Chandigarh, Sep 11: Captain Amarinder Singh had promised free smartphones for the state’s youth in the run-up to the state assembly elections, but they may not ring anytime soon.


The state government has decided to engage a consultancy firm to finalise a detailed scheme and open tender for selection of private partner for giving smartphones with free calling and data for a year. “A consultant will be appointed from among those empanelled with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) for market assessment and technical knowhow to get the best deal for the government. We will invite offers from telecom companies through open tendering process. It will take three-four months,” said sources, requested anonymity.

The decision to engage the consultant has been taken by a committee of top officials of industries, youth affairs and governance reforms departments, besides Punjab Infotech. The committee has been constituted to draft the scheme and supervise the tendering process. The nodal department for the programme is youth affairs.

The Congress had promised free smartphones in its poll manifesto to “enable the youth to be a partner in efforts to digitize” the state through the Punjab online project. Amarinder, who was then the Congress state unit chief, first talked about 50 lakh free phones in November 2016, asking youths who are between 18 and 35 years and have passed Class 10 to register with the party.

The “Captain Smart Connect Scheme – Saanjhe Supne”, for which registration was done online, saw enthusiastic response with more than 30 lakh youths registered for the freebie. A section of the political brass is now pushing for early implementation, given the party’s promise to start delivery of free smartphones with voice and data pack in the first 100 days of the Congress government and the “direct connect” it would provide with youth.

Finance minister Manpreet Badal had earmarked a “token” sum of Rs 10 crore in his budget for 2017-18 for the free phones promise. The state authorities are already in “informal” talks with telecom service providers. A leading player is already offering a 4G phone to users with a “refundable, upfront deposit” of Rs 1,500 for three years with an attractive data and calling package.

“There are indications that the same offer may be available to the government without the deposit, provided it bears the interest cost of Rs 600 per device over three years. The scheme is a priority. The details are being worked out,” said a senior officer. The state government, whose main worry is to scrounge up cash for its debt waiver scheme for small and marginal farmers, may not rush with the freebie phone promise. The distribution of 30-lakh smartphones, as and when it is finalised, is likely to be spread over a period.

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