“We live in a gated community in Velachery. Corporation workers came door to door to distribute the forms to enlist people who are entitled to the Rs 2000 that they are giving out. They asked for ration card, voter ID or Aadhaar along with bank details. I refused as the scheme is clearly meant for people below the poverty line,” said Adi Sankaran, a bank employee. But his is just one of the many accounts of similarly affluent or well to do neighbourhoods and enclaves in the city being approached by government workers.
A scheme for BPL families
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An announcement made by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy in the budget session of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly in February stated that the exchequer has set aside Rs 1200 crore for 60 lakh ‘below poverty line’ (BPL) families in the state at Rs 2000 per household. The aim of the one time dole was to help ease the burden on families that have been affected by cyclone Gaja, drought and for labourers and daily wage earners.
The scheme has however come under the scanner mere days after its announcement. The move was first challenged by the NGO Sattapanchayath Iyakkam which took the government to court over what it stated were irregularities in enumeration of BPL families in the state.
BPL families are those with an annual income of less than Rs 24,000. The petition stated that the number of BPL families has been inflated by the state and the data is also outdated and cannot be used as the basis for distribution of money under the scheme.
The petition claimed that the government’s own estimates contradict the figure of 60 lakh BPL families, 35 lakh of which are in rural areas while 25 lakh families have been stated to be in urban areas. The submission made by the state government in the budget speech for 2018 – 2019 stated that the percentage of individuals below the poverty line stood at 11.28%. The figure was based on NSS data from 2011- 2012.
Tamil Nadu has a population of 7.2 crores, which which would take the BPL population to above 81 lakh. Assuming the average family unit to comprise 4 members, this puts the BPL families at around 20.30 lakh — far less than the 60 lakh figure quoted by the state government. If the ‘poorest of poor’ holders of the AAY (Antyodaya Anna Yojana) ration card numbers are to be considered, the numbers make for less than 10% of the population, adding up to 18 lakh families.
“The government submitted a note that they have the data and that they will be distributing a printed, pre-populated form that only requires the bank account number and IFSC code from BPL families for transfer of money. The other claim was that there has been public scrutiny of data through sessions in gram sabha and in public places where a BPL list was displayed or read out. Based on these claims by the government, the court dismissed the petition” says Senthil Arumugam of Satta Panchayath Iyakkam who filed the PIL.
Thus the petition was dismissed by the Madras High Court and the government’s argument of having accurate BPL data through ration card information, surveys and periodic participatory identification of poor was found to be satisfactory. The court also added that it would not like to intervene in a policy decision.
However, the current exercise of distribution of forms to ascertain BPL families is in contradiction with the government’s claim in court. Also, the arbitrary nature of the distribution of forms in areas ostensibly not housing BPL families has raised questions about the motive of the scheme.
Residents in apartment complexes and gated communities in Adyar, Velachery, Alwarpet, Kottivakkam and Ashok Nagar have reportedly received the forms through visits by corporation workers who requested them to furnish their bank account and Aadhaar details to directly avail the cash. The form does not make any direct mention of the BPL status of the residents. It requires details of property owned, occupation, ownership of vehicles, ownership of cattle and details of property tax and income tax paid.
“Why are they carrying out this exercise in places where they know there are no BPL residents? It is a clear ploy to get people to accept money prior to the elections. People have been told by the workers that they must only give proof of address and ID, and bank details to directly get the credit. I want to know what the screening process is going to be, if any? Many well to do neighbours of mine have also taken the forms,” said Ravi Kumar a resident of ECR.
Exercise in futility
The field workers distributing the forms lament that they have not been provided any clear instruction. “We have been asked to go door to door and provide the forms, as the data for BPL families that we have is 10 years old and most of the families no longer reside in the addresses mentioned,” said a field worker who did not want to be named.
With the situation on the ground revealing that the execution of the one-time payment may not be as simple as envisaged by the state government owing to lack of information, this has raised questions about the veracity of their claim on the number of BPL families in the city. “We have been told that the forms are just for enumeration purposes and that there will be a screening process once the form is submitted based on ration card details”, added the field worker.
Citizens are however still skeptical of the motive due to past precedent. “We have had wealthy neighbours collect, with the aid of their household helpers, the money that the state offered on occasions like Diwali and Pongal when the government offered Rs 1000. Taxpayers’ money has been misused in this manner right before our eyes. This is not the first time such a method is being used”, said Adi Sankaran.
The exercise points to a deeper malaise in the system, argues Senthil. ” There are questions about how the government arrived at the 60 lakh figure. When they realised that they did not have the data, they started this enumeration. There are no pre-populated forms. They have printed lakhs of fresh forms for this purpose. The data is now being digitised with the help of college students. There is no clarity on what are the parameters for BPL classification and what the screening process prior to the cash transfer is.”
The hasty undertaking of a scheme with an overlay of Rs 1200 crores, when the state reports a deficit in its budget, just prior to the enforcement of the model code of conduct has raised many eyebrows and questions about the manner in which the state has chosen to implement the promise.