Robin Jeffrey says he wants to explore the issue of ‘waste’ generation and disposal in his next book. Cell Phone Nation, his latest book, is already in stores

Social scientist, academician and author Robin Jeffrey plans to write a book on the ‘waste’ problem in India and explore how the issue of garbage was tackled in the past and how it is done now. Even as his latest book Cell Phone Nation, which fills the blanks in the cell phone revolution in India, connects with readers, he is already planning his next book and the topics to be covered.

Talking about Cell Phone Nation, the author says that the book, which has been co-authored with Assa Doron, explores the changes caused by cell phones in three different ways – connecting, consuming and controlling. Excerpts from an interview with the author.

How did the book come about?

This is a book both of us wanted to write. Both Assa and I have had been adversaries of the Indian telephone system during our early days in India. Now, when we saw every one using mobile phones, we felt there was a book in it. Almost every one has a story about their subji wallah or dhobi using a mobile. Assa was living in Varanasi before the advent of the mobile and he has seen the huge qualitative change ushered in by the cell phone among the boatmen of Varanasi. It helped their profession and instilled a feeling of safety. So we were intensely curious to know more about the impact of the cell phone and its ramifications in the Indian polity and society. I decided to write a book and then we decided to do it together. He is an anthropologist and I am into history and politics. Assa covered parts of Uttar Pradesh and other places in North India while I drew on my contacts in Kerala, Mumbai, Delhi and so on to understand the big picture.

So how did you go about the book?

We found that nobody had done a book that told the whole story of the mobile revolution in India. So we divided the book into two – who uses the phone and how, and who controls the information or struggles to control the information. Then we also spoke to the connectors – the people who actually set up the towers, the lines and so on. On one hand, we studied how the cell phone has created jobs and changed the way people communicate. It has created two-and-a-half to three million jobs in the formal sector, which is another dimension to the revolution. Actually, every one of the chapters in the book is worth a book or two. On the other hand, we examined how powerful people want to control this powerful industry and thus control information.

There is a chapter on women and cell phones…

Actually, the mobile is a good thing for the individual. It empowers the individual, if you believe individuality is important. But suppose you take away the mobile from a newly wed bride because she makes the decision regarding her mobile, then there is a hidden threat of disempowerment. In fact, we came across khap panchayats which decided that no woman below 40 should own a mobile. The mobile has a disruptive aspect as it bestows autonomy on the user. We studied how the mobile is changing and challenging complex social equations and its use or rather misuse in crime and terrorist activities.


What is interesting in India is that it is so cheap to own and operate a mobile. This is perhaps the first consumer durable that is accessible to all sections of people as it so affordable. Moreover, people have multiple uses for the phone. They use it to store their photographs, music and even pornography!

But the government can control this...

Yes, the interesting aspect is that the state can immobilise the mobile. But they can do it only for a period of time. If they do it for too long, they run the risk of alienating their supporters and angering the people.

You have written on the use of mobiles to mobilise people

It was effectively used by the Bahujan Samaj Party. They had the cadre and they gave them a tool they never had. P. L. Punia, Chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), and a former aide to Mayawati, explains how they used the cell phone during the election to organise and mobilise their supporters to go to the booths and vote. Now it is being used by all political parties.

As an equaliser

In many ways, it is. Now, any one can make a call and hope to be connected to the Chief Minister or even Sonia Gandhi. I see it as a symbol of empowerment. It evens the odds a little bit and makes things a little bit more democratic.

The next book

Is on waste. We are keen to understand how the question of waste was tackled during the pre-British period, the British period and so on. We want to see what is the waste composed of, how has it changed in terms of quantity and in terms of disposal. Assa happened to read the book The Story Of Stuff and he was inspired by it. I think it will be exiting to work on it because there is so much to understand about the entire issue.

The Kerala Connection

The academician’s first visit to Kerala was in 1967 to study the political, social and communication scenario in the State that seemed to be so different from Chandigarh, where he had been working. On a trip to Kerala, he saw an elderly, bespectacled woman reading a newspaper. It piqued his curiosity and brought him to Kerala to learn more about the State and the people. For the last 40-plus years, Robin has been studying the multiple aspects of a society in transition and also the interactive roles of media and society.

With the help of a Malayalam teacher, he learnt the language and dug into official records from the 19th century that were stored in a cellar in the Secretariat. “Many of the files were proceedings and documents related to the day-to-day working of the administrative set-up but occasionally one would come across a jotting in CP’s [Dewan C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer] handwriting and his signature. It was the then Chief Minister C. Achutha Menon who gave me permission to work in the archives.” The studies and the research have resulted in a series of book, articles and essays on media and Kerala.

However, the keen observer of Kerala observes that visually “Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram], which had a distinctive character, has lost that completely.” “The cityscape has completely vanished. Now it looks like any other town in North India – concrete buildings with garishly painted signage.”

He adds: “What struck me was the way the mundu [dhothi] had been replaced by trousers. I walked from Secretariat to Overbridge. On my return journey, I counted the number of people wearing one. There were just three and that too greyheads.”

He continues: “I read that they going to relocate the RR Lamp! What next? Will they remove Sir Madhava T. Rao’s statue from Statue? That will be end of Trivandrum as we know it!”