out to more and more remote areas, it is likely that one will encounter villages with diminishing potential for generating calls in the not-so-prosperous villages. In the short run, franchising cannot be a solution as it works on usage volumes. At the same time the amount of investment required for network upgrading to bring STD facilities down to the VPT is immense. In such circumstances it becomes absolutely essential to identify a person or group in the village who will directly benefit from its use and hence be motivated to ensure continuity of service. If such a person or group cannot be found it is crucial to find a roaming team who can be wholly dedicated to the maintenance of VPTs. Alternately, it makes sense to have roaming satellite VPTs that will serve several designated areas during the day/week. Finally, it needs to be said that the average rural folk perceive the telephone as something thrust from outside; it does not touch their lives. Universal service, even if it were achieved, will not really mean much to a vast majority of rural India at present, unless provision of telecommunications service in the villages is integrated with a much wider programme of dissemination of information and knowledge that fundamentally can re-orient rural living.