Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Poll-bound Rajasthan distributes smartphones for women

Rasooli Bibi could be anywhere between 70 and 80-years-old; she cannot recall her age. “You can guess by counting the wrinkles on my face,” she says. As she steps out of a government distribution camp with a newly issued smartphone box in her hand, a neighbour teasingly asks what she plans to do with the device, given her failing eyesight. “You keep quiet,” she says, flashing a toothless smile and strutting out, her clouded eyes sparkling with joy. 

Ms. Bibi is among the seven lakh women (as on August 24) who have recieved smartphones in election-bound Rajasthan under the Indira Gandhi Smartphone scheme, which was launched by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on August 10. In the scheme’s first phase, the State’s Congress government plans to distribute 40 lakh smartphones to three categories of beneficiaries: those who receive pensions for widows, girl students, and women heads of families who have completed 100 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme.

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Ms. Bibi’s phone has a new sim card, which comes loaded with free unlimited calls for nine months and 2 GB of mobile data. On paper, the smartphones are available in nine models that the beneficiaries can select from, but in reality, the choice is limited by the stock available at the distribution camp. 

Facets of empowerment

For each woman, the phone holds a different value. For some, it is the first smartphone in the family, which often translates into better access to education material available online for their children. For others, it is the second or even third phone in the family, which means that these women now have sole ownership of phone which they do not have to share with their husbands, brothers or children. 

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On a muggy August morning, the government school in Ramgarh — which is doubling up as one of the scheme’s 456 distribution camps — is a virtual warzone. The women line up, their bodies squished together, unwilling to concede even a centimetre of space. The queue snakes through three dimly lit rooms, where the women must register themselves, verify their documents, and finally get their new phones.  

Guddi, who goes by her first name, belongs to the Meena community, which falls under the Scheduled Tribe category in Rajasthan. She was married to a farmer who committed suicide in 2020, consuming pesticide after successive onion crops failed.

Ms. Guddi and her four children now live with her late husband’s family. Every time she has to make a call, she has to borrow her brother-in-law’s phone. “That will change today, I will get my own phone. I heard they are providing internet too, which means my kids will be able to attend online classes, if it ever switches back to it,” she says, smiling under her long ghunghat (veil). 

Aspirational device

At the RR College just 25 km away, in a crumbling old building that was once the palace of Alwar’s king and still retains its erstwhile beauty, the distribution camp is better managed. Instead of queuing up, the women are seated at classroom desks till their names are called out for each part of the process.

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Diksha Saini, 17, is a first year student of the BA-pass programme. Her family belongs to an Other Backward Class community; her father is a daily wager in Delhi and her mother does odd jobs. Ms. Saini aspires to be an IAS officer. “Between me, my brother and mother, we have one phone, which my brother keeps to himself. Now with this one, I will have my own. I am told You Tube has many free IAS coaching tutorials,” she says.   

Voter impact

Wary of the revolving door trend which has ensured that the Congress and BJP alternate their hold on power in the State, the Gehlot government has offered a slew of welfare measures. At the camp, while waiting for their phones, many talk about the ration kit that they recently received, the free power, the medical insurance. But are these enough to determine their votes? For Congress loyalists, these schemes give them more reasons for continued support. For committed BJP voters, even as they bag the new phones, these welfare measures have little meaning. But it is the undecided who may hold the key.

Bhoti Meena and her daughter Komal have spent the entire morning at Ramgarh. When the State goes for polls in the next few months, it will be the first time Ms. Komal Meena gets to vote. A second-year BA-pass student, she is looking forward to being the first in her family to own a smartphone, which would allow her access to all the college WhatsApp groups that she is missing out on. But will it dictate her electoral choice? “How do I know who I should vote for? I will vote for whoever my father tells me to,” she says, as her mother nods in agreement.

At the Alwar camp too, 60-year-old Suman Devi redirects the conversation to her son Prem Singh Bhatti when it comes to political choice. The Bhattis, who belong to the Rajput community, have traditionally been BJP supporters. “We have been voting for the BJP in the last two elections. This time, the Congress has done a lot of work, not only mobile phones, they have also been constructing roads and generally the upkeep of infrastructure has been good,” he says, adding that the family’s final choice for this year’s vote will be made closer to the election, after the candidates are known. His mother’s smartphone will simply be one factor among many.

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