Jitendra visited three districts in Rajasthan to meet people who are supposed beneficiaries of UPA government’s much-touted Direct Benefit Transfer scheme. He found the scheme has only increased the sufferings of the poor
Direct cash transfer to the accounts of beneficiaries of government social welfare schemes was launched in January this year. It is one of the two big ticket programmes the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is banking on to win a third term in power (the other one being the food security law). But implementing Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) has given rise to many problems. A reality check revealed that the programme has actually increased hardships of the poor people. The slogan “aapka paisa aapke haath (your money in your hand)” seems to mock at the poor rather than reassure them.
Alwar: trees bear brunt of costly kerosene
It was an early morning in Alwar city. There was nip in the air. I was riding pillion on motorcycle with consumer rights activist Rajesh Kumar Siddh. Our destination was the west buffer zone of Sariska Reserve Forest. Along the way, we spotted a number of young girls and women carrying fuelwood on their head. Then my gaze fell on the large number of unevenly cut trees in the foothills of surrounding mountains. It was apparent that just a few months ago the forest must have been much thicker. I wanted to find the reason for this large-scale felling of trees. What I discovered was surprising and shocking.
“Cutting and supply of fuelwood has increased considerably as compared to last year,” said Siddh. He said the introduction of rationing of cylinders and the cash subsidy being given for kerosene since December, 2011, are the main reasons for tree felling. Since last year, the government has been providing only nine cylinders a year at subsidized rates while the remaining have to be purchased at market rate which makes it very expensive.
Similarly, kerosene has also become unaffordable. Transfer of cash subsidy for kerosene directly into the accounts of beneficiaries means they now have to pay the full cost while buying it from the market. Many people do not receive cash subsidies and those who do are not sure if they would receive the money. So, for most people fuelwood is the only energy choice.
“This place is named Andheria (Alwar) which literally means darkness,” said Sidh as we rode on. “This place was covered with thick trees that caused darkness even in the day. But the name is losing relevance now.”
I met Viren Vidrohi, a social activist in Roondh Manch village in the Sariska reserve a little later. He repeated what Sidh told me. “The forest is losing its trees because of rationing of gas cylinders and increased cost of kerosene.”
It was 8:30 am. Vidrohi took me inside the forest. I saw women and girls picking broken branches. “Who cut down these trees?” I asked.
“It is the job of the men to cut down trees early in the morning; women collect it later in the day and sell it in the market,” informed Vidrohi. When I approached the women to question them, they ran away, leaving behind bundles of fuelwood.
Udaipur: duped in the name of Aadhar cards
From Alwar I went on to Udaipur, where I made a new discovery. In the Kotara tribal block, the Aadhar card—biometric based unique identity—was the talk of the town. The card is vital for identifying beneficiaries of social welfare schemes to avail cash subsidies under DBT. I met 46-year old Kuparam, a shopkeeper owning a small farm in Bilia village of Daang panchayat of Kotara. On April 7, he and 300 other residents of his village were cheated in the name of enrollment for Aadhar card.
A camp was organised at the panchayat headquarters. Kupuram also went there with the required documents. After checking with the village Sarpanch, he queued up for enrollment. “Two young boys were charging Rs 30 per head, saying they were government staff. They were allowing only one person at a time into the hall,” said Kuparam.
“They took photographs with their computer and handed me a printout with some details, name and address,” added Kuparam. “When I asked why they were not taking finger prints, they made fun of me, saying the machine has already taken copy of my whole body. They asked me not to worry and ushered me out,” he said. He even got the enrolment printout laminated, and then came to know that he and other residents had been duped. Kupuram looked restlessness when I met him. He is considered one of the smarter people in the village whom everyone approaches for advice.
Daang Panchayat was not the only place where fake Aadhar card enrollment camps were held. They were held in Meware Math panchayat and Ukhliyat panchayat. I met Ramesh Grecia and his family in Ukhliyat, who paid Rs 50 for enrollment. He said two boys came with a suitcase (laptop) and enrolled about 25 villagers.
“They didn’t give any receipt and promised to get back to us with Aadhar cards. They never returned,” said Leela, wife of Ramesh. Residents in these areas are not sure if they will even become eligible for DBT in the near future.
Ajmer: Aadhar takes toll on livelihoods
My next halt was in Ajmer, where I attended a colourful gathering of old women and men under a big tent in Jawaja block. It was a mahila mela (women’s fair) organised by Mazdoor-Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people's organization, to hear grievances relating to old age and other pension benefits for the poor. Young women volunteers were busy documenting complaints regarding denial of benefits of pension and other schemes. Most of the complaints lodged, however, related to Aadhar cards.
“There was incorrect information and misprinting, like wrong names or wrong photos on Aadhar cards,” said Shankar, an MKSS activist. “This is a people's public hearing on pension scheme which turned into an Aadhar card hearing,” Shankar added.
A 70-year widow, Naini Kishan, had an Aadhar card receipt but it didn’t carry her name, though her photo was affixed. It was taking a toll on her livelihood. “My job card under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) was not renewed by the gram sewak (village-level employment assistant) because of the card. No one is telling where I should go to correct it,” said the aggrieved woman. Another woman, Teji Devi, 64, of Tayali Kheda village had the same problem. “When I got back to Aadhar centre to correct my name, they didn’t entertain my complaint,” she said.
