There are three Indias: India Unlimited, India Unconnected, and, in between those two, the India of 1.5 GB.
The Unlimited Indian has “unlimited” internet plans on both mobile and Wi-Fi. The allotted data is hundreds of GBs a month. It never runs out. It lets you keep binge-watching the streaming shows.
The Unlimited Indian is able to understand, even be comfortable with, the Unconnected Indian. Poor people who have neither literacy nor money to be on the internet.
The Unlimited Indian has a harder time understanding the 1.5 GB Indian — people with prepaid mobile internet plans that give them 1.5 GB data per day.
Cut your coat according to your cloth
Imagine watching a show and the data runs out just before the detective was to reveal the whodunnit. The Unlimited Indian thinks we have left behind such a shortage economy. In reality, most internet users in India live a life that is limited, rationed, allotted. The 1.5 GB limit defines their lives.
The universe tells them: these are your boundaries. You have to become another person to be unlimited. Try harder. Try again. Refresh. To go from 1.5 GB a day to limitless data is a rite of passage. You’ve joined the top echelons of Indian society.
The disconnect produces strange encounters. The unlimited Indian calls their domestic staff on Whatsapp, often because the unlimited Indian lives in a gated colony or a high-rise with poor mobile network. The rising rates of cancer have convinced the unlimited Indian that it’s the mobile towers which are causing abnormal cell growth in their bodies.
All the scientific fact-checks sound good but nobody wants to rent out their terrace in the posh colonies for a mobile tower. The poorer the mobile signal in urban India, the richer its occupants.
So the unlimited Indian uses fibre cables to call their domestic staff on WhatsApp. What time are you coming in today? The Unlimited Indian discovers she can’t get through to the domestic staff, who often turn off their mobile internet. They turn it on only when they need to use it. That’s how they make the 1.5 GB day last till midnight.
How to make 1.5 GB last full 24 hours
On their preferred search engine, YouTube, they use the audio-to-text option to find out: how many MBs in 1.5 GB? How does one make 1.5 GB data last a full day? What does one do if it runs out? Any tricks that don’t involve buying a special data pack?
Helpful videos in Indian languages, made by working class people looking to earn fame and dollars from YouTube, tell you to switch off auto-updates of apps, among other tricks to make your data last longer. Yet, it‘s tough to not be watching YouTube videos and wonder if the data will run out soon. It has to be preserved for better things.
When there’s a shortage of things, you have to prioritise. Often there’s only one smart phone and many sets of eyes at home. The working class patriarch reaches home at night, his wife and children waiting to get their hands on the smartphones.
They want to video call friends and family, watch the latest viral videos, or just the downloaded movie. Whether or not the man has left any data by dinner time can affect marital life and family harmony.
For the Unlimited Indian, downloading songs and movies is a distant memory. Remember video players to run those movies? For the 1.5 GB Indian, streaming movies is a bad idea. They share pirated links on Telegram or other apps that let you know how many MBs a file is. (Apps that the Unlimited Indian hasn’t even heard of.)
That’s when they decide whether they want to download it today or there is something more important to do with the data.
The downloaded movies are watched later at leisure, without the stress of data running out. The sort of leisure with which the Unlimited Indian streams video online. The streaming apps have found a way to get into the hearts of the 1.5 GB Indian: they offer you free 28 day subscriptions with the 28 day recharge pack.
But the 1.5 GB Indian prefers to watch the downloaded movie files, often sharing it with friends via Bluetooth. Remember sharing media on Bluetooth? One man’s past is another man’s present.
The 1.5 GB Indian was put to a severe stress test when life went under lockdown. Free time at home needed more entertainment. Fine, watch TV. But children needed the internet for online classes. The Unlimited Indian’s children had online classes over Zoom. The limited, 1.5 GB Indian’s children had online ‘classes’ over WhatsApp groups.
What do you do when you have one phone and two children? You prioritise the male child, of course.
There are, of course, far too many WhatsApp chat groups. These are a nuisance when you are trying to conserve data. The 1.5 GB Indian thus exits WhatsApp groups faster and knows a WhatsApp setting the unlimited Indian does not: turn off auto-download of media on WhatsApp. They decide on a case to case basis whether they want to download a photo or video forwarded by a friend.
One smartphone, two children
Telecom companies quickly came up with special data packs for ‘work from home’ but data, like money, is never enough.
As the pandemic shrunk the economy, jobs were lost, there were people who went from unlimited to limited data. Incomes declined and jobs were lost, but online education, work from home and the anxiety of Covid needed more money to buy phones.
The cheapest smartphone could be more than what a daily wage labourer could make in a month, before Covid. India has among the cheapest internet access in the world — but cheap for whom?
Day dreaming with 1.5 GB
Yet it isn’t all that gloomy. The 1.5 GB data fills the lives of the aspirational Indian with great joy. He has the world in his hands, and instantly transfers money online without any fees. He hopes to go unlimited one day, and the smartphone will help him get there. Meanwhile, the unconnected Indian hopes to get to 1.5 GB a day to begin with.
The transition from one tier to another could take a generation. Who knows what technology may be like by that time? Perhaps the Wi-Fi-emitting fibre cables will reach the working class Indian in some years. We have nothing if we don’t have hope.
For now, he waits for the clock to strike 12 at night, so that the daily data limit is reset, and he could start dreaming with eyes wide open.
(This article by Shivam Vij first appeared in Gulf News on 21 October 2021.)