“How I found out all the lies about the Rs 251 phone sold in India”

Posted: March 1, 2016 in Uncategorized
Sharmila Bhowmick got to the bottom of the mobile phone scam

Sharmila Bhowmick got to the bottom of the mobile phone scam

A refrain that we often get to hear is investigative journalism is dead. But Sharmila Bhowmick is clearly not one to believe in that. That is why she went all the extra miles to get to the bottom of one of the biggest scams happening in India in recent times.

To know about it read her article here 

Sharmila tells us how she did it:

It just sounded too good to be true”

One of the most interesting stories ever; basically where a few simple questions thwarted a major botch up. After the gala launch of ‪#‎Freedom251, I only just decided to land up at their factory to follow up on what had caught the imagination of the country: an unbelievably cheap phone at Rs 251.

The look and feel of the place spoke for its self. In a rushed interview, the company owners said that they had not got factories yet, they didn’t yet have a phone; but they had procured 25 lakh bookings online. It pretty much seemed like a product being sold on the basis of an idea. It is the age of selling ideas anyway, and Goel seemed to have caught that nerve.

Next day, I found something new, vouchers of Freedom251 being sold in the village markets of interior Noida to really poor people. No mention was made by Goel & Co about on ground sales before.

On the first day after the mega launch when I went to the corporate office he said , “I have completed my target of 25 lakh bookings.” Then someone from his office later in the evening said we have registered 7 crore bookings online.
Next day, I discovered they were selling vouchers to really poor people which was not even mentioned by them when we spoke.
Then I spoke to these people who were buying the vouchers and they said, “We were told its a Government of India scheme, under the Make in India scheme so we have booked 4-5 phones for gifting during festivals.”
The numbers said almost 1 lakh people had booked more than one phone each since it was just Rs251 and they had already paid for it.
I wrote an article on what I found out about the voucher.
Next day the company started saying, “We will sell 25 lakh phones, offline too.”
So basically it came to 50 lakh phones they would make and sell between April 10-June 30 without a factory or even a phone model to show.
However the booking on ground stopped immediately after the story. The promises and plans from the company kept changing and evolving.

With all doors closing and an FIR lodged by one of its vendors; yesterday Goel confirmed that he is refunding all the money. But added that as and when the phone does get made, it will be delivered on a cash-on-delivery basis.

They still don’t have a factory, they still don’t have a phone to show.

The whole point in doggedly following the story to this end is only to show, how easy it is to sell anything to the mass. It also shows how reporters really increasingly need to go to the closest point of the origin of news to get the truth out. You get nothing at media events, go to the ground and while on the ground, go closest to the spot.

Had I not gone as far as the Ringing Bells office gates, I would have possibly never been able to bring out what it was all about; and possibly a lot of water would have passed under the bridge before someone shouted SCAM!

“For journalists there is never any substitute for leg work”

There is always a good story to be told. So find it, and say it well. That is simply the inner guide I look for while hunting for a story. Only this, has led me to break and bust quite a few virulent scams – sand mafia, real estatae scams, a Muslim’s-only apartment scam where poor Muslim’s were conned – over the last few years. Use technology well, but don’t become its slave. A good reporter has sharp eyes, a sharp nose and is never credulous. A good story today is still a harvest of great foot work and real interaction with human beings. Go to the ground; while on the ground, go closest to the spot. There is no substitute for leg work. Reporting is and will be, the soul of journalism.

“I was so thrilled to report stories I worked without money in my first job”

It was one day, while waiting for a professor to arrive in class and then being told that she was not turning up, that I decided that I would rather use my time productively, while doing some real work and not waste time. I dropped out of my MA course, after a full year’s labour; much to the chagrin of the professors for wasting a precious JU- Comparative Literature MA seat. I started working for free with MJ Akbar’s Asian Age. I did somehow complete a journalism diploma from the University in an evening course, after work. By the way, since high school and since I was 17, I have been financially independent and even funded my own education.

The Asian Age was the most thrilling experience ever. I used to submit my stories written in long hand, when someone introduced me to computer typing. Soon, I got hired by Newstime, a Hyderabad-based paper’s Kolkata bureau to cover the Calcutta political scene. After this, I joined The Hindustan Times, Kolkata. I became the only girl, in an all-male bureau, covering hard news. But the scenario changed after a few years, when women joined.

I left Kolkata for Delhi in 2004 and joined HT digital, New Delhi. I arrived in Delhi without an appointment letter, just on the basis of a word of my would-be boss, Sanjay Trehan. However, I was given the letter within minutes of reaching office.

I was producing the world pages for the portal and then Sanjay quite unbelievably gave me permission to write a preposterous single-woman column: Girl Talk. The column, though outrageous at times, became very popular.

After a while, I decided to quit mainstream media for a bit, and got hired by Sankarshan Thakur, the then Executive Editor of Tehelka to write for and produce its feature pages. I did that for close to a year. After a year, CNBC hired me to research and write a documentary series of shows called Business Legends, the pillars of India’s corporate history.

I got to work closely with Victor Banerjee and direct him as well. I also produced a series called the Lessons-In-Excellence, a sort of master-class series on business strategy. This was my longest stint at any place ever. In eight years, I produced hundreds of documentary films and shows.

But as they say, once a reporter, always a reporter. When I heard Times of India was launching an edition in unchartered journalistic greenfield like Noida and Gurgaon, I had to put my foot in.

The real human stories, seldom lie in the centre of buffed and polished metropolis they are always in the subaltern, the hinterland. NCR is like that. It has the issues where the rural meets the urban, how lives are changing; how cultures are clashing; how the glitz of the urban is inducing aspirations and the fall out of that. You actually live within a few kilometers of a real village and a kilometre away from the country’s biggest mall. It is an interesting landscape, with numerous untold stories, waiting to be told. I’m enjoying every bit of it.

Sharmila Bhowmick 39, is an Assistant Editor with The Times of India. When she is not on a story trail, she is either painting or sculpting. She lives with her six-year-old daughter.

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Comments
  1. theonlysup says:

    now thanks a ton for bringing this out in public . the day 1, I was skeptical about this. the manufacturing cost , the workforce , the analysis of karbonn company owner and sangeeta mobile owner led me to conclude it as a scam . I think it is a duty of every journalist to bring the truth out and it is well done by sharmila in this case . thank you again .
    Thanks Amrita too 🙂

    • amritaspeaks says:

      Yes many people like you with an objective mind thought so but as you in India the easiest thing to do is dupe people. Thank you for your comment.
      Cheers
      Amrita

  2. bepenfriendscelebrities says:

    R u not getting any death threats. By this time u should be getting many for exposing the culprits.

    stay safe. This is India a land of cheaters. any voice that exposes them will be silenced under some names.

  3. Barry says:

    It seems more than this ordinary write up u r interested in showing your photograph.

  4. It was short time gimmick that has attracted tons of eye balls. If they win in this game then it’ll become big lesson – how to turn everybody spreading about you in less marketing budget. And if they fail, surely going to happen, still they have earned lots of fame.

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