In UP, many wait for next poll gift: a smartphone

In UP, many wait for next poll gift: a smartphone 

The larger question, however, remains as to whether poll freebies have helped uplift people from the larger problems of poverty and unemployment that hobble the state.

Uttar Pradesh polls, UP polls, UP elections, Samajwadi Party-Congress, SP-Congress alliance, Mulayam Singh Yadav, SP freebies, SP laptops, laptop scheme in UP, poll freebies, India news, Indian Express
When she got the laptop four years ago, Rinki says she spent hours with it. (Express Photo by Vishal Srivastav)

It’s raining freebies this election season — from 1 GB Internet data to 2 kg of desi ghee. In 2012, when SP came to power in UP, it rode on one such promise — free laptops to students. The Sunday Express met some of the beneficiaries — from a bride-to-be in Agra who has given away her laptop as dowry, to an accountant in Faizabad who still treasures his “first laptop” — and find many of them waiting for the next poll gift: a smartphone

In March 2013, a year after the Samajwadi Party came to power in Uttar Pradesh, it kept a key poll promise: free laptops to those who had cleared Class 12. The laptop scheme, offered by a party which under a young Akhilesh Yadav hoped to get the youth on its side, marked a break from the SP’s traditional anti-English and anti-technology politics under patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Towards the end of the SP’s five-year term, with another election looming, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav held a meeting in October 2016 with a select group of 30 beneficiaries for “first-hand information” on how the initiative had “changed lives”.

“The Chief Minister wanted to see the impact of the initiative on the knowledge, economic empowerment and employability of the beneficiary youths,” said Bhagwati Singh, Director of Education, Uttar Pradesh.

Since March 2013, the government has distributed nearly 18 lakh “Samajwadi laptops” to students who had cleared Class 12 across UP. These laptops cost the government about Rs 19,000 each and about Rs 2,800 crore in the first year. The laptops, HP Pavilion G4 Notebook PCs, have a 14-inch screen with 1,024×768 pixel resolution, 2-GB internal memory and 500 GB hard disk capacity. They also have a DVD read and write optical drive, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support, and a webcam.

The success of the SP’s laptop scheme has prompted the BJP — the only other party to have come out with a full manifesto — to announce similar schemes aimed at wooing the youth: the party has promised laptops and 1 GB free Internet data to college students.

The SP manifesto for this election offers a continuation of the laptop scheme besides a string of new sops targeted at the youth: smartphones, free bicycles for girls in classes 11 and 12, solar table lamps for meritorious students in rural areas. The party has also promised to extend the laptop scheme to students of Class 10.

The highlight this year, however, is the smartphone sop. The Chief Minister has claimed that over 1 crore people registered for the scheme between October 2016 and January 15, when the online registration was stopped following the Election Commission’s orders.

All residents of Uttar Pradesh who are 18 years or above as of January 1, 2017, have annual family income of less than Rs 6 lakh, have at least cleared Class 10 and are neither government employees nor children of government employees are eligible for the smartphone scheme.

Asked about the laptop scheme and now the promise of smartphones, Samajwadi Party chief spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary says, “In just four years, we have distributed 18 lakh laptops, which is a record in itself. There has not been a single instance of corruption or complaint regarding the scheme. Now, taking it a step ahead, we have promised smartphones.”

The larger question, however, remains as to whether poll freebies have helped uplift people from the larger problems of poverty and unemployment that hobble the state. The Sunday Express meets some beneficiaries of the laptop scheme across UP to find out:

Sumit Kumar, 23
Nagla Pati, Agra
Dropped out after Class 12, manages a shop

Like almost every other day, Sumit isup only by 1 this Thursday afternoon. “He wakes up this late and then spends his time at home doing god knows what with his laptop,” says his mother Kamlesh angrily.

Sumit, however, says he has his reasons for waking up only in the afternoon. He has to keep his stall at Bhagwan Talkies, one of the busiest crossings in Agra, where he sells eggs and cold drinks, open till very late and gets home only by 4 am.

Sumit’s sister keys in the password for him. (Express Photo by Ishita Mishra)

As Sumit groggily pulls out his laptop and plugs in the charger, Kamlesh says, “He kept missing college, wasn’t concentrating on his studies, and finally dropped out. So his father started the stall for him. That way, we thought, he would at least earn something.” Kamlesh says she recently asked her younger daughter, who cleared Class 12 this year and has applied for a laptop, to create a password for the laptop so that her sons — Sumit and Jitendra — don’t spend too much time on it.

Sumit, his parents and four siblings live in the Dalit Basti of Agra’s Naglapati area. His father Ranjan Singh works at a dhaba in Agra and his siblings — Sumit has three sisters and a younger brother — are still in school. “When my father told me to sit at the stall, I was initially hesitant but then I thought, what can a Dalit do anyway? I will probably do my post-graduation some day; let’s see when,” says Sumit, calling out to his sister to key in the password for him.

Sumit says that while the family traditionally votes for the BSP, he and his siblings have registered for the smartphones announced by the SP. “All of us have smartphones. But there is nothing wrong in getting one more. That way, I won’t need a power bank,” he says, trying to download a song on his laptop, that keeps hanging every few minutes.

