Field Notes: Excluded Without A Smartphone In Rajasthan 

VIJAYTA LALWANI

In June, I travelled to the rural parts of Rajasthan to understand the impact of a policy drawn by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government. It had made an app mandatory for workers to register their attendance under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the country’s national jobs-for-work programme. 

In Rajasthan, the scheme was under tremendous demand and surprisingly, it engaged many women who used it as a means of sustaining their households. Before I travelled, I had a very basic understanding of the challenges being faced by workers there after speaking to some activists over the phone. I had never reported on MNREGA before and I had some assumptions which were rightly torn apart when I got there and spoke to people on the ground. 

As the app became mandatory, it became simultaneously necessary for worksite supervisors or mates to have smartphones with an internet connection – a rare working combination in rural India. Most of these worksites were located in isolated patches of land or behind rocky hills trailed by thorny bushes. It was unimaginable to have internet connectivity in these areas. 

Mates, who are usually educated till Class 10 and chosen from among workers, earn a marginally higher wage. This becomes a stepping stone for many workers who aspire to earn more and take the responsibility of managing a worksite. 

However, I met many women, who had worked as mates earlier, and were no longer eligible because they did not have a smartphone. For some, it was expensive and beyond their budget. Parvati Devi for instance had to beg her husband to buy her a phone costing them Rs 15,000 so she could work as a mate. 

But for other women like Pooja Chauhan, it was because her family forbade her from having a mobile phone. “Without a phone, I cannot be a mate,” said Chouhan who works on a MNREGA site in Kukar Khera village in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan. “This is not fair,” she said. 

It is not uncommon for women to be denied anything that could open up a portal to privacy and independence, as Chauhan was. But, she was also denied a fair opportunity of earning more and bearing greater responsibility for her workplace. Perhaps this aspect to control women’s access to technology was not considered by the government while making the app mandatory, especially in the absence of any state provisions to supply mates with smartphones. 

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