By Osama Manzar

“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 from Delhi towards Bundelkhand. Another said, “Our pre-paid amount is over and we do not have money to recharge our phones.” 2000 out of 12000 migrant workers, who started travelling back to their homes, made a call to a toll-free number to complain and seek help for their mobiles to be topped-up and recharged. The toll-free number was provided by Jan Sahas, a not-for-profit organisation tracking and facilitating support for migrant workers who are taking precarious routes from places of their work in the cities to their homes in rural India.

As a result of Covid-19, we have an unusual situation in India, where the entire informal sector especially livelihood of migrant workers are currently at stake. The complete lockdown, cessation of economic activity and non-availability of means of regular livelihood have led to reverse migration becoming one of the biggest problems for millions of people and for the government both at the Center as well in the states.

It is quite interesting to note that the migrant labours who are mostly daily wage workers belonging to informal sector generally use pre-paid feature phones. They heavily rely on their mobile to make calls and the ability to pay as they go.

Jan Sahas told me 5 major interesting points that they heard from the people who were on this journey:

  • Mobile batteries were dead and there was no means to charge them
  • As mostly were prepaid users, they ran out of balance and there was not enough money to recharge
  • They were usually moving in groups because there would be at least one working mobile in each group which would help them stay connected
  • There was nobody to depend on – the police were chasing them away, highways were blocked, and social distancing was keeping all away
  • The only hope was to have mobile phones working so that calls for help could be placed and they could let their families and relatives know where they were and how they were moving

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

In trying to address this question, let us try to find out what the number of feature phone users is 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. The total seasonal migrants are 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 9 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 informal sector’s entire workforce would be using feature phones and also would be using pre-paid connection for telecom and data services.

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 of less than Rs 1000,” according to International Data Corp (IDC) India. It is safe to assume that workers form a sub-set of this 550 million.

Since the informal sector is mostly made up of the working class and most of them 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.

COVID – 19 has totally paralysed movement, travel, transportation and lockdown of all economic activity that would have ensured food in the hands of the people. In this difficult time, a crucial question to address is how such a huge population would pay for their most basic needs and necessity – that is being connected.

Considering that more than half of the Indian population rely on feature phones and pre-paid connectivity, and the fact that they have no means to pay for being connected, it becomes important for the government to come forward and support digital connectivity and communication as a basic necessity, fundamental need, and basic human right. They should declare complete free access to telecom and data for all those who are Below Poverty Line (BPL); who relies on ration; who depends 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 and Internet Yojna, especially to combat Covid-19 which 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 be recovered through all online services that would continue to boost the usage of online talk time, analogue time, as well as data usage.

In order to substantiate my proposition, I would like highlight the example of one of DEF’s information entrepreneurs (or Soochnapreneur) that is based in a village in Alwar, Rajastha, and earns by providing digital services to the villagers. He has been going door-to-door in his entire village and providing banking services including withdrawals of money. His status of being a banking correspondent has been crucial for the people in his community in a situation of complete lock down where villagers are not even able to step out and go to the 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