BANGALORE, India -- Like his father before him, his grandfather before that, and generations before him, Jayarama Reddy has spent the bulk of his working days farming the land in a small village in southern India. But this traditional, seasonal way of living – tilling the soil, planting millet and rice, waiting for harvest time -- is likely to end with him.
The 67-year-old has a married daughter, and his grown sons will soon be white-collar professionals. These days, Reddy contracts out his land to poorer farmers who will exchange their labor for a share of the paddy fields, come harvest time in January or February.
"I've been doing it for more than 40 years," he says, gesturing to the few acres of land that he still actively cultivates.
All around Reddy’s village, Bilishivale, which some locals say was named for the Hindu god of Shiva, the destroyer, there are signs of modern Bangalore's encroachment. Some 10 miles separate this arable land from India’s high-tech capital, but the gap is growing smaller.
Agricultural land is fast making way for commercial complexes, apartment buildings and gated communities. An asphalted road snakes through the village and its neighbors connecting Bangalore city -- an hour’s drive -- with a new special economic zone and already established business parks where tech, finance and other services companies are gobbling up space at a rate that has made Bangalore one of the fastest growing commercial real estate markets in the country. Around 20 miles away is the city's International airport.
There are other changes, less visible but whose effects are no less far-reaching: the Wi-Fi and smartphone revolution. From free wifi in trains to smartphone apps that train farmers on better cropping practices, the Internet is reaching corners of India that have long been neglected by modern technology.
India's 1.25 billion people include 800 million who are less than the age of 35, as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi never tires of pointing out to foreign investors, and currently only about 160 million to 170 million of them have smartphones. India is projected to overtake the U.S. as the largest smartphone market in the world behind China in under two years.
The smartphone owners also constitute about two-thirds of the country's Internet user base, which will grow rapidly as companies including Xiaomi Corp. and Lenovo Group introduce ever-cheaper handsets into the market. Already, for about $85, one can buy a 4G-ready smartphone in India, without any contract or subsidy.
Not everyone is a convert yet. "I put 100 rupees in my phone and it lasts me two months," Reddy told International Business Times, pulling out a very basic handset from Micromax Informatics, India's largest phone maker. He has little use for fancier Android smartphones from Micromax, even though they are quite affordable and Reddy himself is one of the more prosperous people in the region. He had more land, but it awaits acquisition, with compensation, for a planned highway nearby.
"I've heard of WhatsApp, but my phone doesn't support it," said Reddy's friend B.K. Shantappa, who has a similar basic phone from Nokia. But "we've not heard of any apps that can give us market rates or any other information," he said.
But that's changing. India's federal ministry of agriculture has just flagged off a pilot to measure crop damage and push through faster insurance payment using a mobile app. There are also private, commercial agri-startups that are looking to tap India's expanding cell networks and mobile Internet penetration.
"I always keep returning to asking what more can we do with technology, where else can we apply it," Prime Minister Modi said in a speech at San Jose's SAP center to a sell-out audience of 18,000-plus Indian Americans. "Can we use location services and tell our fishermen where the best prospects are?" he asked, speaking in Hindi.
Many are waking up to Modi’s message, but these tend to be young people drawn from India’s tech-savvy, educated middle classes.
Shama Hasilkar, a software developer at India's bellwether IT services company Infosys, is the epitome of the type of India, and the kind of Indian, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to build through partnerships with multinational banks in New York to Silicon Valley CEOs in California.
The well-educated, self-assured 20-something programmer, who has a degree in electronics and communications engineering, will be among the beneficiaries when Google Inc. brings high-speed broadband access to 400 railway stations across India in partnership with Indian Railways that Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced last week during Modi's visit to the Internet giant's headquarters.
Hasilkar travels very often by train, she says, adding Internet data packs to her smartphone when she needs it, mostly for personal use or simpler work-related tasks.
Pichai’s promise of “high-definition video streaming … very, very high-speed Internet access" is attractive to Hasilkar and many of her contemporaries.
It's these young people Pichai is talking to.
"I grew up in India, I've seen the transformational power of technology," Pichai declared in his speech, recalling how, a few years ago, when his team was launching the Chrome Web browser, India was the first country in which it became the most popular browser. "It showed to me the hunger in India for access to more information and being able to be connected."
But not everyone shares this hunger.
For 52 year-old Hafeez Baig, Pichai’s announcement brings little change to his life as one of the longest-serving porters in Bangalore’s railway station. "When I started work here, suitcases didn't have trolleys and [telescopic] handles to wheel them along, and people always asked us to get the heavier trunks," said Baig, who has been at the station for 32 years.
"Now there are ramps, escalators, they are building an additional walk-bridge," and many young people prefer to carry their own luggage, he said.
Baig has a very basic phone that he uses to keep in touch with his family and not much else. The small candybar handset has a physical keyboard, and a screen the size of a postage stamp.
"I've no idea what Google is," he said, speaking in Kannada and Hindi. He doesn't speak English, relies on the newspaper in his mother tongue of Urdu, and also catches up on news from friends, fellow porters and the television. Outside, the sight of Ola cabs, part of India's largest cab-hailing service, is becoming more common.
"These days people call their own cabs, or relatives with cars," Baig said. "They don't need our help" to hail one for them or ferry luggage to the taxis.
Baig’s world is changing around him. Google is offering its wifi services 100 of the busiest stations that see 10 million passengers in transit every day; if the company’s high-quality connectivity is extended to cover the trains as well -- a logical extension -- and not just the railway stations, that will open up other conveniences for passengers, such mobile payments on the go.
The potential reach is huge. Google's Indian Railways partner is state-owned RailTel Corporation, which owns a pan-India optic fiber network with "exclusive right of way" along the railway track network. The optic fiber cable network runs along 45,000 route-kilometers connecting over 4,500 cities, towns and many rural areas -- touching about 70 percent of India's population, according to the Indian company's website.
Indian Railways has 7,500 stations, total track route-kilometers equal to 3.5 times the distance to the moon and 25 million passengers every day. The figures are impressive but the challenges of connecting India’s billion plus, multi-lingual population to the Internet have not disappeared.
800 Million And Poor
The majority of the 800 million young in India are poor. They are like Baig's fellow-porter Peddanna, whose stocky build and happy disposition are great assets in a job that requires physical endurance and the mental grit to make light of carrying other people's burden for as little as 40 rupees (about 75 cents) per "head load," several times a day.
That translates to anything between 300 rupees and 500 rupees in earnings every day, the porters said -- enough to put simple food on the table, but not to splurge on even $85 smartphones. Besides, buying a smartphone is only the beginning. Cost of data in India is about six times that in the U.S., according to industry estimates.
"I'm not well educated, so what can I do. I can read a bit, so try to understand as much of the news as I can," Peddanna said, speaking in the local Indic language of Kannada. News, however, comes to him from newspapers and friends, just like Baig. Not the Internet. Peddanna has been a porter for some seven or eight years, he said. He is in his mid-thirties, and didn't give a last name.
India's Internet revolution may be too late for him and Reddy. But his work, and Modi's, may pay off down the line: "I'm trying my best to put my two girls and a son through school," he said, before hurrying away to carry the luggage of a family that had just arrived with several large suitcases and bags.