It was the mid-1990s, and I was doing my MBA in Delhi. Every alternate Sunday morning, I would walk 30 long minutes to a public call office (PCO) booth to take a token that enabled me to make a call back home that night at a quarter of the prevailing rates. Back then, phones were a luxury in India. While everyone craved a device to talk to loved ones, decades of government control of the telecom sector had not helped make this happen.

It was private enterprise that came to the rescue. The government, in a misplaced moment of generosity, had allowed private individuals to set up pay phones and offer communication services to people, while keeping a cut of the revenue. A thousand flowers were to bloom, and the country was soon dotted with phone booths. But unlike every other country in the world, which had coin or card-operated stand-alone payphones, India had its own operator-run, cash-friendly, receipt-printed model. This uniquely solved Indian problems. People could use cash; they had someone helping them dial a phone; an entire family could squeeze into a booth; and receipts were useful for traders while filing their taxes.

Most importantly, millions of young people had become entrepreneurs and earned a decent living. I realized this through experience. In a curious twist of fate, I joined a telecom company after my MBA and was soon summoned by the CEO to set up a new business for the company—the public phone business. As I spent the next few years setting up a private PCO network, I saw the owners worshipping the phones every morning before they started work. Sometimes, I was startled to see my framed photograph in a few of them. I realized that not only was this the most lucrative business for telecom operators, but also the entire livelihood for these operator-entrepreneurs.

PCOs were wildly successful, as they helped solve India’s tele-density problem. But the almost overnight advent of mobile telephony soon made them redundant. Many of them tried to evolve into “cybercafes" and communication centres; some of them sold copier services and biscuits, many became Aadhaar centres and photo studios. But they could not survive the onslaught of the new technology.

Cut to 25 years later: one of the biggest problems that India faces now is pollution and urban mobility. Millions of gas-guzzling vehicles are clogging our roads and polluting the air. The solution lies in electric vehicles (EVs). Last year, two million electric cars were bought, though almost all of them in China, Europe and the US.

India again is pursuing a unique path. Electric car sales have been negligible, but electric scooters have sold by the tens of thousand, and there are a whopping 1.5 million electric three-wheelers on Indian roads. But these three-wheelers use polluting lead-acid batteries, and are charged using illegal, unclean electricity. Though both the government, with its ambitious targets and schemes, and the auto industry are straining to sell clean EVs, it is proving to be a tough sell. The biggest problem is charging infrastructure for batteries—how do we come up with efficient and economic charging points across the country? Batteries are expensive and account for almost 70% of a vehicle’s costs. Swappable batteries are an option, but they require ubiquitous charging and swapping points. The government cannot rapidly set them up across the country and private players find the costs humongous.

The answer, I believe, lies in the PCO model. Let us again empower millions of entrepreneurs to set up private, for-profit charging stations. If we set the right policy, we can have electric chargers in every nook and corner of the country. These PCOs, or public charge offices, would have batteries to swap, a bank of chargers to charge them with, and refreshments while we wait. They could be e-commerce package drop points, biometric facilities for Aadhaar, and a bunch of other services. But, primarily, they would charge EVs with clean electricity—some coming from the grid, some perhaps from solar power generated locally. Mobile phones will come in again, but this time to help—with apps to schedule our charging time and help pay for it.

Most importantly, like the original PCOs did, these ePCOs will give millions of our educated jobless youth an opportunity to make a decent living. Young EV executives will discover how PCO owners worship these chargers every morning, and perhaps go red-faced as they find their framed portraits on some ePCO walls.

Jaspreet Bindra is a digital transformation and technology expert, and author of the book ‘The Tech Whisperer’

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