It is quite surprising that the UPA government is planning a Rs 7,000 crore scheme to dole out one mobile phone to every family living ‘below poverty line’ (BPL). (‘Every BPL family may get a mobile’, TOI, August 8, 2012). The ‘Har Hath Mein Phone’ Scheme is a ‘phony’ calling-card for the 2014 general elections. It’s a blatant squandering of public funds. ‘Har Hath Mein Phone’ sounds more like the marketing strategy of a telecommunications company; a conspicuous misfit in the arena of a government that is grappling with myriad problems. In these difficult times, our country’s Prime Minister has generously pledged $10 billion to G-20 and Indian cabinet has okayed a Rs 450 crore Mars probe to catapult the Indian Space programme. This newest measure is yet another lavish Santa Claus-like gesture on the Indian government’s part; of course, closer home- inside our country!
‘Har Hath Mein Phone’ is an ambitious project…another one in the illustrious long-list the UPA government can boast of in full-page print-ads in leading national and local newspapers when it goes for the polls. Impressing the voters with such lofty offers and promises is one thing and delivering the basic amenities is quite another. What are the steps the government is taking to alleviate the 6 million BPL families? Is providing phones the responsibility of the government? If yes, is it the panacea to the ills plaguing the BPL families?
Fact is, millions do not have access to ‘Roti, Kapda & Makaan’ (food, clothing & shelter) apart from clean water, toilets, electricity, transportation etc. Millions of families have to unfortunately survive within the daily consumption expenditure of Rs. 28.35 and Rs. 22.42 in urban and rural areas respectively, constituting the BPL category as per Planning Commission. Giving away freebie mobiles with 200 minutes of free local talk-time along with Rs 100 monthly expenditure to BPL households won’t solve their problems. Far from that, it will add to their woes. Where will they go for phone-servicing or defects? How will the monthly maintenance charge of Rs 100 be issued? How will they charge their cellphone’s battery when they have no electricity-connection? Even if they are fortunate to be counted amongst those who do have electricity-access, the erratic power-supply and frequent unsystematic power-cuts make it an operational nightmare.
But, no worries! The battery will get exhausted only when the phone is used or can be used! Cellphone requires a network-connectivity, which is sure to be ‘poor’ in those parts of India where the BPL families live. If we all have faced issues with call-dropping or disconnection due to network-connectivity-problems (that too in posh VIP areas), one can well imagine the fate of the not-so-lucky BPL families. What’s the incentive for Mobile Operators to invest in infrastructure: to set-up and maintain towers in rural areas? If they do not, then the beleaguered government telecom companies like BSNL & MTNL have to step in to do the needful. Also, is the government planning crash-courses to teach the BPL families how to operate the phone? Imparting education is the first-step to communication. Can illiterate BPL families converse/understand the modus-operandi of mobile-phone technology?
One may optimistically argue that the BPL populace will be empowered with their phone, just like the indispensable-phone-wielding sabzi-wallahs, auto-rickshaw drivers, maid-servants, dhobis etc. Proper communication facilities can empower millions of new subscribers to say ‘hello’ to the power of technology and speedily cruise on the IT & communication superhighway. ‘Har Hath Mein Phone’ scheme can fructify our government’s plans viz. financial inclusion and reaching the bottom of the pyramid. Linking cellphone numbers with UID can help in the public distribution network. But, fear exists of a similar fate as that suffered by earlier schemes: PDS grains or kerosene (people for whom it’s intended do not receive their due or beneficiaries sell-off rations for money). What if the BPL families do not receive the phone at all (as it’s siphoned off along the way) or receive it and barter their phone for essentials or sell their phone for cash? The whole idea gets defeated.
If the telecom department’s universal service obligation (USO) funds are plush enough to fund this lofty scheme, how about diverting the same funds to serve more meaningful purposes rather than ‘providing access to phone services to people in rural and remote areas at affordable and reasonable prices’? Anyway, without having good infrastructure viz. network, towers, service operations, electricity etc., and transparency, the government’s above stated aim cannot be achieved immediately. Besides, basic-voice-connectivity is already served by the Local/STD/ISD PCOs across the length and breadth of our country. (Thanks to Sam Pitroda & ilk’s three-decade-old Telecom Revolution.)
Time for the winds of a new revolution to capture Indian Telecommunications. Why not pump in the telecom department’s USO funds for ushering innovation- where India develops the next-generation of Smartphones. They are smart in two ways. Firstly, they are powered by renewable energy sources; phones that get charged by inductive power and get all the energy they need from the environment viz. solar-power, wind-power and alternate energy sources in the vicinity. Secondly, what I envisage as, ‘Audio-Visual Mate’ (AV Mate) technology that guides families and answers their voice-queries 24X7 in their own local language through instant Audio-Visual (AV) responses. Developing this green-cum-intelligent technology, India can trend, taking over the world’s imagination. Then, government won’t have to limit ‘Har Hath Mein Phone’ scheme to only basic phone models or depend on cheap ‘Made-in-China’ phones; it can afford to assign such Smartphones to the BPL families. Imagine suo-motto communication monitoring for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families to expand and improve their quality of life.
