Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Humboldt-India-Project

Telecommunication and the Public Sphere in British India, 1850-1950


In 1989, India had less than 4 million telephones for its then population of 800 million people.

  • The ratio was one telephone to 200 people

In 1993, the number of telephones had increased to seven million and an additional 2.8 million connections had been applied for.

  • The ratio was 1:125.

  • In comparison:

    • The ratio in most other ‘under-developed’ countries was 1:10
    • The ratio in most industrialised countries was 1:1.6

    State Efforts to Promote Telecommunication:

    1989 onwards: Deregulation of the telephone industry

    • Establishment of Telecom Commission headed by Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda
    • Aim to circumvent the bureaucracy with its strangling license system (known in India as the “license raj”.) As there had been no further legislation since colonial times, the law had to refer back to the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Indian Wireless Teleg- raphy Act of 1933 which regulated state monopoly and had set up the license system.
    • Successfully set up a wide network of (urban) public telephones within a few years.

    1997 and 2003: Partial “liberatisation”

    • Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act of 1997 (TRAI) regulated private telecommunication services including wireless mobile telephones, telephones and other wire-based services.
    • The Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Act of 2003 stipulated that the recommendations of the TRAI were to be implemented.
    • According to these laws, telephone as well as wireless telecommunications is dealt with as an appendix to the telegraph, an en- during legacy of colonial legislation (Telegraph Acts of 1885 and 1933)

    The Telephone System of British India:

    To tell the story of “a century of progress”, the history of the telephone in British India has usually been lumped together with that of the telegraph and the wireless to indicate. Similarly, the introduction of the telephone is described simply as a part of urban his- tory. The slow growth of the British Raj’s telephone system, it is argued, was because India largely consists of villages. Even in post- colonial times the internalized “Orientalist” and therefore colonial notion of India as a land of villages became an excuse for the country’s backwardness with respect to the telephone. A closer scrutiny of the spread of the telephone in British India reveals that it was the requirements of the colonial regime for control, rather than the needs of Indian villages that determined the development of the new communication system.

    The telephone was introduced in British India in 1881, after some pressure from the Bengal Chamber of Commerce. As with the telegraph, the government was the sole owner of the telephone which came under the Telegraph Department. Following a govern- ment decision to allow the limited participation of the private sector in the telephone business licenses were granted to the recently founded Oriental Telephone Company to establish telephone exchanges in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Rangun. A few other local (urban) companies operated telephone networks in major cities including Karachi and Ahmedabad. In October 1883 the Government of India passed a resolution which delineated the state’s monopoly of the telephone system.

    The construction, maintenance, and working of all exchanges for, and the lines between, Government offices will be in all cases undertaken by the Government Telegraph Department. When connections are desired between towns, each possessing a license exchange, the trunk line of communication will, in all cases, be erected, maintained, and owned by the Government Telegraph Department, and let to the Company at an annual rental. But it must be understood that no Company has the right to claim the erec- tion of a trunk line, and that the State is free to approve or decline any individual case.

    Source: Resolution by the Government of India, No. 303 T., dated 25th October 1883, in: Administrative Report of the Indian Telegraph Department for 1883-84, Calcutta: Government Printing, India 1884, pp. 23-4. [BL: IOR])

    The Regulation of State monopoly and the license system remained in operation until 1943 when the Government of India de- cided to “nationalise” the telephone system. Telephones and telephone lines were, from an administrative point of view, seen as an appendix to the existing telegraph lines. In practice, as early as 1884 the telephone was combined with the telegram service in the major cities of British India. A small but steadily increasing number of telegrams were received and sent by tel- ephones. Within a decade the number of such telegrams in Bombay and Calcutta amounted to roughly 55,000. Considering the total number of 3.5 million telegrams in 1885-6, the number of telephone-telegrams in British India is fairly negligible once again indicating the supportive than independent status of the improved technology.

    From a statistical perspective, the telephone network grew extremely slowly but, nevertheless, steadily.

    Between 1882 and 1924:

    • the number of Departmental Tele- phones (i.e. state owned telephones) grew from 56 to 12,007
    • the number of telephones with pri- vate (licensed) companies in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Karachi, Rangun, Ahmedabad and Mulmein increased from 244 to 25,222

    Between 1925 and 1935:

    • the number of all telephones increased to almost 55,000
    • the report of 1931-32 summarily notes that telephone trunk lines connect the major towns in upper India, but it also mentions that until the end of 1932 British India did not have any telephone line connecting the subcontinent with the rest of the world

    Yet the report of 1921-22 listed the ratio of telephones per inhabit- ant of some ‘western’ countries in comparison to British India:

    • US 1: 8 /
    • Canada 1:10 /
    • United Kingdom 1: 47 /
    • British India 1:8,455.

    Inter-Urban Telephone Network

    Since 1923 annual reports included a map showing the growth of telephone trunk-lines. Comparing the maps of 1923 and 1932, several ‘developments’ become visible. One can hardly speak of a telephone trunk-line network at the beginning of the 1920s but only of trunk-lines simply connecting major cities within British India. Like the first telegraph lines the telephone lines also re- flected the established information routes of the Mughal Empire running from Bengal up-country via Lucknow and Delhi towards Peshawar and beyond. From Delhi a trunk line ran via Ahmedabad and Surat to Bombay and from there cross-country towards Madras. This line terminated at Sholapur in the middle of the Dekhan, the south Indian plateau. Apart from this parallel pattern the construction of telephone lines, in contrast to the telegraph network was concentrated in north India and in particular in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the present-day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    The map of 1932-33 on can see that the densest telephone trunk line network can be found beyond Delhi towards the Punjab and along Waziristan (in the NWFP). Meanwhile the trunk-line connecting Calcutta with Bombay via the industrial centre of Jam- shedpur and the central Indian city of Nagpur had been built as had the line to Madras. Towards the east, in Lower and Upper Burma which until 1936-7 were provinces of British India, the number of urban telephone networks increased significantly.

    Four Major Patterns of Construction are Salient

    • The network comprised all major north Indian cities which were also major military cantonments. The density of canton- ments increased towards the northern and western frontier, apparently reflecting the constant preoccupation of the British with the rather non-existent Russian threat from the North, termed “The Great Game” by Rudyard Kipling. Moreover, the telephone trunk lines connecting the cantonments with the new capital at Delhi mirrored the perceived threat from the north-east.
    • The major industrial towns and com- mercial cities were included in the net- work, not only the British-Indian metrop- olises of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Karachi, but also Ahmadabad, Jamshed- pur, and Kanpur (which was also a major cantonment).
    • There is a deep ‘digital divide’ between north and south India demarcated by the Calcutta-Bombay trunk-line and concen- trated in the Indus-Ganges plains. There are hardly any urban let alone inter-urban telephone networks south of the said line.
    • It is also significant for the British In- dian telephone system that in 1923 no public call facilities at all existed. By 1932 there were seven situated in towns like Palej north of Bombay, Kathgodam close to Nanital in the Himalayas and in three small towns in the Arakan and Tenasser- im mountains of Lower Burma. There is no explanation given as to why the only public call facilities were installed in the middle of nowhere.

    Prof.Dr. Michael Mann
    Room: 218
    Phone +49 (0)30 / 2093-6642

    Heike Gatzmaga
    Phone: +49 (0)30 / 2093-6640
    Fax: +49 (0)30 / 2093-6648

    Seminar für Südasien-Studien
    Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften
    Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
    Unter den Linden 6
    D-10099 Berlin