He has a few demands, though. “I hope they don’t put unnecessary apps in the smartphone like they did with the laptop. Is se Mulayam-Akhilesh nahin hata sakte hain. Arre, humein de rahe ho to humein dekhne do na kaise rakhna hai, kya rakhna hai (You can’t remove the Mulayam-Akhilesh boot-up image from the laptop. If you are giving us something, let us decide how to use it, what to keep),” he says.

Anyway, he says, the laptop was never of much use — “only to watch movies, listen to songs and play games. Aur kya hi karen iska? Kisi kaam ka hai kya ye 512 MB RAM ke saath? (What can you do with it anyway? Is it of any use with a 512 MB RAM)?” he asks.

Guria Kumar, 20
Rampur village, Sultanpur District
BA graduate, now at home

Guria Kumar keeps her HP laptop, along with the charger, in an old school bag that she hangs from a nail in her house. The last time she took it out was to take it to a mobile store in a neighbouring village. “Sau rupaye ke gaane dalwane leke gaye the ek baar (I took it out once to upload songs for Rs 100),” she says, cleaning utensils in the mud house that she shares with her family of four — parents, sister and grandmother.

The family owns a small plot where they grow wheat, which barely meets their needs.

“Naya naya rakha hai (It is still new),” says Guria of her laptop

While Guria says she is happy she owns a laptop, her mother Jagmata is not that impressed. “What use is this to us? Naukari chakari lag jaati toh theek rehta, aur ka batayi (If they had given us jobs, that would have been better. What else can I say)?” says Jagmata, adding that she plans to get Guria married next month to a boy in Faizabad district.

Guria says that when she got her laptop in 2013, a year after her Class 12, she had no idea what to do with it. So for the first few months she kept it in the cardboard box in which it came until her friends in college taught her how to use it.

Taking out the laptop and the charger from the school bag, she says, “Naya naya rakha hai (It is still new). Kuchch nahin kar paoongi. Movie, song dikha sakte hain (There is not much I can do. I can show you movies, songs).”

The laptop opens with a burst of music — the wallpaper is a photograph of a smiling Guria. “My friends did that,” she says. When the laptops were distributed, the Chief Minister had said that the wallpaper should not be changed and that if they did, the machine would stop working. “But some of my friends were able to change the wallpaper so I asked them to help me put my photograph on the screen,” she says.

Guria says she never applied for a job as her mother would not have allowed her to leave the village. She has now applied for the government’s smartphone scheme.

“I do not have a phone. My mother and grandmother own one each. So when I heard about the scheme, I applied,” she says.

Guria says that once she gets married, she will probably take the laptop with her. “Maybe it will be of better use to my husband-to-be,” she says, turning around to make sure her grandmother hasn’t heard her.

Priyanka Sharma, 21

Nagla Ka Taal village, Agra
B.Sc graduate, is getting married on February 27

The shiny black laptop is the newest addition to the Upadhyay household, along with a bike and a cooler. “All these are dowry gifts that I got before my wedding. Now I will get a sofa and a double bed,” says Jitendra Upadhyay.

Jitendra, an electrician-cum-DJ from Khandoli, a village 20 kilometres from Agra city, is marrying Priyanka Sharma of Nagla Ka Taal village, Agra, on February 27. His elder brother Naveen is marrying Priyanka’s elder sister Preeti the same day.

But it’s the HP laptop, which Priyanka gave him last September, that has changed Jitendra’s life. He now uses it to play songs at functions where he is the DJ. “Atak jata hai kabhi-kabhi toh gana bajte-bajte ruk jaata hai or public chillati hai. Baaki sab badhia hai (The laptop sometimes hangs and the music suddenly stops and people start yelling. Otherwise, it’s great),” says Jitendra, a BA graduate.

Sitting in the courtyard of the house that is getting a fresh coat of paint ahead of the wedding, Jitendra’s sister Ruby says she gets to use the laptop too. “My friends come home and we play songs on it,” she says.

Around 40 km away, in Nagla Ka Taal village, Priyanka says she is happy her “husband can use the laptop for his business”. It was never of much use to her anyway, she says, adding that it would have been better if the government had given them scholarships instead. “My brothers used to watch movies on my laptop. I am a science student and so, I don’t watch too many movies,” says Priyanka, who is a B.Sc graduate from Thakur Tej Singh College, Agra.

The 21-year-old lives in Nagla Ka Taal with her parents, sister and two younger brothers. Her father Dinesh Chandra Sharma is a teacher at the Balbhadra Inter college in Dauji, Mathura.

Priyanka got the laptop in 2013, a year after she cleared her Class 12 with 70 per cent. She says the laptop would get stuck sometimes “par baki sab theek tha (everything else was fine)”. She says she had to get it formatted once and even get the software upgraded.

So how did the laptop end up in her future husband’s home? “Phone pe baat karte wakt woh bata rahe the ki naya laptop lena hai. Maine kaha paise shadi ke liye bacha lo, laptop mera le jaao (We were talking on the phone and he was saying he had to buy a laptop. I said save your money for the wedding, take my laptop),” she says, breaking into a giggling fit.

