Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

One of the greatest challenges our rural folk face is a lack of access to information about markets - not just distant markets but neighbouring markets as well. Few of them read and our research has shown that they don’t tend to travel beyond a few kms for commerce (see my earlier post Do not disturb). When they do travel longer distances it’s primarily to visit temples on pilgrimage. Consequently, many of them claim that they don’t need a phone because everyone they know and interact with lives close by. I was lamenting the difficulty of getting new product information to people who live in these circumstances and my husband very helpfully offered up that it sounds like we need to have heralds or messengers and town criers like they did in medieval Europe. That got me thinking and I started to read about these roles. I think he was on to something.

A little bit of scouting history turned up that in medieval Europe, messengers were hard-working, talented folk. They had to be excellent horsemen, able to travel up to 100 km in a day, skilled topographers able to navigate unmapped terrain and talented communicators; a tough combination. Heralds and messengers were prestigious jobs, well paid and protected by official decree. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ was in fact law. And it wasn’t just the Royal government that employed messengers. Wealthy families and businesses employed them as well. Interfacing with the far traveling messengers were the town-criers, who shouted out news on everything from wars, taxes and jobs to local markets and events; even lost dogs. What struck me was that in England and some other parts of Europe, Town Criers were a government position, appointed by the Mayor of each town, to keep the citizens informed of matters of both national and local importance. In fact, interfering with a Town Crier in the execution of his duty was once a serious offense. The British Empire apparently took the job of spreading news and information very seriously. It strikes me what an extraordinarily powerful system this was and I would be willing to wager that the rise of civilizations and the spread of empires were closely correlated to faster mechanisms for information flow.

I started to look back in history a little – what about the Ancient Greek and Roman empires? The Olympic marathon itself is a tribute to the system of message runners. Indeed, the first evidence of such messengers is from Ancient Greece around 500 BC, and continued into the Roman empire. As the legend goes, Pheidippides, a Greek runner, ran all day and night from Marathon to Athens (the terrain was too tough on horses) to deliver the message of victory against the Persians, dropping dead of exhaustion as soon as his message was delivered. “No finer way to die” it was declared. Running messages was a highly prestigious, respected position. No easy job but invaluable. Information was King, literally. And the Persians? Even as they clashed with the Greeks they were at their peak and had expanded their empire widely. As early as 500 BC Cyrus the Great, and then Darius, extended the road network and set up the first postal system, posting stations where new men and fresh horses would be available at any moment to carry a message further on. Information traveled at the fastest documented speeds of the time – up to 200 miles (320 km) a day.

My husband has been reading over my shoulder. You can’t leave out the Pony Express he says. Of course not, I say (Umm, what’s that exactly?). It was a fast mail service across the United States in the 1800s, a commercial undertaking of massive proportion. 157 stations placed at intervals of about 10 miles - the maximum distance a horse could gallop, allowed the rider to change to a new horse at each station, crashing the time it took to get across the United States to ten days. Riders were apparently paid $25 per week compared to the $1 per week you got for unskilled work. Clearly they understood the value in speed of information.

I have not come across any historical evidence of official, full-time messengers in India. Besides, here in South India and many other parts, people were certainly never known for their horsemanship. And today, finding out what’s up in the next town is clearly not an organized priority. Now of course there is TV, but TV does not cover news of very local importance such as a lost cow, a job in the next village or your next village neighbors new cool idea.

That said, it is unlikely that horseback messengers and town criers did not exist in the kingdoms that were once India. Still, from what I gather it was probably not as prestigious, organized and granted as high a stature. And it might still be useful, particularly in the village context where literacy is low. Indeed it seems as though in the last fifty years, some communities here have picked up on it. Only thing, it’s not granted nearly its due importance and value.


  1. This piece is interesting. I am not sure how true it was. Birds were also used as messengers, as can be inferred from the ancient Tamil literature.

    Contrasting what we were in the 19th century to what we are today, I think the human race has found innovative solutions to many of its painful problems. One can only think of possibilities. Nothing can literally stop us from innovating.

  2. While I agree that opportunities are limited and people in rural areas are compelled to restrict their circle of influence to a narrow limit, should we treat the poor (be it urban or rural) with a patronizing approach?

    Secondly the number of students from villages who make it to the larger world is ever increasing and isnt this indication that the poor do find a way if we give them the means?

  3. Tara - I am not sure if you remember me, I used to work for ARCON in Chennai that your father and Prof Ramachander started in 1987. My name is Chitra. I am keen on getting back to academics and my area of interest is Neuropsychology. If you find time please do write to me at

  4. As convincing as it was, may be we are looking at it from the wrong side. May be the real problem is unorganized markets. Educating/Inspiring a thousand villages to go beyond their comfort zone could be difficult. I guess facilitating a single aggregator to cross the borders (This might sound capitalistic) is still the best way.

  5. What about the psychological make up of the rural folks. How do we empower them to embrace change and give them the strength to move out of their comfort zones?

  6. Sreelaj, unorganized markets is a huge problem. However, after several years of observation my view is that it is unorganized because people have very little organized information about markets. In that sense, I don't think this post looks at the wrong side but the other side of the same coin. Information about local markets will catalyze organized markets.

    And as for the comment about it being patronizing, I tend to disagree - I am suggesting that the poor will step up if they simply have organized access to information. Without the internet, search, and news media the rest of us would be lost and circumscribed in our abilities as well.