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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 13:27 GMT
Rickshaws connect India's poor
By Elizabeth Biddlecombe
In San Francisco

A regional mobile phone company in India is taking a novel approach to drive up business and help the poor at the same time.

Mobile phone rickshaw
The rickshaw drivers are free to go anywhere in the state
Shyam Telecom, which operates in the state of Rajasthan, has opted to take its phones to the people rather than wait for them to come to it.

The company has equipped a fleet of rickshaws with a mobile phone. Drivers pedal these mobile payphones throughout the state capital, Jaipur, and the surrounding countryside.

The rickshaw drivers, numbering around 200, are largely drawn from those at the margins of society - the disabled and women.

"We realised that many of these people are below the poverty line," said Suneel Vohra, President of Shyam Telelink.

"They are dependent on their families for a livelihood and treated very shabbily because of that."

Financial independence

The company came up with the idea of its mobile public calling office, dubbed Chalta Flirta PCO, as a solution. The hand-pedalled rickshaws are equipped with a battery, a billing machine and a printer.

The operator gets traffic on its network, the driver gets a commission and the consumers get access to affordable calling
Jane Zweig, telecoms analyst
Through these mobile payphones, some drivers are now able to support a family of five people, says the company.

Of the women drivers, Mr Vohra said: "We want them to be self sufficient, we want them to take pride in themselves and we want them to revel in the glory of being financially independent."

The drivers take a 20% on every call, earning between 6,000 (US$131) to 9,000 ($197) rupees per month.

The telecoms company charges nothing for the initial set-up costs despite the 75,000 rupee ($1,641) price of the tricycle and equipment.

The rickshaw drivers are free to go wherever there is business throughout the state. They can work to their own routine though the average shift is around eight hours.

People can also send text messages but, according to Mr Vohra, "People would much rather pick up the phone and make a call than send a text message."

"Over a period of time, they started being commercially very successful so two or three fixed wireless terminals, and one or two mobile handsets, were placed on the rickshaws," he explained.

This presents a special challenge however as mobile-like phones are easily stolen from drivers who may be blind or who are unable to walk or run.

Shyam Telelink characterises the venture as a "totally philanthropic" enterprise, but concedes that it helps to drive up revenues.

It is also an effective way for the company, which operates under the Rainbow brand, to broaden the accessibility of its services.

Camel internet

More and more Indians are getting mobile services. Operators in the country announced in November that they had added 1.8 million new subscribers the previous month.

Mobile phone rickshaw
Many of the rickshaw drivers are women
But still only around 23 million people have access to mobiles out of a population of 1.1 billion. By the end of the year, seven out of 100 people will have access to a landline.

Jane Zweig, CEO of analyst firm The Shosteck Group, saw the rickshaws in action on a recent trip to the region and came away enthused.

"The operator gets traffic on its network, the driver gets a commission and the consumers get access to affordable calling", she told BBC News Online, saying many companies could learn from Shyam's focus on customer service.

But Shyam is not limiting its novel interpretation of mobility just to voice services nor to tricycles.

The company's latest innovation is a camel equipped with a wirelessly connected computer, for use in the desert, though just two animals are currently in commission at present.

And after discussion with the drivers, Shyam is also planning to add internet-ready laptops to the rickshaws.



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