The potential of ICTs: The case of mobile phones in Sitakund

It is said that “Communication is a process, not a product”. But the mainstream communication process depends on products of modern technology. Telecommunication system is often stated to be the most thriving catalyst in the economic, social and political development of a country. Despite this, in Bangladesh, there is a worrying lack of evidence or analysis of the actual experience and effects of telecommunication system upon poor people’s livelihoods.

Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) supported by UNESCO runs an ICT resource centre in the Sitakund municipality of Sitakund sub-district under Chittagong District of Bangladesh. The area is situated 37 kilometers away from Chittagong City flanked by hills and sea. Total population of the area is 274,903. The literacy rate of the area is 41.1% and proportion of employed men and women is 86% and 21% respectively. 85% of total villages and 65% of total households of the Upazilla (municipality) are under electricity coverage (source: 1991 population census). It has the biggest ecological park of Asia and the biggest Hindu pilgrimage of Bangladesh.

The majestic natural beauty and historical Hindu religious sights and structures offer enormous prospects of tourism that have never been explored. Community people consist of mostly Muslims, followed by Hindus and the Buddhists. Fisherfolk live on the sea shore while the indigenous people on the hills.

The municipality area has a strong presence of various communication tools. Almost every house has television and radio. Many have refrigerators, VCDs, CD systems and so on. Although not too many, but a reasonable number of TVs can also be found in the villages. Many village tea stalls have been using VCDs to show cinemas and attract more customers. Thus, all sorts of technological applications are found here. There are many calling centers offering landline and mobile calling facilities along with computer composing and printing.

Recently Sitakund’s telecom exchange was made digital. From November 2003 they have supplied around 500 digital phone connections in the municipality area and plan to increase this to 2000 connections. However, long before the introduction of digital phone, communication spread out even in the extreme remote village of Sitakund with the help of a modern telecommunication tool, the mobile phone. Mobile phone has now become so common and people have become so accustomed to it that even the Dadima (aged grandmother) of the most far end village of Sitakund sub-district knows what it is, what it does and is likely to have used it.

The present ICT initiative in Sitakund has been promoting some digital tools to the local disadvantaged youths and adolescents as also monitoring their effects. These are the tools that include computers, digital camera, scanner, pocket PCs among others. The ethnographic action research undertaken in the initiative has provided more in-depth knowledge about people’s responses to ICTs. Methods include field notes, in-depth interviews, group discussions, social maps and issue based participatory exercises. The findings revealed that the digital tool that is able to get the highest public enthusiasm in rural Sitakund was not any that our centre could offer. It is the mobile phone. In fact, mobile phones enabled the emergence of a new culture.

For the digitally less aware rural people the mobile technology has offered a brand new way for communicating and exchanging information. In various cases it has enabled and strengthened existing information networks and created new ones as well.

Mobiles phones: trends and impact

Availability of mobile phones all around the locality (mainly in urban and suburban areas) has provided people with an opportunity for communication that is beyond imagination. Many people of Sitakund work and live abroad. Localities named as ‘London’i Para’ and ‘Dubai Para’ are occupied by kin of these emigrants. Families dependent on them often need to communicate with them. People were earlier forced to travel a long distance and spend more money just to make a call because of non-availability of digital phone and poor analog connection. It was impossible for women to travel as mobility restrictions on them are quite severe. With available mobile phones, calling centers have now grown even inside the remote villages.

A number of the rural calling centers consist of just one mobile phone, a table and a bench. Mobile phones used commercially have certainly created a new self-employment opportunity for people. People invest by buying a mobile with some small loans from NGOs or other sources.

It has also enabled people to keep the communication system personal. Because in earlier times while making a call through landline at home and especially from shops, the phone set could not be moved and people could not talk personal matters over the phone without others hearing it. But now they can take the mobile set in their hand and move to a private distance and ‘do mobile’. This is the term that people often use here, ‘doing mobile’.

Majority of the people having mobile phones use prepaid phone. It is because of the uncertain monthly phone bill and an expensive line charge. This costs them more than the postpaid facility. Often people call from shops even when they have their own mobile phone to save some money. With a pre-paid mobile one has to pay Taka 6.90 per minute. This high cost has gradually led towards a new trend that is often termed as ‘Miss Call culture’. People have found out the way of using missed calls so innovatively that it has almost turned to a culture. Through this means, communications carries on effectively and no cost at all.

Salim, a 34-year old teacher and owner of a private coaching centre beside YPSA office says, “