The grocery store at the entrance of Dehwa village — around an hour’s drive from Lucknow — throws up an unexpected sight. Three children huddled around a laptop kept on a table inside the store. They have basic mobiles and are waiting for Hindi film songs to be downloaded from the laptop and passed on to their phones.
Dharam Chand, 20, who got the device under Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s free laptop distribution scheme, is all business as he deals with the children. There is a quick Rs 20 to be made by giving them the songs.
“We also use the laptop to show examination results and download movies for customers,” says Dharam, who studies in the Dehwa government Hindi-medium school and runs the shop with his father.
The laptop is the “only high-tech gadget” in his house.
Dharam learnt the basics of the laptop operation from his younger brother who did a computer course in Lucknow.
“Even my father has started taking interest. One day he proudly told me that he downloaded some songs for a customer and earned Rs 20.”
The income from the laptop has made Dharam, who will vote for the first time this year, an Akhilesh fan. And, here lies the twist in the tale. Dharam is a Dalit and his family has so far always voted for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
That will change this time by at least one vote — Dharam’s. “I will vote for Akhilesh bhaiya. He gave us the laptop and has promised smartphones.” He shows the family’s basic Nokia handset and adds, “What’s wrong if I get a smartphone. This phone doesn’t have WhatsApp.”
In nearby Tarahia village, Mohammad Zakir, 22, too is a beneficiary of Akhilesh’s laptop scheme. A milkman’s son, he was certain he would join the family business, but after getting the laptop, his dreams became bigger and he has joined a computer coaching centre. “I want to see Akhilesh Yadav coming to power again so that we get a smartphone,” he says.
The chief minister hopes to reap rich electoral dividends from his laptop scheme when the seven-phase state assembly polls kick-start from February 11. The laptop scheme is one of Akhilesh’s flagship projects meant to woo the youths. If Dharam and Zakir are examples, Akhilesh may have succeeded in creating a constituency transcending caste for his Samajwadi Party, even though it may not be a blanket vote-winner.
Critics of the ruling Samajwadi Party say the free laptops cannot hide the government’s glaring failures on other fronts: from maintaining law and order to generating employment. Many youth also say they prefer secured jobs to laptops.
The SP government has distributed nearly 18 lakh laptops since 2013 to meritorious students of Class 12, cutting across caste lines. Each laptop costs more than Rs 19,000.
Neeraj Kumar, 60, of Pandara Sikandepur village in Shahjahanpur, says: “A poor boy from our village who got the laptop is now working in a clerical post in a private company in Punjab. The laptop transformed his family’s life. Who do you think they will want to come to power other than the SP?”
However, the laptop isn’t a runaway success, primarily due to the poor power situation in UP. Many laptops the government distributed have not been put to use as beneficiaries lack technical know-how.
In Karnpur village, about 10 km from Dehwa, Kiran, 26, says she gave her free laptop to her brother. “The machine was of no use to me because we were not taught how to use it.”
In Lucknow, Lakhan Lal Kanaujia, whose daughter received a laptop last year, said, “I don’t think Akhilesh has won many hearts with this scheme. He gave laptops but it is not of much use because internet connection is very costly. There are several houses where the machine is kept idle because children don’t use it due to lack of computer education.” He added that in several villages, where there is no electricity, people have sold their devices.
The SP manifesto this year has offered more laptops, smartphones, free bicycles for girls in Class 11 and Class 12, along with a host of other sops.