On 4 September, Rajasthan’s chief minister Vasundhara Raje announced the “Bhamashah Digital Parivar Yojana,” a scheme under which the state government would provide free mobile phones to help citizens access government services digitally. Money will be transferred to the bank accounts of families who are eligible under the National Food Security Act to enable them to purchase a smart phone and a data connection. The scheme was announced ahead of state assembly elections, which are due later this year. Soon after the announcement, the Congress accused the Rajasthan government of “bribing voters” with free smartphones using taxpayer money. According to an Indian Expressreport, around 1.03 crore families in Rajasthan are entitled to receive benefits under the NFSA. These families are part of Bhamashah—a scheme in Rajasthan under which the eldest woman in the family is issued a card that can be used to avail government services.
A review of the official government orders and my conversations with government officials suggest that one company is likely to benefit most from the scheme: Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.
In early September, the principal secretary of Rajasthan’s information technology and planning departments, Akhil Arora, sent a directive—a copy of which I accessed—to all district collectors, asking them to hold mobile-phone distribution camps in every block of the state, where the eligible citizens can purchase subsidised smart phones. Although the directive mentions that the scheme could be availed through “various mobile operators,” it only identifies one tie-up by name, through which the mobile phones are being made available at the government-facilitated camps—the “Jio Bhamashah Programme,” with Reliance Jio. The directive states, “Jio representatives, whose names and numbers are given in Annexure A, will be in touch with District Collectors.” No details regarding any representatives from other mobile operators are given in the directive. It adds further that at least two camps must be held in each block, from 1 September until the end of the month. The directive also states that the cost of the infrastructure for running the camps will be borne by the mobile operator.
Annexure A is titled “Main Points of Jio Bhamashah Programme” and indicates that Jio camps are being held in each tehsil of Rajasthan’s 33 districts. It contains technical details about the Jio phones that will be sold under the scheme, and a nine-page list with the names and phone numbers of Jio Centre Managers, or JCMs, and mobility leads for each tehsil. Pankaj Pandey, who is listed as the mobility lead for Ajmer tehsil, explained that a mobility lead is responsible for sales and distribution while a JCM is responsible for overall operations.
The annexure notes that under the Jio Bhamashah programme, the family of each eligible Bhamashah card holder is entitled to two mobile phones. It states that the phone will be made available to the beneficiary upon a payment of Rs 501, which will be refundable after 3 years, upon return of the device, and that apps to avail of government services will already have been installed in the phones. The annexure adds that six recharges costing Rs 99 per month will be given to the users, allowing them unlimited calling, up to 600 SMSs a month, and data of 1 GB a day for the first three months, and 512 MB data and 300 SMSs a month for the next three.