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Business News/ Specials / Manthan Awards 2012/  Life of a mobile phone in india
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Life of a mobile phone in india

The average life of a mobile device in India is eight years, perhaps the longest compared with anywhere in the world

Photo: Mint (Mint)Premium
Photo: Mint
(Mint)

The average life of a mobile device in India is eight years, perhaps the longest compared with anywhere in the world. How?

A majority of us are familiar with the front yard of the mobile landscape: the device, the design, the cost, the features, navigability, access and connectivity. Not unreasonably. We are living in a mobile age and our identification is mobile identities. In the race for mobility, the focus certainly is not on the backyard of the mobile ecosystem that has far many issues of concern to address.

The increasing number of mobile subscribers leads us to two key considerations. One, the factor of longevity of mobiles, and what it indicates in the Indian context where mobiles are more than just a communication tool. Two, post lifespan, how the mobiles and their components are processed, reprocessed, re-used and prepared for a fair exit. These were the key important derivatives of a study of mobiles in India by Ann Stevens of OCAD University, Canada, who did the research as an intern with our organization.

This study attempts to address the following issues. Is the longer-than-world average lifespan of the Indian mobile phone a sign of a healthy and robust economy and society? How does the long lifespan manifest itself in Indian society? Can constructive re-use extend the life of mobile phones before they reach industrial recyclers? The study combines primary, secondary and field research in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune.

The average lifespan of a mobile phone in India is significantly longer: six to eight years, compared with 22 months in Western countries. India has a reputation for a well-established grey market in second-hand phones and electronic waste. The informal economy including the informal e-waste recycling industry is sizeable and contributes to the long lifespan of mobile phones in India with great social significance. It is predicted that e-waste from discarded mobile phones in India would be 18 times higher by 2020 from 2007 levels, according to the E-Waste in India report released by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat in 2011.

Eliminating the informal economy, including the e-waste sector, would likely be a social disaster. Formalizing the informal, or incorporating the informal into the formal sector is a more realistic and complementary approach to the mobile phone industry. This could transform the e-waste industry into a viable, efficient and environment friendly industry. The classic three of the environment are reduce, reuse and recycle.

The new e-waste rules notified by the environment ministry came into force on 1 May 2012. These focus entirely on reduce and recycle, but little on re-use. Re-use is important and that the extended lifespan of the mobile phone in India, in all its manifestations, is a good thing—it maximizes the usefulness of the mobile phone and increases accessibility to all income levels of a diverse society. This corroborates with a basic Indian culture: a long life is an indicator of a healthy life. The risk, as stressed in the study, if the new e-waste rules designed to transform the e-waste recycling industry really unfolds, it would significantly change the existing flow of mobile phones from first purchaser directly to the recyclers, thereby bypassing the second-hand, refurbish and reuse markets. It is argued that this could effectively short-circuit the existing flow of second-hand phones in India and be a loss to those with limited resources.

What does it indicate? With increasing penetration of mobile subscribers and users, the mobile industry and economy is set to accelerate. The total revenue of the Indian telecom sector grew by 7% to 2.83 trillion in 2010–11, while revenues from the telecom equipment segment stood at 1.17 trillion.

With this, the informal mobile sector will also continue to grow, though no data are available to argue this. While anything parallel to the formal economy is legally unsustainable, the informal mobile sector has a significant presence and relevance in Indian society. Because of the informal presence, digital inclusion in India has been a wider possibility. The role of second-hand mobile dealers, refurbishers and copycat manufacturers has combined to offer a wider choice in prices and products, thereby propping up mobile inclusion in India.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is member of a working group on internet proliferation and governance at the ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on Twitter @osamamanzar

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Published: 07 Oct 2013, 12:23 AM IST
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