Rinki Gautam, 22
Bharsar village, Lucknow
BA graduate, looking for a job

“Laptop? Yahin kahin rakha hoga (It should be somewhere here),” says Rinki, frantically looking through a pile of clothes on a large steel trunk. She finally finds it behind a 10-inch television in another corner of the room. “Yeh rakha hai (So it’s here). I have not used it for some time. All this household work and stitching leave me with hardly any time,” she says, using a piece of cloth to wipe the dust off the laptop.

The room, where Rinki now sits sewing, is unplastered and bare, lit only by a low-voltage bulb hanging from a nail in the corner of the room. Rinki lives in this two-room house in Bakshi ka Talab area, about 32 km from Lucknow, with her parents, three sisters and three brothers. Another sister, the eldest, is married.

Her mother Sudama Devi says she wants Rinki to get a regular job but is worried for her safety. “Waise, shadi bhi to karni hai (Besides, she has to get married),” says her mother.

Rinki says that after her graduation (in Hindi, history and sociology) from Mahamaya Government Degree College in Lucknow last year, she wanted to apply for B.Ed but could not “because of family problems”. “I had to start earning,” she says.

Her father Sita Ram Gautam owns 4 bighas in the village, where he grows wheat and rice, but that’s hardly enough to make ends meet. So Rinki took to sewing kurta-pyjamas and blouses, earning Rs 100 for every piece she stitched.

Rinki says she does not remember the last time she used the laptop. Her brothers use it sometimes, but with no Internet connection, they aren’t interested either. “Phir dar lagta hai, kharab ho gaya to banwa bhi nahin payenge (Besides, I am scared. If it breaks down, we can’t even get it fixed),” she says.

But when she got the laptop four years ago, she admits, things were very different. “There was a lot of excitement. Since nobody in our family had ever seen a laptop before, I didn’t know what to do with it. Then someone said the local block office holds basic computer classes, so I would go there everyday. Those days, I would sit with the laptop all day. I even learnt Hindi typing on it. But that is not enough to get a job,” she says.

Rinki has now applied for the smartphone scheme. “Only my father has a phone. Maybe if I have a phone I can look for a job outside the village,” she says.

Mohd Furkan, 22
Faizabad town
B.Com graduate, accountant in a Faizabad firm

Until he got the laptop in 2012, after his intermediate from MLML Inter College in Faizabad, he shared his brother’s computer. “My brother runs a computer hardware shop, and I have done a computer course. So computers and laptops are nothing new. But this laptop is mine — only mine. I sometimes carry it to work,” he says, sitting in his office room in Faizabad.

The B.Com graduate from Faizabad’s Saket Degree College says a cousin of his got a laptop too. “There were days when we would use our machines for 13 hours in a row. In the last four years, my laptop has been formatted at least four times,” he says, adding that he has used his laptop “to full capacity”.

Express Opinion

Furkan says has used his laptop “to full capacity”

Furkan, who works as an accountant earning Rs 5,000 a month, hopes to do his MBA some day. “Rs 5,000 is nothing. I will have to move out of Faizabad for better prospects. I have applied for an MBA at a college in Lucknow. Let’s see.” His father runs a photocopy shop in Faizabad.

Furkan says he has also registered for the smartphone scheme.

Shiv Jana, 22

Indiranagar village, Sultanpur
BA graduate, hopes to get a job in the police or army

The photograph of a smiling Akhilesh Yadav on his dark grey laptop has long made way for stickers of gods and goddesses — Shiv Jana hopes they will bring him better luck in his search for a job.

Shiv lives in Indiranagar, a village deep inside Jagdishpur area of Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, with his parents and three younger brothers. Another brother, the eldest, is working in a private company in Gurgaon, he says. Their father works as a Class IV employee in Lucknow Municipal Corporation and the family owns a small plot of land on which they grow wheat.

Shiv wishes the laptop had come with an Internet connection

After he completed his BA from Chandrabali Singh Urmila Degree College in Sultanpur last year, Shiv says he has been desperately looking for a job — “I hope I get a job soon, either in the police or the Army, so that I can help my father run the household,” he says.

Shiv says that while the laptop is a “kaam ka cheez (useful thing)”, he wishes it had come with an Internet connection. Every time he has to fill application forms for jobs or make online payments, he has to go to the cyber cafe in Kumarganj market, 7 km away.

For the rest, he uses his smartphone but the network, he says, is unreliable and the Internet painfully slow. “Yahan toh 2G network bhi nahi ata, jabki sheharon mein toh log 4G le rahe hain (We don’t even get 2G network here while in cities, they use 4G),” he says. Sometimes, he says, he goes to the fields nearby, where the connection is “slightly better” and downloads job application forms on his phone.

But the laptop has come with a few positives, he says. “I am no longer scared to work on the computer. I learned typing and can watch movies but because there is no Internet connection here, there is very little my brother or I can do beyond that.”

Shiv says he has now applied for the SP’s smartphone scheme. “Mil jayega to achcha rahega (It will be good if I get it). If the phone is good, I can do most of my job search online,” he says.