Such smartphones can provide solutions to tackle infant-mortality, ignorance, superstitions, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, poor health, malnutrition & poor sanitation. They can be used to spread mobile-education. Educate a woman and you educate a family. As education is dependent on the parents, it’s important to train, especially the mother, about how and what to teach her child. Such smartphones can serve as friend & philosopher of expecting mothers (right from pregnancy stage), guiding them all throughout their pregnancy, child-birth and beyond and answering their queries. With AV Mate’s interactive system, a user just asks and gets an instant Audio-Visual reply/answer by a simple Voice query of her’s. This smartphone also communicates with user in her own language. User simply needs to access it, post voice query in her own language and view relevant search-result- appropriate 'AV Encyclopedia' with visual files that plays automatically answering her query in her own language. She can also view the next relevant results in the list by playing related videos that match her query or can initiate a new query by posting different key-words by following the steps as above. AV Mate serves as mother and child’s all-in-one progress report – monitoring their overall health, hygiene, education, nutrition. Each mother’s detailed records are stored in a database and her mobile number is the code that helps access her complete info and tracks her activities. Further, age-specific and relevant audio-visual updates are sent to her mobile automatically so as to benefit both mother and child. If a mother is planning/has more than 1 child, AV Mate provides info about all her children, who have unique ids assigned to them, in turn linked to the mom’s primary id. Illiteracy will no longer be an impediment to responsible motherhood viz. If ‘boils’ erupt over baby’s body, mom can take her phone’s help to find answers to questions like- ‘why’ & ‘where’ to treat it etc. Whether it’s due to heat, chicken-pox etc? Voice updates that – “Date X is the date for Y vaccination. Take child to Z clinic located at ABC street.” Or “Be at home today as Nurse N will visit you at hh:mm hours” Once a mom actually takes her child for the stated health-service (as mentioned above), her concerned mobile number is ticked off the system; else daily alarms continue about due-date/other info. Owners must follow smartphone’s advice/instructions; else the defaulters amongst them are tracked, warned and counselled. Surely, smartphones envisaged as above can revolutionalise women’s lives.
These smartphones mould the future of our nation- the children by monitoring their education on a daily basis and also schedule classroom/students’ meet. It will be tough for anyone to drop-out as smartphone will track truants! Baby hears classical music from inside the womb that’s good for brain development. As age progresses, smartphone keeps record and plays suitable lessons e.g. multiplication tables when child is 5 years old, introducing alphabets, nursery rhymes etc. Children love stories, cartoons and animation. These enhance creativity. Children learn values through moral-stories via Audio-visual-lessons- India’s rich literature viz. Panchatantra, Jataka Tales and Hitopdesha etc. Folk-tales from all over the world and regional stories provide learning. Attitudes, knowledge and skills are addressed in separate AV lessons. Linguistic, cognitive and social skills are imparted. Children can pick up very easily. Their thoughts and emotions develop as they learn from engaging with the world. Lessons teach their own mother-tongue and also English simultaneously. Children learn best by doing what they love and what’s fun- learning through play activities viz. art and games that inculcate the foundations of decision-making thanks to AV Mate. Applying colours aids to their creativity, perception and memory. Games aid to their learning through self-discovery as children get an opportunity to choose and investigate independently. AV Mate takes care of children’s holistic development. Social, Physical, Intellectual, Creative, Emotional, and Cognitive development widens their horizons, giving fillip to their imagination & creative development. AV Mate also schedules regular classroom lessons & or school meets.
Similarly, men folk will also progress with info about farming, employment, self-help groups, entrepreneurship etc. Smartphone counters superstitions and aids literacy, family-planning, health & hygiene issues and ensures participation and empowerment right at the grass-roots level. Each family can be tracked with their unique Smartphone number that can be linked to the Aadhar project. This is a perfect Utopian solution. But, to implement this Smartphone scheme, we need a Smart government. Till our government metamorphoses into one, AV Mate can get its beauty sleep.
Meanwhile, instead of ‘Har Hath Mein Phone’, why doesn’t the government empower its BPL citizens by the ‘Jagannath Technology’ scheme that reaches all, just like the Rath Yatra! The idea is to impart effective training and efficiently generate employment for the BPL and other needy sections of our society so that they can help themselves and then, in turn, uplift others by providing jobs. Then, someday, when the BPL population rises, divorcing itself from ‘BPL’, each person can afford his own phone! After all, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Then, we will have a smart India.