Quite expectedly, as the urban chattering classes, our immediate reaction to it has been to say "Ha, another freebie" and roll our eyes. Should we be that dismissive just yet?

Amma Mobiles might not be a silly freebie scheme but it already has its criticsBy Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons
news Amma Schemes Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 14:52

Every time the TN Legislative Assembly meets, Tamil Nadu undergoes an 'Amma' branding repeat-exercise. From canteens and water bottles to pharmacies and baby-kits, there have been several product launches in the past 4 years, and the latest one - not very surprisingly - is 'Amma Mobiles' under the 'Amma Kaipesi Thittam' (Amma Mobiles Scheme).

Quite expectedly, as the urban chattering classes, our immediate reaction to it has been to say "Ha, another freebie" and roll our eyes. Should we be that dismissive just yet?

Amma Mobiles is not for everyone, not even for all women. It will be given only to trainers of women self-help groups in Tamil Nadu, and is capped at 20,000 across the state at a cost of Rs. 15cr in the first phase.

There are more than 6 lakh self-help groups in Tamil Nadu, and their performance has been met with considerable approval. They organize better finance and loans, run awareness campaigns and enable women to be empowered by helping each other. There are several 'trainers' for the groups who provide guidance to the women.

These trainers have a lot of information in their possession, including information about the women, their loans and payments and records of meetings. So the 'Amma Mobiles' will have a pre-loaded app which will help the women maintain records and also help the government to track and monitor the working of the groups in a centralized manner since they will be able to mine the data from the mobile phone apps directly. The app will be in Tamil and the phones, going by the plans for the app, will have to be smartphones.

So this is no freebie scheme, its targeted intervention by a state government to improve the efficiency of well-performing, people-centric community welfare groups. Most importantly, its targeted, and not a universal one like free TV scheme.

“This is good for. She is enabling us further, is she not? We don’t know when we will get it, but if we do and it is useful for us, we will be really thankful,” says Ambika, a women’s self-help group member in Madurai, adding, “We have not studied much, and for her to enable us with technology, we will be really thankful.” However, many have not heard about the scheme just yet.

Such a scheme does have considerable political capital too.  “This is a political move aimed at elections only. Her advisors have understood the political culture of the people very well,” says C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

The scheme however has its critics already.

Poet Rajathi Salma, who is associated with DMK and has worked with women groups to empower them, says that the Jayalalithaa government is just trying to sway women by appealing to their desires. “There are other real problems like alcoholism which women are fighting against. Instead of helping them with that, they are announcing such schemes,” says Salma. Women self-help groups have been spearheading the movement calling for complete alcohol prohibition in the state, but the TN government has recently announced that prohibition is not practical.

“This is 100% a populist scheme. How is this going to help the women? Will they know how to operate them? And is this the only problem which the women have?” asks Lakshmanan.  He says that the Jayalaithaa government is trying to replicate the policies of the BJP government which is engaged in the Digital India campaign now.

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