NEW DELHI -- The Chhattisgarh government's ambitious scheme to distribute 50 lakh smartphones to people across the state is more than just a sop for the upcoming assembly elections. People in the state have confirmed to HuffPost India that the phones have a photo of Chief Minister Raman Singh as wallpaper and are preloaded with the apps of both Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In July, the BJP government in the state signed off on a Rs 1,500 crore scheme to distribute the smartphones. The Micromax phones with Reliance Jio sim cards are being distributed under the Sanchar Kranti Scheme, which was first announced last year. HuffPost India has contacted both Micromax and Jio for details of the preloaded apps and will update this copy if they respond.
"For a lot of the people who fall under this scheme, getting a smartphone is a big deal, they don't really have a lot of other options," said Amitabh Dubey, a political analyst and consultant who is the policy co-ordinator for All India Professionals' Congress, a wing of the Indian National Congress. Dubey had tweeted last week about the wallpaper and preloaded apps, and HuffPost India has now independently confirmed this.
Dubey pointed out two concerns with the government's move. "One issue is labelling, but that happens on all schemes, which is understandable. But the phone is fully branded and more importantly, comes with the NaMo and Raman apps. Data is the new oil and these apps are owned privately, not by the government," he said.
Security concerns have been raised in the past about the NaMo app. In March this year, French security researcher "Elliot Alderson" (the name is a reference to the TV show Mr Robot) alleged that the app shares private information of users with a third party in the US.
According to the permissions for the two apps on the Play Store, the Raman app can read your contact list and see files stored on your phone. The Modi app can also take photos and record audio on your phone. Lots of apps have similar permissions to allow users to log into the app easily, or send a photo or download videos and audio clips. However, giving widespread permissions is definitely a security risk.
Abhay Edlabadkar, CEO of security company Redmorph, had told HuffPost India in May that users need to pay more attention to permissions and gave the example of a torch app that asks for Internet access. "People lack awareness of what apps are doing, but even trusted companies are scooping up your data," he said. "If a company like Facebook which gets so much scrutiny does this, imagine what the small apps you've never heard of are doing?"
Although the scheme has been in the works for some months, the distribution of phones only began recently. According to the roadmap for the scheme, a total of 55.6 lakh handsets are to be distributed in all, with 50.8 lakh to be distributed this year, and the remaining 4.8 lakh to be distributed in 2019 in villages with less than 1,000 people.
Scroll.in reported in June that the government had also asked applicants and their family members for their Aadhaar numbers and permission for the state to use these numbers.
The scheme is aimed at improving the state's mobile penetration, which is reportedly around 29%, compared with the national average of 68%. However, the government has also drawn criticism for spending funds that could have been put to more immediate use.
"Earlier, for the state government, food security was a priority. In this money, the state government could have provided oil under PDS for the next 5 years," said Narendra Das of the Right to Food Campaign Chhattisgarh. "This move shows that ensuring food for the poor and adivasis of Chhattisgarh is no longer a priority for the state government."
The flak does not seem to have had much effect. On Tuesday, Rajasthan, which is also gearing up for assembly polls this year, announced it would give free smartphones to 1 crore families in the state.