Just the mention of general elections is enough for introduction of schemes for the country’s poor, seen to be the most committed to casting the ballot. With the approaching Lok Sabha election, time is ripe to float more and more welfare programmes targeting the poor and lower middle classes.
It was not as if the UPA II was finding it difficult to launch the food security bill during the last four years of its rule. But implementation of the act will be strategically timed right around election time, a few months away. The same is the case with direct bank transfer schemes that will offer cash benefits for essential commodities like cooking gas which will begin soon, and many more such schemes to come.
There may not be a country like ours where the poor are treated as a commodity and benefits are dished out on the basis of ‘special consideration’ than merit. The number of the poor has seen no dwindling despite the many schemes targeting them, the reason being that most schemes, rather than making them self-reliant, make them more dependent on the government.
But for the coming general and state assembly elections, a number of schemes are in the offing to attract the voter base, besides the food security and direct cash transfer schemes. Recently, the state decided to spend Rs 189 crore on providing basic facilities to slums in Mumbai. But exactly how much of this would go to the cause and towards quality work is difficult to establish. Besides, most slum pockets where such amounts are likely to be spent or shown as spent are Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) projects.
For slums in Mumbai and other cities, one more attractive scheme will soon be announced and that is rehabilitation of shanty dwellers: even those who do not meet the 1995 cut-off date will be eligible for free homes under SRA.
The Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) which was unacceptable to slum dwellers in Mumbai and adjoining areas will be launched in a new avatar.
To attract slum dwellers for RAY, a loan scheme Rajiv Rinn Yojana will also be implemented. It is going to offer loans up to Rs 5 lakh to enable them to participate in RAY. And the interest rate, believe it or not, will be 3 per cent. The scheme, a brainchild of the UPA, is yet another burden on the taxpayer.
A few important developments in recent times should not go unnoticed. The Congress and the NCP, coalition partners in the state Democratic Front government, seem to have decided to stake a claim on the poor sections of the population. While the slum dweller is known to be close to the Congress (owing to its schemes such as SRA and RAY), the NCP has targeted the unorganised sector of workers living in shanties. The Pawar-led party, using various schemes envisaged by the labour department it helms, has established at least eight different boards to target workers attached with building and construction, goods and transport vehicles, hotel and domestic chores, and crafts like jewellery making and others.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar who has rarely spoken in favour of unorganised workers in the past addressed a rally on Saturday in Mumbai, where, it is presumed, approximately 93 per cent of the workforce is unorganised. The party cleverly used the labour department schemes to consolidate its vote bank.
The party has printed application forms so they may avail of a number of benefits related to insurance, health, education and cheap loans, even though these are already offered by the government, again, with taxpayer’s money.
The importance given by the ruling parties to such programmes only raises suspicion about their motives. For instance, the state says it has collected Rs 1,000 crore through cess on construction meant to be spent on welfare of workers in the last two years. But the amount spent on welfare was a mere Rs 7 lakh till a few months ago. And now, with elections looming, NCP is making all efforts to target the beneficiaries. The same can be said for Rajiv Awas Yojana - hardly any interest was shown towards its implementation in the last few years. What else can be expected in a democracy where the system of governance has become more and more election-centric, waking up the polity briefly once in four or so years to throw sops at voters?
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY