The Cash Transfer Mess

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A ground report from the VIP districts of Raebareli and Amethi

On 11 July, nearly 100 residents of Pakhrauli panchayat in Raebareli district showed up at the Sub Divisional Magistrate’s office in Dalmau, a subdivision of the district, angry at being dropped from the list of BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. The same day, in the neighbouring district of Amethi, villagers of Darkha panchayat were protesting the lethargic manner in which the exercise to collect biometric data for Aadhaar cards was being conducted.

The seemingly unrelated expressions of anger on the two issues are only the latest links in a series of protests that have been witnessed in scores of villages and semi-urban pockets in Uttar Pradesh over the past few weeks after the Aadhaar-based Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme was launched on 1 July.

Raebareli is the Lok Sabha constituency of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and Amethi that of party Vice President Rahul Gandhi. These two districts are among the 78 in the country where the DBT scheme has been rolled out in its second phase of expansion.

The programme aims to disburse money directly to the bank accounts of beneficiaries of schemes that provide scholarships for students, pensions for the aged, widows and the disabled, and so on, apart from other welfare measures for BPL families. To ensure the cash reaches those it is meant for, it is transferred to beneficiaries whose identity is validated by Aadhaar cards issued under the UID scheme; their bank accounts are linked to this ‘unique identity’.

All that sounds good in theory, but on the ground it is not working as smoothly as envisaged. While announcing the DBT scheme’s expansion to 78 new districts, the Prime Minister’s Office, in a statement issued on 5 April this year, had claimed: ‘The collection of biometrics in selected districts here will be accelerated to have a coverage of 70-80 per cent by June 2013 and DBT will be rolled out from 1.7.2013.’

Even the economic forecasts of the UPA Government have not been as off-the-mark as this claim. In Amethi and Raebareli, showpiece districts given their affiliation with the Nehru-Gandhi family, the collection of biometric data is being carried out in the field by private companies and the process is being monitored by a state-owned firm based in Raebareli, Indian Telephone Industry (ITI).

“So far, in Raebareli, we have collected the biometrics of around 600,000 people of the target of nearly 2.8 million,” said ITI Chief Manager BN Sinha, speaking to Open on 20 July. Against the PMO’s claim of 70-80 per cent coverage by June, as we near the end of July, only 20 per cent of Raebareli’s people have had their biometic data recorded.

The situation is worse in Amethi district, where not even 10 per cent of the population has been covered so far. “Of the total target of nearly 2 million in Amethi district,” says Sinha, “we have so far collected biometrics of about 186,000 people.”

In the month the DBT scheme was to be rolled out, by the PMO’s declaration, the system’s progress on biometrics and generation of Aadhaar numbers is so tardy in the two districts that the scheme’s implemention looks doubtful for many more months. This is simply because the UID number-linked bank accounts of these beneficiaries will start operating only after they are synchronised, or ‘seeded’ as it is called. But as of now, most beneficiaries in these districts—even those whose biometrics have been collected—do not have Aadhaar numbers. Even three weeks after the launch of the ambitious scheme, its nodal officers, Additional District Magistrate Sheetla Prasad of Raebareli and ADM Mata Pher of Amethi, admit that in neither of the two districts has this ‘seeding’ to link bank accounts happened.

Prasad, however, claims the numbers are not as bad as they sound. The progress in biometric data gathering of identified beneficiaries, being done on a priority basis, is substantially better. “Biometrics collection of 86.38 per cent of the total DBT beneficiaries was over by 18 July,” he says. In Amethi district, “Almost 95 per cent of the DBT beneficiaries have been covered so far and most of them have accounts too,” says Mata Pher. But both admit that even in these cases, seeding is far from done.

None of the officials in the two districts, not even of the government departments that handle the schemes picked for cash transfers, are ready to talk openly of their exasperation with the stiff deadlines. But off the record, most are forthcoming. “The task is very tough, and we need at least six months to make DBT fully operational,” says a senior official of the social welfare department that operates most cash transfer schemes in UP.

According to HS Pandey, deputy general manager of ITI and data-gathering coordinator for Raebareli district, the procedure for implementing cash transfers has itself been the key source of delay. The collection of biometrics was being carried out for everyone in the district till mid-April, but “thereafter, we got instructions to focus on beneficiaries of programmes included in the DBT scheme. Now that this scheme has been rolled out, we have again reverted to collecting biometrics of everyone”.

There is desperation in rural areas to obtain an Aadhaar number, which is seen by many as a magic number that will bestow benefits they are uncertain of but keen to obtain nevertheless. And the confusion that surrounds the process of dispensing numbers has generated a wave of resentment. This was evident at a recent six-day camp held for the villages of Darkha and Loharta panchayats in Amethi district.

Getting to the camp involved a trek of 3-4 km from the villages of Darkha panchayat and 6-7 km from the villages of Loharta. “Not only was the camp located far away, those collecting [biometric] details for Aadhaar cards were working arbitrarily,” says Ramhetpal of Darkha Deeh, one of the villages of Darkha panchayat. “I went there two days in a row to submit my details for the Aadhaar card,” he says, “On the first day, they said the generator had developed some snag. So we waited and once the rush increased, they started demanding Rs 50 as suvidha shulk (facilitation fee). I refused to pay any bribe. The next day, I went there again and stayed the whole day and left only after getting myself registered.”

