Jorhat (Assam): Dipanjali Kurmi can’t take her eyes off the Discovery and National Geographic television channels these days. The reason: This 21-year-old Adivasi girl from Boroera village near Titabor town in Assam wants to know about the countries where her cousins live— cousins whose names she doesn’t know and whom she has never met.
“I’ve heard that centuries ago, the British took away people from the place my ancestors hailed from to far-away countries,” says Kurmi, struggling to pronounce Mauritius. Assam’s tea garden workers were mostly indentured by the British from the Chhotanagpur area of modern-day Jharkhand, which was also the source of the cheap labour they took overseas.
Helping her in the quest is the direct-to-home (DTH) digital television service that her father, Gubin Kurmi, who works in the local post office, installed at home for Rs10,000, which includes the cost of the television set. “We took a DishTV connection for Rs2,200, and now we can see more than 150 channels compared with the three Doordarshan (DD) channels we could see with our antenna earlier,” says Kurmi, who admits that the DTH connection also helps her keep abreast of life in Bangalore and Mumbai, where she has spent almost two years studying and working before returning to her mud-floored house in Assam. “I want to go back but father isn’t convinced,” says Kurmi, who has done a computer operations and programming course at a government-run vocational training institute in Bangalore.
Across districts such as Jorhat and Sivasagar in upper Assam, DTH has penetrated fast. “In Amguri town (in Sivasagar) and surrounding areas alone (which has a population of 150,000), we have 1,000-odd connections, and the numbers are growing every day,” says Vikramaditya Borthakur, area executive (sales) of Dish TV India Ltd for upper Assam and Nagaland.
DishTV, an arm of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, wasn’t only the first firm to launch the DTH service in India, it was also the first to roll out connections in the North-East.
Jorhat and Sivasagar have been traditionally better off than other districts because most people have their own land to till and the oil and tea jobs on offer. “So when DishTV came, they jumped at it,” says Borthakur.
Though the firm refused to disclose details such as the number of customers in the two districts of upper Assam or across the state, DishTV’s chief operating officer, Salil Kapoor, says, “We command more than 60% of the market in the North-East, which is a big market for us as it is largely either cable dry or cable frustrated.” This means that areas that have either no cable connection or have very poor connectivity.
“Cable TV operators are restricted to the towns and don’t find it cost-effective to lay a network to connect outlying villages,” says Borthakur. “Moreover, their bouquet of channels (50-odd) is less than ours and transmission quality isn’t as good.”
Kapoor says demand for DTH connections has been steadily growing, despite the economic slowdown. “We have seen business grow 40% in the last five-six months,” says Kapoor, who claims DishTV has at least five million customers across India.
At least one-third of DishTV’s customers live in rural areas and, according to Kapoor, they haven’t stopped buying DishTV connections because they haven’t fallen into the “EMI (equated monthly instalment) trap”.
“People there (in the North-East) build a house with all the good things they can afford, to live in and not for speculative purposes,” says Kapoor, adding, “They are also not dependent on call centre jobs and not exposed to the media hype of recession or slowdown.” What is more, Kapoor feels the downturn may have helped DTH service providers, saying that people now prefer to stay at home and watch TV instead of going to cinema halls or indulging in other forms of entertainment.
The way DTH has entered Jorhat and Sivasagar is not surprising because both these districts have high literacy levels, says Moushumi Borgohain, head of the department of economics at the Devi Charan Barua Girls’ College in Jorhat, the first fully literate district in Assam. As per the 2001 Census, Jorhat’s literacy level is 78% and Sivasagar’s, 75.33%, whereas the national average is 65.38%.
“As a result, people have a greater yearning for infotainment and don’t mind spending a little more to get DTH connections,” says Borgohain. Jorhat has 14 colleges, one engineering college and an agricultural university, other than numerous research institutes.
Echoing Borgohain’s views are subscribers such as Rupa Neog, a schoolteacher from Nakachari village, and Niren Kotoky, a retired state education department employee. “Today, information is the only way to move forward and integrate with the rest of the country. And without DTH, we were at the mercy of a few DD channels and the All India Radio broadcasts,” says Neog, as her neighbour, who also has a DTH connection, nods sagely.
If Neog wants to keep up with what is happening across the country, Kotoky feels it will help his son, who wants to join a law school, and daughter, who aspires to join a master of business administration programme. “We don’t have Internet here in Kharonijan (in Titabor), so the educational programmes on various channels are our only window to the outside world,” says Kotoki’s son, Mriganko.
A high literacy level isn’t the only reason Jorhat and Sivasagar have embraced DTH with such gusto. “Apart from tea and oil, which offer highly remunerative salaries, there are a number of small tea growers and affluent farmers,” says Barun Borgohain, former head of the department of agronomy at the Assam Agriculture University in Jorhat.
“Most villagers have a few bighas (1.6 bigha s make 1 acre) of land, so most villagers make a decent living from their land, and if someone works in oil or tea, that’s an added bonus,” adds Borgohain. The Neog household of Amguri is one such example. While elder son Goutam Neog works for Canadian oil and gas firm Canoro Resources Ltd, which is prospecting?in?the nearby oilfields, younger son Uttam Neog is a manager at a nearby garden owned by Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd, which now owns and manages gardens previously owned by Tata Tea Ltd. “Money was never a problem with us, we just want the best programmes and good transmission quality,” says Goutam Neog, as he potters around his brother’s day-old Chevrolet Optra—their second car. The Neogs have a top-end DishTV Platinum connection, with 165 channels and services.
In India, there are around 125 million homes that have television sets. However, it is estimated that 40 million of them have neither cable connection nor DTH. DishTV and competitors such as Tata Sky Ltd are aiming to enter these 40 million homes.
While DishTV’s Kapoor is wary of giving away marketing secrets, he admits that being the first mover helped. “Plus, our incentives and schemes were very attractive to the unemployed educated youth as well as small businessmen,” says Kapoor, adding that this was a pattern his firm followed not only in the North-East, but across rural India.