There was another instance of how a poor man's name was struck off from the MGNREGS list because he did not have an Aadhar card. Forty-year-old Jay Singh Laxmi's name was deleted from the MGNREGS list in the first week of April by gram sewak Manmohan of Habibipur panchayat. When his wife Dakhu Devi made enquiries, she was told that this was because her husband has not got his Aadhar card made. “My husband is an alcoholic and our five-member family depends on daily wage jobs under MGNREGS for sustenance. He went to the Aadhar centre twice, but because of the long queue he returned.” Activists of MKSS took up the family's cause.
“We asked the gram sewak to show government notification or any order under which he deleted names of beneficiaries. The gram sewak failed to provide a justification and put back names of beneficiaries in the list,” said Shankar. “The government cannot force people to get Aadhar cards. Even government has announced it a number of times that it is voluntary,” he added.
I met a ward councillor in Dewata panchayat, Shobha, also a MKSS activist, who recounted a similar incident in Wadiyananga village which was sorted out after an MKSS protest.
Some of the people did not even seem to know the benefits of Aadhar card. Meena Devi, 30, of Klatkhar village in Dewata panchayat, has two children. She gave birth to her second child in January at the local primary healthcare centre where she got cheque of Rs 1,400. It took her another one month to get the cheque cleared. “It was tough time for our family. We went to the bank a number of times,” said Meena who kept her face hidden under a veil. “The bank staff said the cheque would be cleared only after I get my bank account seeded with Aadhar number,” said Meena. She has a bank account and has even enrolled for Aadhar card, but had no idea how she can get it “seeded” to get the maternity benefit. Getting an account seeded means integrating one’s bank account with his or her unique identity (UID), or Aadhaar number.
She says the earlier system was better. “I got bearer cheque when my first child was born, which was encashed easily,” said Meena.
Kotkasim: beneficiaries or victims?
Kotkasim, a block in Rajasthan's Alwar district, holds a unique distinction. It was the place where the government launched the first direct cash subsidy transfer scheme in the country on an experimental basis in December 2011. The scheme later on came to be known as the Direct Benefit Transfer or DBT, the second phase of which was rolled out this July.
The pilot experiment in Rajasthan was for cash subsidy for kerosene. The government transferred the cash subsidy amount directly into the accounts of the beneficiaries, who use to buy kerosene from the fair price shops (FPS) under the government's public distribution system (PDS) at market rate. What followed was not hard to predict. The fair price shops surrounding Kotkasim were still selling kerosene at the earlier subsidised rate of Rs 15, and because of unsteady flow of cash subsidies to their accounts, people started buying kerosene in black from the surrounding region. People also shift to using diesel which costs less than kerosene.
I met some the beneficiaries in the block to gauge their reaction. All of them complained that there was no certainty when they would receive the cash benefit. Maman Chand, 72, did not get any cash subsidy; but one of his three sons did. Vishambhar Dayal, principal at the government college, received subsidy even though he never bought kerosene. A dalit, Thawaria, 90, never receive any subsidy in his account. Chalati Devi, 80, a widow, received the subsidy amount only once in over one year—a princely sum of Rs 500. Government estimates say it provides Rs 88 for three litres of kerosene to a family.
Before the cash subsidy was announced, Kotkasim residents were receiving kerosene at the subsidised rate of of Rs 15 per litre. After December 2011, they were forced to buy it at the market rate of Rs 47, whether they received the cash benefit or not. “The flow of cash subsidies was so unsteady that we were forced to buy diesel for Rs 43 or buy kerosene in black at Rs 30-35 per litre,” said Roop Narain, a villager.
The stiff price rise and unsteady flow of subsidies to the accounts of beneficiaries resulted in a sharp decline in demand for kerosene from PDS shops, which the government interpreted as a success story, saying people are better off and so don't use kerosene. The government never bothered to assess the ground reality and continues with the scheme.
People stopped buying kerosene from FPS, and the FPS owners, on their part, stopped lifting kerosene stocks from government's agencies. Government officials are now forcing FPS owners to lift kerosene stocks and sell it.
“The district supply officer (DSO) is now forcing us to lift our lot of kerosene. Why should we invest our money in kerosene? I would never recovered the money. But government officials are not ready to understand that people have stopped buying it from our shop because of this experiment,” complained Dharamveer Chaudhary, an FPS owner, who has diversified into dairy business after twenty-five years of running a fair price shop and distributing rations.
Another FPS owner, Nirmala Devi, 35, also a widow, has the same complaint. “It (cash subsidy for kerosene) is affecting our business. I have stopped giving rations to people if they show unwillingness to buy kerosene at market rate.” She adds the DSO is threatening all FPS owners with cancellation of licence if they do not lift rations.
They say the DSO and the sub divisional magistrate had earlier promised to provide them money for renovation of their shops. “We painted our shops and decorated them, but did not receive a single rupee from the government in spite of repeated reminders,” said Sanjeev, another FPS owner.
I began to wonder how this scheme will help the UPA government win a third term, and can we really call the recipients of DBT as beneficiaries?
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