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Society

Free phones for India's poor: a 'cruel joke?'

The Indian government's plan to give away free mobile telephones to over five million poor households has been put on hold after an objection by the finance ministry.

In a developing country like India, politicians win the votes by making promises to fulfil the basic need of food, shelter and clothing. But the current ruling party has taken it a step further. It has announced a scheme "Har Hath Mein Phone" ("A phone in every hand"), which seeks to provide free mobile phones to families living below the poverty line (BPL).

Under the scheme, which is expected to cost 1.26 billion dollars, nearly six million households listed as families living in poverty will be given a mobile phone and 200 free minutes.

There is criticism of the plan, with people saying poor and malnourished people need a number of other things that are far more important than phones.

"People below the poverty line actually need nutrition before things like mobile phones," Arun Kumar, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told DW.

Funding

This project would be funded equally by two sources, namely by the Telecommunications Ministry's Universal Service Obligation (USO) and a telecom company that has yet to win the bid to provide the service. It has been proposed by the Planning Commission of India and is currently under review at the prime minister's office.

A poor man holds a plate

Many poor families do not have enough food to eat

However, analysts are criticizing it as a populist measure of the ruling coalition to secure votes for the 2014 general elections. The opposition is calling it a "cruel joke" on poor families who have a daily income of less than two dollars a day.

These families already find it difficult to make ends meet, so the ruling party should set priority of providing them with food, shelter and clothing rather than spending on luxuries like mobile phones, said Ganesh Dutt, spokesperson of the state unit of the biggest opposition party Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

Scarce resources

Nand Kishore Singh, member of India's Upper House and also an economist though the scheme was not the best use of the very scarce resources that India has. "The need is to improve project implementation, particularly of infrastructure. There should be a lot more decisive change in education and health schemes."

"Most of these families really have never had the use of phones or electricity or other such essential things. So to what use would they get out of mobile phones?" said Kumar.

The scheme was supposed to be announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during India's Independence Day celebration on August 15 this year. However, some people think the scheme might have been put on hold after objections by the ministry of finance in wake of country's high budget deficit.

Future uncertain

"Personally, I think the scheme has not yet been fully articulated. It is not sure whether they are going to implement it in phases, in one go; target some segments of the population or start it as a pilot scheme. The full plan has not been spelt out as yet," said Singh.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

PM Manmohan Singh was to announce the scheme on August 15

"The problem of minimizing expenditure and increasing revenue looms very large on India's growth strategy. So I am not too confident that this scheme is the most optimum use of a resource-trapped economy like India."

Supporters of the project said it would help small business owners with their work. Kumar said that in Bangladesh, for example, "traders get information about food prices or fishermen about where to sell fishes and weather information on mobiles that benefit their business."

He added, however, that the situation was somewhat different for most poor people in India, as many worked "mostly laborers or daily wage earners who don't tend to migrate; they probably don't need mobiles to keep in touch with their families."

The ruling party is already facing charges of corruption at a time of turmoil in the economy and rising inflation; amid all this, such a scheme would seem like adding insult to the injury.

Author: Tanushree Sharma Sandhu
Editor: Sarah Berning