Jaipata Pal, well over 80, went twice but could not make her way through the crowd. Nor could she afford the suvidha shulk of Rs 50. “Marbei tabei pension mili, jeetei naa mili (I will get pension only after my death, not while I am alive),” says a frustrated Jaipata, sitting outside her hut in Darkha village along with her ailing husband, Doodhnath Pal.

Some were so enraged by the commotion at the Aadhaar camp and bribes being demanded that they turned restive on 11 July, the last day of the camp. While the villagers did not turn violent, their fury was so evident that nobody demanded a bribe that day, they say.

Complaints that officials are demanding suvidha shulk—for out-of-turn number allotments and sometimes for issuing numbers at all—have erupted in many other parts of Amethi and Raebareli districts as well. The charge, however, varies from place to place, ranging between Rs 20 and Rs 50 per family. “These are not just allegations,” says Brajesh Gaur, former town area chairman of Dalmau subdivision of Raebareli district. “Scope for bribery emerges because a small number of camps have been set up to collect biometrics from a large number of people. This kind of situation would not have arisen if an Aadhaar camp [were to] shift from one village to another or from one ward to another to collect biometrics.”

The DBT scheme’s tardy progress amid high expectations in Raebareli and Amethi has had another fallout: it has given a fillip to grassroots unrest over what many see as fraudulent revision of the list of BPL families. In UP, the last BPL survey done was in 2002, on the basis of which the UP government had issued BPL cards to families below the official poverty line. Now, a state government drive is underway to re-issue these cards, and a large number of families that do not meet the criteria laid down for BPL status are being dropped from the list.

The criteria are rather absurd. Families in possession of mobile phones or living in homes with even a single pucca room (except those built under the Indira Awaas Yojana) do not qualify as BPL. This, while villagers say even the poorest of the poor have low-cost cellphones today, and those who are still deprived of funds from the Indira Awaas Yojana (often because they are not in favour with the village sarpanch) somehow manage to build at least one pucca room to save themselves the routine maintenance of kachha mud-and-thatch/tinsheet structures.

The families being pushed off the BPL list feel cheated. Not only will they be deprived of the government benefits they had been entitled to so far, they say, they even fear losing the benefits that Aadhaar cards may bring. Many of those who feel cheated have been alleging discrimination at the behest of village sarpanchs and panchayat secretaries. In some places, angry villagers have even staged street protests to highlight their plight.

In Pakhrauli panchayat in Raebareli, for example, nearly 20 per cent of the families that had figured in the 2002 list have now been denied BPL cards. On 11 July, these villagers gathered at Dalmau, one of the subdivisions of Raebareli, and submitted a memorandum to SDM Satyendranath Shukla. Those protesting included 80-year-old Shanti Devi, a widow who has no one to look after her and no means to support herself. Kaushalya Devi, another widow, lives with her daughter-in-law, herself a widow. Both say their survival depends on handouts they get through a BPL card, without which they would starve. “These villagers had thought that there would be at least some improvement in their condition as the Government has now launched the DBT scheme,” says Devraj Singh, a resident of Pakhrauli village who led protestors to the SDM’s office and is still fighting for their cause. “But once off the BPL list,” he says, “it just becomes impossible for them to survive.” “There are many such complaints,” admits Dalmau’s SDM Satyendranath Shukla. “We will soon form a three-member team to enquire into specific cases.”

Indeed, such complaints are numerous not just in Dalmau subdivision, but in almost all parts of Raebareli and Amethi districts. For example, the BPL survey so far has covered over 600 panchayats of Raebareli, and more than 25,000 families in the 2002 BPL list have been dropped as a result of it.

In other parts of UP, the scheme’s rollout may not be much different. But not much Aadhaar-related unrest has been reported from elsewhere. It is in these two ‘VIP districts’ that the gap between expectation and delivery appears the widest, drawing thousands of villagers out to claim what they see now as a birthright—an Aadhaar number and its entitlements—and complain of deprivation.

Energetic political communication of the scheme’s promises only appears to have magnified the glitches in its implementation in these districts. The hurry, of course, does have a political agenda at its heart. And the extent to which the irregularities are fixed and promises fulfilled will determine whether the DBT scheme delivers on the UPA’s own expectations of electoral success in 2014.

When it was introduced, Direct Benefit Transfer was touted as a ‘direct vote transfer’ by gleeful Congressmen. Certainly, it has raised expectations to unrealistic levels among those who have ‘enrolled’ themselves with Aadhaar authorities, though this identity is a must for all citizens—rich or poor.

Hoi gava, babu (Got it, babu),” announces 70-year-old Shivpata with pride as she herds her buffaloes to a field near the main habitation of Darkha Deeh. But if she does not get what she has been promised before the polls, the ‘direct vote transfer’ could work in a direction that the Congress does not expect: away from the party.