Farmers' Access to Resources Via Networks in Remote Rural Areas with Mobile Phone Reception: Creating a Resource Battery for a Mountain Tribe in South India

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ABSTRACT

Inhabitants of the most remote areas tend to have low access to information and resources potentially contributing to well-being. Ongoing expansion of ICTs deeper into rural areas is expected to improve this situation by enabling them to contact geographically distant others. We interviewed 79 women and men in an indigenous tribe in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, India, where explosively expanding mobile phone signal entered prior to other types of infrastructure, and we inductively developed a scale for assessment of the inhabitants' overall access to valued resources through their personal networks. It was found that the mobiles contributed primarily to the maintenance of existing networks and to speedier mobilization of already accessible resources. However, since the phone owners called only with people whom they already knew well, they did not expand their networks nor increased their overall access resources.

Keywords: Remote rural areas, mobile phones, personal networks, individual social capital, social capital measurement, India

INTRODUCTION

Inhabitants of the remote rural areas of the world without infrastructure networks tend to be at a socio-economic disadvantage in several ways. Rural and remote inhabitants have inadequate access to markets, information, and resources necessary for their well-being because of their geographical and social isolation from broader society. Brokers, or so called 'middle-men', take advantage of farmers living far from communication and transportation infrastructure by buying their products at minimum prices and selling them with high profit margins in the cities (Chowdhury, 2004).

There is widespread hope reflected in the literature that mobiles can improve well-being in such resource-constrained environments by connecting them with the external world (Donner, 2008). Recent studies and popular media argue that the adoption of mobile phones, which may be the only accessible communication infrastructure in locations with diffuse settlements (International Telecommunication Union, 2003), is the way to improve living conditions in rural areas of the 'Third World' (Bhavnani, Chiu, Janakiram & Silarszky, 2008). Agricultural traders in Ghana have been reported using their phones to directly access information about market prices and increase their bargaining power (Overå, 2006). The Grameen Village Phone program from Bangladesh has enjoyed praise and awards worldwide; the mobile phones provided by the program supposedly help the poorest villagers and reduce social inequality (Bayes, 2001).

In contrast to this optimism, the literature on rural development in the Third World, historical and sociological studies of landline phone expansion into the rural areas carried out in the West have suggested only a minor role for telephones to develop new spatially-distant contacts. People tend to call most frequently those who are in face-to-face contact with them - especially kin - and kin also tend to be the only ones to get called even if they live far away (Singer, 1981; Fischer, 1992; Wellman & Tindall, 1993; Mok & Wellman, 2007). There has been almost no in-depth research carried out in non-Western rural areas where mobiles are the only phones (Donner, 2008) and a reliable methodology for measuring more than narrow economic costs and benefits associated with phone use in such areas is yet to be developed (Bhavnani et al., 2008).

This study captures evidence from a rural area before coverage becomes universal in this unique time when telecommunications is rapidly spreading around the globe. It focuses on one geographically and socially isolated indigenous tribe with a mobile phone signal to explore how mobile phone users and non-users access a wide variety of material and non-material, locally-valued resources. This is not limited to personal resources only; the resources embedded in social networks are explicitly included in the assessment. …