Time: 2am; Date: Sometime in August 2008; Place: Veerampattinam, just beyond Puducherry.
The Tata Teleservices (TTSL) corporate sustainability team is out on the beach, looking at the frenzied activity of fishermen readying to go out to sea. This is a daily — or rather nightly — routine, when the men get into their boats with their fishing nets and push off into deep waters to return with their catch when it’s light. But for the TTSL team this isn’t routine. In fact, it’s magic, as they watch the full moon cast its silvery light on the waters of the Bay of Bengal.
As they savour the scene, they are suddenly jolted by the sound of wailing women. In some coastal areas, a ritual exists where women wail in the night as their husbands set sail. This is an age-old tradition of tricking fate with premature mourning to ensure that the boats return safely.
As you would expect, that sets urban minds racing — can technology be used to make the fishermen’s nightly journeys safer? Out come the Tata Indicom phones. Do these handsets hold the key?
The TTSL team decides to talk to the fishermen the next day. “Why don’t you have mobile phones?” “Because fish don’t talk!” says one of them, and everyone doubles up in laughter. But engineers back at TTSL and its partner companies Qualcomm and Astute Technologies are made of sterner stuff. ‘Why not make fish talk?’ they say to themselves.
The Indian Centre for Oceanographic Studies in Hyderabad has done detailed studies of the waters around India. This includes satellite maps of the surface of the sea and even maps of floating chlorophyll. Since fish feed on phytoplankton near chlorophyll, satellite mapping of floating chlorophyll would be a good indicator of the location of schools of fish.
The fishermen get precise information on the location of schools of fish, thus cutting down considerably on their time out at sea. Additionally, the handset would also give information on wave heights, wind velocities and direction, thus allowing fishermen to plot a safe course and return to shore in case inclement weather lurks around the corner. Finally, the cell phones would also give market information, demands and prices to enable fishermen to optimise the value of their catch. The service stands to impact nearly 27 million fishermen's livelihood along the 8,100-km-long Indian coastline.
And you thought cell phones were only for talking!