‘Garibi Hatao’ (eradicate poverty) was a great slogan that Indira Gandhi, said to be one of the shrewdest Prime Ministers India has seen, coined during her 1971 election campaign. The idea was to reach out to the urban and rural poor. It is a different story that while Indira Gandhi swept back to power, it is said that not even 5% of the total funds, basically from the central government, reached the poor.
There is a buzz again about something similar to be launched to once again get the rural and urban poor. According to unconfirmed reports, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh will flag-off a mega scheme, ‘Har Hath Main Phone’, for 6 mn BPL (below poverty line) families, at the cost of `7,000 crore, most probably, to the USO fund. Each family will get one phone with 200 minutes of free local talk time. Obviously, the UPA government hopes to sell this as an initiative to empower the poor, just in time for the 2014 general elections.
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Can this seriously tilt the mood of the poor people, currently reeling under big burdens of inflation, unemployment, drought, et al, in favor of the Government of the day, and bring them back into power. There is a good chance, but it all depends on how the scheme is implemented and what infrastructure is created so that the beneficiaries can leverage their phone.
Let us not forget that in India, people earning less than about `70 per day, who are barely able to manage some food, are most probably illiterate, and unlikely to have access to education and health, and are classified as people below poverty line. The obvious question will be: What will these people do with a phone? How can a mobile phone begin changing their lives?
I believe that if this UPA government sincerely wants to empower the poor, it will ensure that this phone is linked to the national UID database so that the family is acknowledged as legal residents of India, and not harassed by police-which one often hears of. Thinking aloud, the government will have to explore if with this phone the poor man would be able to somehow get access to various benefits that will come with UID. Will this phone be able to provide the poor person access to some distance education program or remote medical assistance? Some out of the box thinking is required, but I am sure a phone can empower.
I believe that a mobile phone can be a great tool to bring these benefits to the poor masses, with minimal leaks and pilferage, that is often the reason for the failure of many such grand plans. Therefore, people will vote for UPA and bring them back to power, if their phone gets them connected. Otherwise it will be another scheme that bombed. Indira Gandhi had won the election despite very little ‘Garibi Hatao’ benefits reaching the poor. UPA will hardly reap any benefits.