• Industry: Government & Public Sector
  • Date: 11/5/2013

Case study: A virtual middle class in India 

Rising alongside India's growing middle class of 300 million people is a 'virtual middle class' of another 300 million who, though still very poor, are increasingly demanding rights, services and good governance.1

What's different about this new version of the middle class is that its empowerment is not driven by a rise in income — historically the enabler of middle class expectations — but rather through widespread access to affordable computing and telecommunication technology, which is facilitating connectivity, learning and political engagement.

The ubiquitous spread of mobile phones has been a key factor in this shift. Mobile phones arrived in India in the late 1990s, but were unavailable outside major cities where waiting lists for landlines were still several years long2. In a span of just 10 years to 2012 however, the number of mobile phones jumped from 45 million to nearly 1 billion3 — yet only about a third of the Indian population (366 million people) has access to a toilet4. As mobile phone usage grew, so too did its functions. From healthcare text message services to dissemination of best practices in agriculture and other fields, mobile phones are used to improve all aspects of daily life.

Cheap computing technologies are also being leveraged to deliver electricity to remote communities, where nearly 600 million Indians have little or no access to power. For example, Gram Power Inc. provides shops, homes, and telecom towers with Gram Power’s smart meters. Together these meters form a network that eliminates power theft and payment defaults, while optimizing supply and demand of power. As a result, for less than 20 cents a day, the system offers rural Indians power to operate lights, fans, mobile phones and other home appliances.5

As basic needs are increasingly met with the help of technology, lower-income Indians have turned their attention to seeking social justice, equality and a voice. The highly publicized tragic rape and death of a student in New Delhi in 2012 immediately ignited outrage and demands for better governance across income levels in India, fueled by social media, which helped to draw national and international attention. As a result of the protests catalyzed by social media, stricter laws have been enacted, rape cases have been accelerated through a notoriously backlogged justice system, and promises to increase the number of women police officers have been made.

1This term was coined by Thomas Friedman in a February 2013 New York Times article titled “The virtual middle class rises”.

2Pankaj Mishra. 27 January 2013. “Mobile Phones Disrupt India, for Better and Worse”. Bloomberg.


4Yue Wang. 25 March 2013. “More People Have Cell Phones Than Toilets, U.N. Study Shows”. TIME.

5Gram Power. “How does Gram Power’s Smart Micro Grid work?”. Accessed 29 May 2013.


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