It was the mid-nineties, and I was doing my MBA in Delhi. Every alternate Sunday morning, I would walk thirty long minutes to a PCO booth, to take a token. This token entitled me to walk back to the same booth that same night and make a call home, at a quarter of the prevailing rates. This was twenty five years back, and phones were a luxury in India – right up there with Maruti cars, colour TVs and new-fangled washing machines. One in a hundred Indians had a phone, and the most optimistic projections said this number would go up to perhaps five. While everyone craved a phone to talk to their loved ones, decades of government control had not helped make this happen, despite thousands of crores or rupees spent.
It was private enterprise which came to the rescue. The Government, in a misplaced moment of generosity, allowed private individuals to set up pay phones and offer communication services to people, while keeping a cut of the revenue. A thousand flowers bloomed overnight, and the country started getting dotted by phone booths. As it always happens, India developed its own version of the payphone. While every other country in the world had coin or card operated, stand-alone payphones, India had its own operator-run, cash-friendly, receipt-printed model. Every trundling elevator had an attendant in India, every scarce vending machine had an operator preening next to it, so why should payphones not have their own owners and operators? This solved uniquely Indian problems – people could use cash, they had someone help them actually dial a phone, an entire enthusiastic family could squeeze into a booth, and receipts were useful when traders filed their taxes.
Most importantly, however, millions of young people became entrepreneurs and earned a decent living. I realized this through my own personal 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 only was this the most lucrative business for telecom operators, but it was the entire living for these operator-entrepreneurs.
PCOs were wildly successful, as they helped solve the India’s tele-density problem. The almost overnight advent of mobile telephony, however, soon made them redundant. Many of them tried to evolve into ‘cybercafes’ and communication centers, some of them sold copier services and biscuits, many became Aadhar centers and photo studios. But they could not survive the onslaught of a new technology, which made they started withering away.
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 our air, choking cities and people alike. Everyone knows what the solution is – we need to replace all our vehicles to be clean and electric. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are the future. Last year, two million electric cars were bought, though almost all of them were in China, Europe and the US. China was the leader with 5% of all auto sales coming from EVs, in some Scandinavian countries more EV cars sold than IC engine ones.
India again is pursuing a unique path. EV car sales were negligible, but there were 80,000 electric scooters sold, and a whopping 630,000 electric three wheelers, making 1.5mn electric three wheelers on Indian roads! While this seems like a good story, these three wheelers are hardly clean – they use polluting lead-acid batteries, and charge them using illegal, unclean electricity. Though both the government, with its ambitious targets and schemes, and Indian industry is straining to sell clean EVs in India, it is proving to be a tough sell.
There are many problems – cost, confusing government policies, lack of financing, and range-anxiety. But the biggest problem is charging infrastructure for batteries – how do we come up with efficient and economic charging points available across the country? Batteries are expensive, almost 70% of vehicle costs. Swappable batteries is an option – you can buy the EV and rent the battery, and then swap it when depleted. However, that still requires a ubiquitous charging and swapping points. The government cannot rapidly set them up across the country, private players are finding the costs humongous.
It is very similar to the tele-density conundrum, and the answer, I believe, again lies in the PCO model. Let us again empower millions of entrepreneurs to set up private, for-profit charging stations, like the one which was used for manned payphones. If we set the right policy, and allow a million flowers to bloom again, we can have electric chargers in every nook and corner of the country, like we had PCOs. 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, biometrics to do your Aadhar, and a bunch of other services. But, primarily, they will charge your EVs with clean electricity – some coming from the grid, some perhaps even with solar power generated locally. Mobile phones will come in again, but this time to help – with an app which could schedule our charging time and help pay it
Most importantly, like the original PCOs did, these ePCOs will give millions of our educated, jobless youth opportunities to make a decent living. Young EV executives will discover how the PCO owners worshipping these chargers every morning, and perhaps go red faced as they find their framed portraits on some ePCO walls.
(This article was published in Mint, dated 18/10/2019)