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Indian ‘free mobile’ scheme comes under fire

The Indian government’s ambitious plan to provide a mobile phone to every family below the poverty line will be opposed by the country’s finance ministry, it has emerged.

The ministry claims that the government would not be able to finance the initiative, which would involve providing a free phone and 200 minutes of local talk time to 70 million households. The plan is currently under consideration by the Prime Minister’s office.

If the value of each handset were around INR1000 (US$18.09) then the initiative would cost the government as much as INR70 billion (US$1.3 billion). Under condition of anonymity, a ministry official stated that the government couldn’t afford this price tag.

Other sources indicate that the authorities could use the Universal Service Obligation Fund to finance the project. However, this would involve breaking the fund’s remit, as it is supposed to be used for boosting teledensity in rural areas; under the terms of the proposal, many free phones would be issued to city residents.

An anonymous official from the Department of Telecommunications stated that the initiative had not been proposed by the department, nor had they been consulted about it. Meanwhile, the scheme has also been criticised by the country’s Congress, with power outages being cited as a more pressing issue following the two major blackouts in July that affected vast swathes of the country, including Delhi.

The congress report read: "What use is a mobile if there is no electricity to charge it? It would seem insensitive to go ahead with something like this, especially when the government says there is no money to fund its food security plans.”

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