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This blog post was republished from the Digital Empowerment Foundation website. 

“We need immediate help to ensure our mobiles are working and we can make calls,” said one of the migrant workers stranded on the road. Another said, “Our pre paid amount is over and we do not have money to recharge our phones.” Two thousand people out of 12000 migrant workers who started traveling to go back to their homes, made a call to a Tollfree number to complain and seek help for their mobiles to be alive. The Tollfree number was provided by Jan Sahas, a not for profit organisation who are tracking migrant workers who are reverse migrating from cities to their homes; and trying to also provide all possible help.

As a result of Covid 19, we have an unusual situation in India, where the entire informal sector and migrant workers’ lives have been at stake. Because of the complete lockdown and non assurance of daily support for living, reverse migration has become one of the biggest problems for millions of people and for the government at center as well as states.

It is quite interesting to note that migrated population who are either daily wagers or being to informal sector in general mostly uses feature phone and they are mostly the pre-paid customers. They heavily rely on their mobile, calls and ability to pay as they go. 

Jan Sahas told me very interesting 5 major points that they heard from the people who were on their journey to reverse migration, and they are: 

  • our mobile batteries are dead and we have no means to charge them

  • we are prepaid users and our balance is finished and we do not have money to recharge our balance 

  • most of us are trying to be in a group while moving because at least one mobile must be working in each group so that we are connected

  • we have no body to depend, police is chasing, highways are blocked and social distancing is keeping all away; the only hope is having our mobile working so that we can call anyone for help and keep our relatives know where we are and how we are moving;

And the most important query from the migrant workers was if their talk time and internet data could be free?

Let’s try to find out what’s the number of feature phone users and who are the users among the bottom of the pyramid who would be using either cheap or second hand smartphones or feature phones.

According to Ashif Shaikh of Jan Sahas Social Development Society, “Total informal sector workforce is estimated to be about 440 million. Out of which, vulnerable informal sector workforce is estimated to be 304 million. Total seasonal migrants is estimated to be 55 million (but according to census data it is 15.1 million - which is outdated).”

Additionally, according to government statistics, every year more than nine million migrant workers move from rural areas to large population centres like cities, metros and towns. 

I am assuming that most of the migrant workers adding to the total of all of informal sectors’ work force would be using feature phones and also would be subscribing pre-paid as mode of their payment to telecom services including data.

In order to match the numbers on the other side, we have data that confirms as of late 2019 that, “There are about 450 million smartphone users as compared to 550 million feature phone users in India. About 40-45% of feature phone users own a device at less than Rs 1000,” according to IDC India.

Since the informal sector is a working class and most of them also float around towns, cities, metros and areas where transactions and business takes place, it may not be out of the way to assume that all of informal sector including migrant workers would be a subset of 550 million feature phone users.

At an unusual time of Covid-19, which has totally paralysed movement, travels, transportation, and lockdown of everything that would have brought daily bread in the hands of the people who were part of the informal sector and migrant workers; how would such a huge population would pay for their most basis needs and necessity - that is being connected.

Considering that more than half of the Indian population reply on feature phones, and pre paid connectivity, and the fact that they have no means to pay for being connected, is it not the responsibility of the government to come forward and consider communication as basic necessity, fundamental need, and basic human rights and declare complete free access to telecom and data for all those who are Below Poverty Line (BPL); who rely on rations; who depend on MNREGA, who are migrant workers, who are daily wagers, and who are part of the informal sector.

In fact, the government can announce Pradhan Mantri Free Talk Time & Internet Yojna, especially to combat Covid-19 and the Yojna could be applicable for 6-12 months only.

The payment could be compensated through USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund). However the losses on telecom prices can easily be achieved through all online services that would continue to boost the usage of online talk time, analog time as well as data usage.

Just to prove my point I would like mention the example of one soochnapreneur who is based in a village in Alwar and who earns through providing digital services to the villagers, and has been going door to door to his entire village and providing banking services including withdrawals of money. His status of being banking correspondent has paid off to the people in a situation when there is a complete lockdown and villagers are not stepping out to go to even local bank.

Osama Manzar is Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation. He is also member of the advisory to World Wide Web Foundation’s Association for Affordable Internet. You can follow him @osamamanzar .