Thirty-three-year-old Anjali Kher, a small-time designer from Srinagar, keeps in touch with her family in the Valley from the public telephone booth next to her home in Mayur Vihar in the capital.
“The booth remains open till midnight and I drop in almost every day after work to call my father and my brothers,” she said. She has never felt insecure.
Public telephone in India has become a tool of migrant women's empowerment in middle class India.
Women, especially those who stay away from their families, can walk in to a PCO any time to connect to friends and families over telephone without the fear of being harassed, spied upon or discriminated against in terms of gender.
A new study says public telephones, including PCOs, are the most frequently used method of making calls by Indian women at the bottom of the social pyramid compared to other south Asian nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Thailand.
Indian men, on the other hand, the study said, at the bottom of the pyramid, relied more on their mobiles which has penetrated deeper.
The survey, “The Gendered Use of Telecom at The Bottom Of the Pyramid”, by LIRNEasia, a regional information and communication technology policy and regulation capacity building organisation active across the Asia-Pacific, found that Indian respondents showed a preference for public phones.
Statistics from the study cite that in India nearly 33 per cent women use public access phones compared to 4 per cent in Pakistan, 29 per cent in Bangladesh, 6 per cent in Sri Lanka, two per cent in Philippines and three per cent in Thailand.
Only 23 per cent Indian women owned mobile phones compared to 42 per cent Indian men. In Bangladesh, 32 per cent women owned mobile phones.
The findings of the survey carried over a three years from 2005 to 2008 in six Asian countries for a global telecom major was made public in May 2009.
The researchers interviewed 9,950 migrant telephone users, studied their weekly usage patterns and conducted group discussions to identify the trends.
According to the study, women use these telephones to make calls when they do not have access to mobile or fixed phones, their cellphone credit is low and when they want to “hold private conversations with their parents and siblings away from the immediate family”.
The Indian women, said the study, used public phones on a regular basis – from once a week to once a month.”
The respondents interviewed by the researchers in western and south Indian states said in most cases, the PCO from where they made calls were near their homes and “they felt perfectly comfortable using public phones despite the fact that mobile phones have become affordable in the past two-three years.”
According to the study, women were more comfortable with the public phone because “they have a much longer experience with public booths”.
Home phones, said the study, exposed the women to being censured.
“The respondents said children and others would overhear what was said. Public telephone was never a hassle and PCO owners would sometimes allow them credit if they ran out of money,” Rohan Samarajiva, CEO of LIRNasia said over telephone from Colombo in Sri Lanka, where the organisation is headquartered.
“The reasons are historical. Call the legacy of Sam Pitroda's public telephony blitz of the 1980s. Indian women are safer in telephone booths. She can finish cooking and go to the telephone booth to make a call. If a woman tries to do that in Bangladesh, she will be bothered by people on the streets,” he said.
In some cases, the study said, booth owners helped “illiterate women” dial the numbers and kept messages. “All the migrant women whom we spoke to in India said they believed using public phones were better than using other people's phones since it was a cash transactions. Fifty five per cent of this group do not have a phone of their own,” Samarajiva said.
Mobile phones, said Samarajiva, was still a male-dominated technology in South Asia.