In a move that can be apparently dubbed as a political soap to boost the sliding popularity of his Congress party in the 2014 general elections, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to launch a scheme to provide free mobile connection to six million poor families in the country.
The initiative that would cost 70 billion rupees is being finalized by the Prime Minister's Office and the related departments and can help the poor people in remote and rural villages get the benefit of government welfare programs if it is implemented scientifically.
The initiative could be announced by the prime minister in his Independence Day speech August 15, Times of India reported.
The scheme, named "Har Hath Mein Phone" meaning "a phone in every hand" will provide mobile, connectivity to six million households or 28 million people below the line of poverty. The beneficiaries will get 1 cellphone with 200 minutes of free talk time and the project probably will be financed partly by the bidder and partly from the Universal Social Obligation (USO) fund, intended to provide affordable telecom services to people living in remote and rural areas.
The Congress party, which is heading the ruling United Progressive Alliance, expects to use the new scheme as a trump card to reach the grass root voter sections. According to the sources cited by the Times of India, the government believes the project can bring in the magic of the famous "Gareebi Hatao"(abolish poverty) slogan coined by former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s.
Role Of Cellphones In Empowering The Poor In India
The scheme can empower the poor families, especially those in the remote villages in the country. India, the third largest economy in Asia, has a pathetic record in terms of its position in the U.N. Human Development Index. According to the official figures, about 33 percent of its population lives under the poverty line.
The successive governments have introduced several welfare schemes to abolish poverty, but rampant corruption along with geographical, economical and cultural constraints in the country has stopped the benefits of the programs from reaching the real beneficiaries. There are millions of people in the country who have no access to any kind of social welfare measures, medical and education facilities.
Amid this, India also holds the distinction of having the second largest cellphone users in the world with over 900 million users. The tele-density in the country at present is over 79 percent. BSNL, the public service telecom utility, has a succeeded in covering the rural and remote areas.
The government has been depending on mobile technology to track and reach its healthcare projects and has taken steps to enhance its health-related and IT-enabled system like Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS) to reach the beneficiaries effectively.
Several isolated initiatives by the NGOs have proved that the huge mobile network can be the easiest and cost effective method to connect these people and villages to the mainstream.
For instance, mobile phone technology has played an important role in transforming the lives of tribes who reside in several remote and inaccessible villages in Chhattisgarh, a northern state in India.
"Cellphones have enabled us to do various tasks simultaneously," said Babulal Birhor of Dohakatu at Ramghar district in the state. "Cellphones have also enabled families to stay in closer touch with each other while members go out to earn," said Somra Birhor from the same place, according to Daily Pioneer.
Knight International Journalism Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary has developed a cellular network -- "CGNet Swara" or "Voice of Chhattisgarh" -- in 2010 and this system allows people to use mobile phones to send and listen to audio reports in their local language.
This network has enabled the tribal villages to get medical and food aid in case of emergency, report crimes and natural calamities. The network also transmits reports on the necessities of various villages through the network and this enables the government agencies to provide the assistance.
"The CGNet Swara platform provides a crucial missing link between rural and urban communities, and provides key information for people who often don't have knowledge of what's happening in the outlying areas," said Choudhary in an ICFJ report.
"Swara helps hold officials accountable, it delivers important information, and it is an invaluable communications tool for tribal communities," he added.
Similar attempts also have been reported from other countries like Kenya, where the government is using mobile devices to help the Maasai tribe find water and pasture for their cattle easily without roaming miles in search of them. The information about the availability of water and pasture has been gathered from scientists and herders and transmitted to mobiles. This has enabled the tribe to cope with worst droughts.
However, the success of the new scheme in India depends on how scientifically it is implemented to reach the deserving people, bypassing corruption and middlemen.