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Flood of freebies In the name of women

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
27 Dec 2021

Another year is about to end. The year 2021 will always be remembered as a year of massive destruction. Lakhs of people lost their lives to the pandemic. The second wave of the disease was way more devastating than anyone could imagine. The threat of a third wave is looming large as more and more people test positive for the new variant of the virus called Omicron.

Countries like South Africa, the UK, Denmark and Norway have seen a sudden jump in the number of people who tested positive for Omicron. It has been spreading very fast. India, too, has around 100 such cases at the time of writing. In view of this, is it sensible to have a gathering of over two lakh people albeit women, simply because elections are round the corner, in a state that decides the fate of political parties for Lok Sabha elections? Did we not commit the same mistake early this year during the West Bengal assembly elections?

Ironically, this gathering was organized for the visit of none other than the Prime Minister. Now many would ask why only women were asked to come? Why not men? Well, if one looks at elections in other states, it is evident that women have played a major role in helping the BJP to win elections. Assam is a case in point. Despite the fact that out of 946 candidates, who fought elections, only 74 were women, 82.4 per cent women turned up for voting.

In fact, schemes like Vistarita Kanaklata Mahila Sabalikaran Yojana, (promising a capital subsidy and a revolving fund of Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 25,000 each respectively to self-help groups), Aideu Handique Mahila Sanman Achoni, (payment of Rs. 300 per month to unmarried or a divorcee woman between the age of 35-60 years), Jeevika Sakhi Express (provision of a two-wheeler to a Jeevika Sakhi or community resource person) and many more were launched.

The most popular one was Orunodoi, a direct benefit transfer targeting women as “primary caretakers of the household, with annual income of less than Rs. 2 lakh. The scheme benefited more than 1.7 million women in Assam. But for these schemes, the BJP would not have won the assembly elections.

Coming back to the gathering of over two lakh women in Uttar Pradesh, it seems that the BJP is repeating the tactics that helped it in winning Assam elections. During his address to the women, the Prime Minister promised to transfer Rs. 1,000 crore directly into the bank accounts of Self Help Groups (SHGs) impacting the lives of 16 lakh women. The Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihood Mission (DAY-NRLM) will be used for transferring Rs. 1.10 lakh per SHG as community investment fund and 60,000 SHGs will receive a revolving fund of Rs. 15,000 each.

Not only this, he will also transfer money under a scheme supported by the World Bank for creating business correspondent Sakhis (BC-Sakhis) in villages. Typically, a BC-Sakhi acts like a chalta-firta (moving) bank for the people staying in remote villages, where a bank is many miles away. The prime minister promised that he will transfer a monthly stipend of Rs. 4,000 into the bank accounts of 20,000 such Sakhis for a period of six months so that they can have a stable source of income until they start earning commission on the transactions done by them.

He also promised to transfer an amount of over Rs. 20 crore to one lakh beneficiaries, Rs. 15,000 each, under the Mukhya Mantri Sumangala Scheme, which provides for conditional cash transfer to a girl child at different stages of her life.

He also laid the foundation stone of 202 supplementary nutrition manufacturing units at an outlay of Rs. 1 crore each. These units will receive funds through the SHGs. On a lighter note, one may think, why 202? It could have been 200 or 250? 

All this is being done in the name of women empowerment. The question is, if the government actually believed in the role of women in economic growth, why did it not announce this scheme when the country was reeling under the pandemic?

In fact, a report titled “State of working India 2021 – one year of Covid-19,” released in May this year, showed that women lost more employment than men during the first wave of the pandemic. Nearly half of the formal salaried workers switched to the informal sector for their survival. The report revealed that 230 million more people fell below the national minimum wage poverty line. It also showed that the poorest households took the largest loans, as compared to their earnings, ironically from the private lenders at very high interest rates.

Even during the latter half of the year, when the restrictions were lifted, the income levels remained low as compared to the pre-pandemic levels. Only 47.6 per cent people remained in the category of permanent salaried employees, 34.1 per cent became self-employed, 9.8 percent took up daily-wage work and 8.5 per cent became temporarily salaried.

If one talks of the paraphernalia aimed at promoting financial inclusion, it would not be an understatement to say that the entire machinery failed badly. The relief packages (if at all this is the right term to be used) did not reach more than 50 per cent of the intended population. The SHGs, which could get credit easily during the pre-pandemic period, did not get much out of such packages. In fact, the government promised to double the maximum credit limit for women SHGs from Rs. 10 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh. It was claimed that 63 lakh SHGs and seven crore poor households will benefit from it.

A working committee, more popularly known as the U K Sinha committee, constituted by the Reserve Bank of India proposed this change in 2019 in view of increasing inflation. However, the fact is that most of the SHGs are not eligible for the earlier credit limit of Rs. 10 lakh, forget availing of Rs. 20 lakh! On an average, an SHG took a loan of Rs. 1.3 lakh. Even if the loan value was increased, they would not have become eligible to receive Rs 20 lakh. In other words, this scheme never got implemented in real terms and was just an eye wash.

In fact, many SHGs could not even avail of the normal loans, especially those members who migrated back to their native village. Loan was given taking into account the repaying capacity of the members, rather than the prospective source of income or need of the members. 

Simply put, the schemes announced by the Prime Minister would have solved the financial crunch people faced if they were announced earlier. Ironically, they were given a monthly allowance of Rs. 500, which was grossly inadequate to meet their basic needs, forget the costs associated with medication.

Last week’s announcement is nothing but a poll gimmick to entice the women voters. Ironically, public money is being used to meet their selfish ends. And nothing is being done to keep a check on such practices.  

Now many may ask, is it ethical to announce such schemes just before the elections? What is the role of the election commissioner? This question has been raised many times. In fact, it came up for hearing before the Supreme Court in 2019. 

The apex court had directed the election commissioner to prepare guidelines for conducting free and fair elections for stopping use of such freebies but nothing concrete has happened in this direction. Unfortunately, the so-called independent institutions like the election commissioners have been put to use by the powers that be to serve their own ends. Till the time institutions like the election commission are given power in real terms, gatherings such as these will continue to be conducted, irrespective of a global threat or an economic crunch. After all, nothing matters more than the power and clout that political positions bring with them. 

The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com

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