Fifty five-year-old Ranaki Bai never owned a smartphone, neither did she intend to own one until Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan, rolled out the Indira Gandhi Free Smartphone Yojana — a public welfare scheme aimed at distributing smartphones, free of cost, to women from low income families in the state.
Announced on the heels of the 2023 state Assembly elections, in the scheme’s first phase, the state government distributed 40 lakh smartphones loaded with free unlimited calls for nine months and 2 GB of mobile data.
Ranaki, a widow, walked 8 km and stood in line thrice when municipality workers organised smartphone distribution drives in south Rajasthan's Kotra village, only to return home empty handed each time.
480 km from the state capital of Jaipur, Kotra is a tribal-dominant village with approximately 92 percent of its population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category.
"I don't know how to use a phone...but I stood in line along with my son because we were told that the phone will make it easier for me to get my pension. Once the phone comes, there will be no need to visit the bank every month," Ranaki said, referring to a monthly amount of Rs 1,500 she gets as widow pension, hopeful of getting the phone in the next round of the distribution drive.
Hela Ram, Ranaki's 23-year-old son, knew that the next round his mother was waiting for is not coming anytime soon.
"Ab jo hoga, chunaav ke baad hi hoga''
''Agar dusri party ki sarkar aayi to ye yojana bhi dabbe mein jaayegi''
(Now whatever has to happen will happen post the elections, and if the government changes, this scheme will be shelved for at least five years), he said softly, perhaps to avoid crushing Ranaki's hopes.
On a hot October afternoon, The Quint met Rekha Kumari, Kali Kumari, Amrita Kumari — all 13-year-old and students of Class 9 enrolled in Kotra village's government school.
The three friends recently received smartphones distributed by the Rajasthan state government.
<Click/Tap to expand quotes and videos of the three girls in the gallery below>
As per a report by the Ministry of Education, more than 20,000 schools were closed across the country between 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19 induced lockdown. Another study by think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy stated that 43 percent children didn't have access to any schooling for upto 19 months (due to inaccessibility of digital modes of education or being enrolled in a school that did not offer digital education).
The school Rekha, Kali, and Amrita went to, also switched to online education during the pandemic. At that time, only Rekha had access to a phone, which she shared with her two siblings.
Kali and Amrita cited the example of Rekha's family and asked their parents to buy them a Jio sim card. "Initially they refused but we're still trying to convince them. We have a feeling we will get it soon," they told The Quint.
The smartphones are also a topic of discussion in Rekha, Kali, and Amrita's classroom.
"The boys (in our class) tease us now. They ask us what is so special about us that we got the phones and they didn't," Rekha told The Quint.
This, however, isn't just a harmless banter among classmates. Adult men in Rajasthan also feel that the scheme shouldn't have been for women alone. "Why didn't men get the phones? Do they not need quick access to their pensions or other government schemes?" said Dharam Chand, another one of Ranaki Bai's neighbours present at the gathering.
According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), Rajasthan has 2.51 crore women voters — and both the Congress as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are eyeing their votes. While the Congress, in addition to distributing free smartphones, launched a slew of other welfare schemes targeted at women, the BJP launched the Mahila Pravasi Abhiyan, a women-centric campaign to ensure direct contact with women voters in the state.
The Quint spoke to beneficiaries of the Indira Gandhi Smartphone Yojana, who are eligible to vote, such as Ranaki Bai and several others. While Ranaki directed the conversation regarding her vote to her son Hela Ram, 80-year-old Mugali Bai said, "I will vote for the person my son and daughter-in-law vote for."
Jeetendra Chaudhary, a Congress worker from Tonk Assembly, said that the scheme might give more reasons to loyal Congress voters to vote for them but will not do anything to convert those "sitting on the fence" in the party's favour.
"A loyal Congress voter will vote for the Congress, no matter what. Similarly, a loyal BJP supporter will vote for BJP. Schemes like these are used to lure those sitting on the fence. However, that can only be done by a party's karyakarta. And for reasons best known to the top leadership, distribution of these smartphones was fully done by the state machinery — bureaucrats, teachers, and health workers. Why will they walk the extra mile and try to connect a beneficiary with the Congress?" Chaudhary questioned.