Her thumbs flying fast on the touchscreen of her smartphone, Purnima Mahato, 35, of this tribal village in Jharkhand, has just discovered the ease of business with her ubiquitous companion in an otherwise rocky entrepreneurial journey.

Travelling long distances to market homemade pickles and papadum was always a hurdle till she started using a smartphone.

She now circulates images with small write-ups about her products through platforms like WhasApp to reach out to her customers before making deliveries to them. Payments to buy and sell are also made online.

"Ho gaya (done)," she said, raising her head and pointing to the images of her products on her phone.

"Sold. The customer agreed. And it will be delivered by the evening," Mahato said with a winning smile.

The wife of an agriculture labourer with four children is one of tens of thousands of tribal women in this state moving beyond the confines of their kitchens and household chores to become economically self-reliant.

Aimed at boosting the central government's twin initiatives of 'Digital India' and 'less-cash economy', as well as to nurture the rural economy, the Rural Development Department of the Jharkhand government has doled out free smart phones to 100,000 'Sakhi Mandals' or self-help groups (SHGs) of women entrepreneurs.

Smart phones are given to SHG heads who train the women entrepreneurs. A SHG has 7-15 members each.

The businesswomen, much like their urban counterparts, are increasingly reaping the benefits of the internet.

State Rural Development Minister Nilkanth Singh Munda said the smart-phone initiative was aimed at boosting the prospects of the Sakhi Mandal system, which has done "wonders" in boosting Jharkhand's rural economy.

"While the major aim is to encourage more and more digital transactions to achieve less-cash economy but at the same time none can deny the immense importance a smart phone has acquired in modern times especially for business," Munda told IANS.

"The 100,000 smart phones with free network will be handed out to the beneficiaries in the next two months and by 2019 we have plans to hand out 100,000 more smart phones to the SHGs."

He said the smart phone initiative will boost the government endeavours for socio-economic empowerment of women.

"Sakhi Mandalis have helped in streamlining women entrepreneurs and coupled with the smart phone initiative it will ensure that benefits of all the women welfare schemes, including the Tajaswini project, effectively reach the beneficiaries," he said.

Funded by the World Bank, the Tejaswini project supports adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24 to complete their secondary level education and help them to acquire market-driven skill training.

Munda said that over a million women are members of the SHGs and are engaged in entrepreneurial endeavors like cattle rearing, poultry farming, dairy products, edibles like jams, fruit squash, pickles, papadum, herbal juices and other household articles.

In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who launched the smart phone initiative here earlier this month, admitted it was "amazing and equally heartening" to see tribal women using mobile apps with such efficiency.

Business interests aside, the women entrepreneurs are also enhancing their social connect with smartphones.

"It took time to learn how to operate a smartphone but now we are realising how important technology is for our daily life. It's really amazing to see that just with a touch of a button you can make payments or reach out to buyers far away with your products," Rina Tudu, an SHG head, told IANS.

State Women and Child Development Minister Louis Marandi said the new initiative will also play a major role in women empowerment and security.

Marandi told IANS: "In time of any emergency or distress they can seek immediate help or even use them to record any wrong doing, or harassment."

While both the government and the SHGs are betting big on the smart phones to change the life of rural Jharkhand, network issues owing to deficient infrastructural facilities is surely a concern.

However, Nilkanth Singh Munda asserted the government was working on improving the communication facilities.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at anurag.d@ians.in)

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