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Ring in for rural change, toll-free

Ranchi, July 20: It’s a helpline that might have been a lifeline for people like slain MGNREGS activist Niyamat Ansari. But better late than never.

IIT-Delhi computer science faculty member and social worker Aaditeshwar Seth, a close associate of development economist Jean Dreze, the architect of MGNREGA, has designed a unique toll-free helpline for Jharkhand.

The service, called Jharkhand Mobile News, got a low-key launch yesterday at Khunti and Latehar districts, but it promises big change in the hinterland.

A user dialling the toll-free number 1800-102-4188 will get to hear a recorded voice in Hindi asking the caller to press either 1 or 3. On pressing 1, he or she would get to snippets of news.

On pressing 3, the caller would be asked to state his or her grievance with the delivery mechanisms of various public welfare schemes such as MGNREGS, pension schemes, healthcare and education services, civic issues, et al. Once complaints are recorded, they will be forwarded to social activists who will meet the state officials concerned with the issues.

Callers can dial the toll-free number from landline as well as cellphone. The server of this service is New Delhi-based.

“We hope this service helps whistle-blowers at the very grassroots to speak up on what they think is wrong. If one is not empowered, it is difficult to make oneself heard. But everyone can be empowered to make a call. It’s a voice for the people,” Seth, who was here to discuss with social activists as to how to go about implementing the idea of mobile news service, told The Telegraph yesterday before leaving for New Delhi.

He added that the voices of the complainants would be recorded through the “news service”.

“Later, these problems would be passed to social activists through an SMS service to take the matter ahead. But this is at a nascent stage. The entire cycle of transferring the complaints across a fixed channel will take a few more days to gain concrete shape,” Seth said.

For villagers, who are yet to understand the technicalities, the very idea of getting their voice heard beyond their immediate circle has sparked enthusiasm. In Chitru village of Siladon panchayat under Khunti block, rural labourers say they aren’t getting MGNREGS wages on time. Six wells have already been dug, but junior engineers have allegedly not been to measure them after monsoon began. “As the babus are not coming, our wages are held up,” said Sambhu Kumar, a labourer and activist associated MGNREGA Sahayata Kendra Khunti, run by associates Dreze. Sambhu was one of the first persons to use the toll-free number to put his complaint on record yesterday.

“We are printing posters about Jharkhand mobile news service with the toll-free number. These will be distributed among villagers and we’re hoping word will spread rapidly. Why complaints, callers can inform about the good work going on too,” said Byomkesh Kumar Lall, a social activist and Seth’s collaborator.

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