Thursday, November 1, 2007

7.ANALYSIS. Is it worth an idea?

This new 60-second television advertisement has the potential to undo what the politicians of all hues have successfully accomplished in the the last 60 years - to divide the country along caste and religion. The imaginative advertisement, also released as half-page print ad, features Abhishek Bachchan as a young sarpanch who takes a bold decision to settle the ongoing feud between two warring factions in his village by replacing peoples' names with their mobile numbers instead. The sarpanch makes a profound statement: `neither any cast and creed, nor any disparity and discrimination.'

Obliterating the inevitability of caste by skipping second names from identity plates in favor of mobile numbers, the ad sends a strong message to the democratic polity of the country. Haven't unsuspecting masses been long exploited for narrow political gains? The ad takes a step further by dedicating roads to mobile numbers at the cost of names that smell of political appeasement. The suggestion is not to re-invent mobile number for the greats like Gandhi but to avoid unnecessary politicization of inaugural ceremonies at the cost of public exchequer.

Without doubt, politicians will discount such far-fetched implications of a commercial. But for an overheated democracy that sustains itself on caste and religion divides and remains in perpetual election mode therefore, the advertisement comes with a whiff of fresh air. Says the ad agency's creative director: ''the question was to position the brand as a better idea when it struck us that if everybody had a number and not a name, it should put to rest a lot of our problems.'' Pitching its message around social harmony, the mobile telephony route to social change may seem a bargain by any standard.

In a country where a million new subscribers become mobile phone owners every week, dismissing the inherent power of this handy gadget to spur a new social order may seem somewhat perilous. Haven't there been umpteen stories of mobile surprises - from fishermen in Kerala earning more money and wasting less fish by phoning different coastal markets to the use of mobiles in improving relief planning in the wake of recent Peruvian earthquake, and to the poor women in Bangladesh who surprised the world by making a new living through activities like re-selling airtime and prepay cards..

More surprises should be on offer once mobile phone makes inroads into far flung areas. Undoubtedly, technology is an empowering tool that brings about social equity and provides equal opportunities to the poor to gain access to services and to support livelihoods. It may have surprised E F Schumacher, the celebrated author of the Small is Beautiful, who was of the view that new technologies widen the gap between the rich and the poor. The fact that of the half of the world's 6.5 billion people who now use mobiles more than twice as many mobile owners are found in developing countries suggests that mobile phones are as much a pro-poor gadget.

Mobile phones growth has been unprecedented. In less than a decade since its launch, over 200 million users are hooked to mobile phones in the country and the number is growing relentlessly. Though it is half the number of users in China, the fact that owning a mobile goes beyond the notion of social status augers well for its rapid expansion into unchartered terrain. The challenge however remains as over a third of the country's population, an estimated 350 million, survives on less than a dollar a day. Achieving social harmony without economic emancipation will remain a far cry!

However, the advertisement seems to have taken a good measure of reality before proclaiming mobile phone as the ultimate change agent. If caste discrimination was akin to racism in regarding discriminated groups as `biologically inferior and socially dangerous, the idea of a mobile phone decimating such social disorder can best be described revolutionary. While the overriding intent is clear, the means to deliver the content may need social awakening. Without doubt, it is worth an idea!

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