Mithun Dey in conversation with Sharmila Bhowmick, the assistant editor with The Times of India who has an excellent groundwork on Freedom 251 smartphone and Ms. Bhowmick’s firm faith in the investigative journalism gave her the strength to place the truth behind Freedom 251 in public domain since she believes that truth should be available to all people. Ms. Bhowmick is a firm believer that her work on Freedom 251 will open the eyes of million innocent souls; and more importantly, encourage more and more journalists to go to the ground.
Mithun Dey: First tell something about your journalistic career. What was your first job in this field and how did you land it?
Sharmila Bhowmick: I used to freelance since my college days, and then I started working for The Asian Age, Kolkata for free. That was 1999. That was the first brush with a newsroom. However, the stories I did there were soon noticed and I got my first job with Newstime, a Hyderabad based paper’s Kolkata bureau as a reporter. The next stop was Hindustan Times.
Mr. Dey: Well, let’s move frankly on to the Freedom 251 smartphone story. I have heard about your brilliant groundwork on it. How did you come to know that the so-called Noida-based company, Ringing Bells doesn’t have factory and even doesn’t have a phone of Freedom 251 to show?
Ms. Bhowmick: On 17th, there was this mega launch; Mohit Goel was being hailed as this poor boy turned visionary entrepreneur. There were celebrations. However, on 18th when they opened their website for bookings, their website crashed because of the traffic. Their office is located in Noida. So, I just took a chance and thought, let me go and look up their office and what is happening there. Once there, I saw people standing with bills of disrupted bookings, over 200 people actually. I saw that the office was located in a rented space in a building. Goel on his way into the building when asked about his business plan, said, “I have 25 lakh bookings and I will open two factories, one in Noida one in Uttarakhand.” He rushed in. I called his office about what is the current status of the company: they said 7.5 crore registrations done. So, I reported how they were going about with the bookings, without even a factory and at least one model of Fredom251 to show. People were signing up for this in blind faith. We were on February end, and they were promising deliveries from April 10. It all sounded very illogical. Everything seemed like a plan. This story broke the news about Freedom251’s real picture and grabbed everybody’s attention. People started asking questions.
Mr. Dey: Do you believe that the cheapest smartphone Freedom 251 won the trust of people?
Ms. Bhowmick: Everyone likes free goodies. A Rs251 phone was the next best thing to free. It was too good to be true; but I guess, it was too good an offer to let go of as well. Thus the 7.5 crore online registrations.
Mr. Dey: The quality of components on the phone still remains big question. It will be appreciated if you kindly tell us something about it?
Ms. Bhowmick: The plan is to import Taiwanese phone components and assemble them in India. So, definitely not a ‘Made In India’ phone; more like an ‘Assembled In India’ project.
Mr. Dey: Do you think there are any subsidy for the phone as well as any involvement from the government?
Ms. Bhowmick: Nothing from the government. But even yesterday, Goel has told me in a conversation that he has people to fund his project.
Mr. Dey: How did you find out about the vouchers of freedom 251, were being sold in the village markets of interior Noida to poor people? What kind of vouchers the company issued and why did they do so?
Ms. Bhowmick: This is the part that unravelled the story. From start, there was no mention of offline sales. Even on 19th the company said all transactions were strictly online. I was tipped off by someone passing by the Bhangel area of Noida that people were queuing up to book Freedom251 in cash, not online. I connected with a lady who bought a voucher. The company till that point refused to have any offline cash sales. This was the second story.
Mr. Dey: Did you talk to those people who purchased the vouchers for cash Rs. 251? If so, what’s their opinion? Please explain it.
Ms. Bhowmick: So next day, Ringing Bells announced their plan that along with 25 lakh online bookings, they also have plans for 25 lakh offline bookings. They have 45 distributors. That bookings in cash were being done from all of them. I spoke to over 10 local people who had booked the phone in cash from a local shop. They said they booked the phone because if they get them by June, they can gift them during the festival season. Also they thought it to be a Government of India scheme.
Mr. Dey: The phone appears with multiple features such a 4-inch WVGA IPS display, 3.2 mega-pixel auto-focus camera, 0.3 mega-pixel front camera, 1.3 GHz quad-core processor 1 GB RAM, 8 GB of internet storage with SD card support, Android 5.1 Lollipop OS and so on. Do you think all these can be provided with just Rs. 251?
Ms. Bhowmick: The phone model has been estimated by experts to be valued at Rs2300. It is not possible to sell this phone at Rs251, unless it is heavily subsidized by some agent.
Mr. Dey: The smartphone has also raised some copyright questions. Tell us something about the same?
Ms. Bhowmick: Investigations into Mohit Goel’s finances, his antecedents, his plans, everything is in the process. Meanwhile FIRs have been made against him by companies whose payments he hasn’t settled. People who were involved in the making of the website have disclosed on social media that the company had no proper business plan in place.
Mr. Dey: Freedom 251 maker says pre-booking money to be refunded. Why has the company abruptly decided to do so?
Ms. Bhowmick: He had promised one round of deliveries for another phone model starting February end. Those phones never arrived. Emails were being sent to the company every minute. With mounting pressure from media, government and customers, he refunded the money.
Mr. Dey: It is said that Ringing Bells has closed down their office and no one is currently working there. Kindly tell us something about it.
Ms. Bhowmick: The building in which Ringing Bells was located, B-44, Sector 63, itself is facing some lease issues. Goel has been asked to vacate. He said he is looking for a new office.
Mr. Dey: What advice do you have especially for the common people of India on this smartphone Freedom 251?
Mr. Bhowmick: Not just Freedom 251, but for anything which sounds too good to be true: pay heed to the fine print, even if it is a good offer.
Mr. Dey: What did Mohit Goel, the founder, owner of Ringing Bells Pvt. Ltd. tell you upon his last interaction?
Ms. Bhowmick: Last contacted, Mohit Goel, Founder, Owner of Ringing Bells Pvt Ltd stated that he would source phones from two different agents at the rate of 60,000 phones per day and then start selling them on cash on delivery basis to those who have registered for it. He was working on procuring a funding to get the material for these gadgets. That though he had used the Adcom phone for an initial impression, the phone he will give will be assembled by other agents. And that he would start selling the Rs 251 phone from April end onwards and the plan of making the RS 251 phone was not scuttled. More, the last line he desperately gave me “Iss desh mein, pehle naam, fir kaam”.
Sharmila Bhowmick is an Assistant Editor with The Times Of India. She lives and works in Noida. She is known for her investigations of the drug scene of Kolkata during her early career; over last few years, she has investigated the notorious illegal-sand mining on Yamuna river belt; busting of scam of ‘muslim only’ apartments being sold in Greater Noida; illegal tree cutting and trafficking in reserved forests of Surajpur; she was also instrumental in getting refunds for homebuyers who were sold illegally constructed floors by a top builder. She believes in ‘seeing is believing’ journalism; dogged on ground reporting and getting closest to the source of information. She has recently uncovered the true picture behind the launch of the Rs251 phone by a Noida based company.
*Mithun Dey is a columnist, poet and freelance writer based out of Bongaigaon, Assam.