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Can smartphones for women in Chhattisgarh help in economic development?

Can we expect women to use their Sanchaar Kranti Yojana phones to improve their children's lives in some way?

Savannah Noray | IndiaSpend  |  Durg district, Chhattisgarh 

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In a remote village in Chhattisgarh, over 200 lined up outside a government office, each holding a small, orange ticket. One by one, they shuffled into and out of the office, replacing their ticket with a smartphone. Excited new phone owners gathered in groups outside the hall talking about how they would use the phone.

This scene was not unique to one village. All across through September 2018, the state government was giving a smartphone to one woman in each rural household. The programme, entitled Sanchaar Kranti Yojana (SKY), or the Telecommunications Revolution Scheme, covered 2.3 million rural by the end of September. As if that weren’t ambitious enough, also gave to 300,000 college students and 350,000 urban women--and will increase network coverage by building just under 1,500 towers, thus encouraging even more phone use and ownership beyond the beneficiary pool.

The main purpose behind programme is to address low in and to empower in the process. As evident from the heat maps below, has India’s fourth lowest mobile rate--45.6%--which is five percentage points lower than the overall average.

Source: Financial Inclusion Insights, 2015-2016. Estimates pool years.

At the same time, Chhattisgarh’s in is the lowest in India at 14.3 percentage points: 52% of men own a phone compared to 38% of women. At 32.7 percentage points, India’s overall average gap is more than twice that amount. Yet a relatively smaller in ownership does not necessarily mean the gap won't grow over time--many states with higher also have larger gender gaps.

In this way, programme is a timely nudge that encourages a narrowing rather than enlargement of the mobile (For more insights on the causes and effects of the gap, see a new report by our team, led by Rohini Pande and Charity Troyer Moore of Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard Kennedy School, Erica Field of Duke University and Simone Schaner of University of Southern California.)

The benefits of mobile phones

The potential impacts of SKY go beyond female Ample research already shows that mobile phones encourage economic development. Phones help producers and consumers access the best price for market goods and learn about job opportunities. In Kenya, mobile money has reduced households' vulnerability to economic shocks. “Behavioral messaging” through SMS and voice calls have improved behavior in domains like finance, health, and education.

A few studies highlight the value of women’s mobile phone access, both for themselves and others. One study found that M-PESA, Kenya’s mobile money platform, has lifted 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty. Increases in consumption were concentrated among female-headed households, suggesting that women had more to gain from mobile money. A study from Niger found that when women took cash transfers through mobile money application rather than as cash, household dietary diversity improved, a result attributed to women’s increased bargaining power within the household.

This result echoes a broader finding in current research: Empowering women with assets is valuable to economic development. Studies show that when women have access to resources, they use them for children. For example, greater access to pension benefits among female-headed households in South Africa led to improved nutrition for girls. There are similar patterns among households in Brazil, where studies show that higher female income leads to greater chance of child survival, higher nutrition investments in girls, and larger relative investments in human capital and leisure.

Similarly, we might expect women to use their SKY phones to improve their children’s lives in some way. While empowering women with technology is a noble pursuit in its own right, this further highlights the value of SKY targeting rather than male.

A problem: The male monopoly

The success of SKY’s targeting of comes with a caveat: Transfers are only as effective insofar as the beneficiary perceives them as useful and relevant. Recent experience with the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), or Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme, illustrates this.

The intent of was to open a bank account for at least one member in every household. Yet alone was not enough to achieve full financial inclusion, as many accounts remained dormant after being opened. In order for the economy to see the downstream impacts of the scheme, beneficiaries needed to understand what a bank account could do for them and how to use one. In other words, the relevant metric for measuring financial inclusion lies not in the number of people with an account but the number of people who use accounts.

In a similar way, if SKY beneficiaries do not find phones useful or obtain the skill to use them, then the initiative will fail to close the and women will not reap these benefits. The issue is further complicated by the fact that unlike bank accounts, phones can be easily transferred, and men often control asset ownership within households in South Asian cultures.

Thus, even if a woman sees her new phone as useful, if she does not know how to use it, then her husband may use his monopoly on technological know-how to justify taking it. This underscores the potential added value of digital literacy training to the SKY programme and, more broadly, highlights the importance of providing training alongside programmes that give assets to the poor.


(Savannah Noray is a Research Fellow at Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard Kennedy School.)

First Published: Thu, October 25 2018. 08:09 IST
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