The curious case of the state of West Bengal

    12-Oct-2020
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How does the Mamata government keep the people of West Bengal deprived of the direct and indirect benefit of various national public policies and schemes?
 
-Dr Arindam Gupta
 
 
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Very recently on September 7, 2020, in a day-long video conference on the national education policy (NEP), 2020 as chaired by President Ram Nath Kovind and attended by union ministers, state education ministers and governors among others, the higher education minister of the state of West Bengal has declared that the state would not implement NEP. He pointed out towards the state’s right to do so, education remaining in the concurrent list of the Indian constitution. The state governments had however already formed a six-member panel to examine the NEP draft and make elaborate observations on it. But at the time of formation of such committee, also the minister had expressed his reservation in implementing the NEP altogether fixing the terms of reference for the newly formed committee. On the same occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his inaugural address advised every stakeholder to make all doubts clear before its implementation. The prime minister stressed upon more discussion on the intricate proposals of the 66-page vision document of the country's education policy, and not that of his government, the way he represented the NEP in his address. However, as the union cabinet had approved the policy in July 2020 after about a five-year exercise on framing the same to replace the pre-existing 34-year old policy, the prime minister spoke about the need for its implementation in the ultimate aim of a self-reliant India.
 
Now, with the declaration of the West Bengal state education minister in line with his counterpart in Tamil Nadu, confusion crops up. The confusion is as to whether the proposed free schooling in government schools for an extended age group from 3 years to 18 years will thus remain outside the scope of these two states, leave apart the other changes. Targeting for the first time an expenditure towards education to the tune of 6% of GDP, the central government has already made a commitment to treble the present expenditure of ₹350 billion (or, 35000 crore) for the said extension of free-schooling age from the age band of 6 and 14 years.
 
But, the recent opposition, seemingly a political one is not new. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remained very vocal in her opposition to the Aadhaar card linkage from the very beginning. The people of West Bengal had an experience of Aadhaar registration being stopped by the Chief Minister all of a sudden in 2012 when the same picked up a little pace at different centres fully with the government initiative and at the government expense. Memorandum of understanding (MoU) to implement Aadhaar was signed by the state government with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) when CPI(M) was in power in West Bengal. Thus the people of West Bengal were deprived of availing the Aadhaar card for a long time thereafter just for the said whimsical decision until the central government could restart the same. In this changed situation common people had to incur an expense for obtaining an Aadhaar card through the authorized facilitation centres. On December 3, 2013, West Bengal assembly took even a resolution asking the central government to roll back its decision of making Aadhaar compulsory to get subsidised cooking gas (LPG). In this connection, it is worth mentioning that the Supreme Court at the time of its final verdict in September, 2018 did not object to the central government’s attempt in knowing Aadhaar number of the beneficiary when it is transferring any benefit to his/her bank account.
 
The people of West Bengal had an experience of Aadhaar registration being stopped by the Chief Minister all of a sudden in 2012 when the same picked up a little pace at different centres fully with the government initiative and at the government expense 
The government’s effort to achieve the JAM (jan dhan bank account-mobile-aadhaar) trinity for stopping pilferage of subsidies and making the benefits available in the hands of the real beneficiaries, as viewed originally in the country's economic survey of 2014-15, was thus vitiated by irresponsible opposition. In November 2017, Banerjee objected to linking Aadhaar even to mobile phones. On record, she even said that linking Aadhaar was a problem as details were being put on websites which, according to her, were dangerous for freedom of expression, society and the country at large (Source: Economic Times, October 26, 2017). Among the probable reasons behind her consistent opposition in respect of Aadhaar, critics argue that apart from exhibiting mere political opposition she was concerned with the vote bank politics of retaining the support of the illegal immigrants having no proper documentation of citizenship. The same motive guided her later to take an even harder stand against the effort of the present central government to restart the making of National Population Register (NPR). A register of citizens however is very common with most of the countries of the world.
 
The same story lies with the central public health insurance scheme, Pradhan Mantri Jana Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) or Ayushman Bharat. The scheme targeted to cover over 100 million poor and vulnerable families in the country with a tentative 500 million beneficiaries on the basis of ‘deprivation and occupational criteria’ as per the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) data. By providing assistance up to ₹ 0.5 million (or, 5 lakh) per family per year for secondary and tertiary hospitalization the scheme looked to be floated as the largest government-funded health protection scheme in the world. PMJAY would raise the health cover by up to 17 times at a slightly higher premium from the per capita premium of ₹750 capped in the pre-existing Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY)’s ₹30000 coverage per family. Initially, there was hesitation among many state governments as to how their pre-existing state health schemes would be subsumed with PMJAY.
 
After a stiff initial opposition West Bengal Chief Minister finally agreed to join the scheme on June 17, 2018 at the conclusion of the Niti Ayog governing council meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. All the districts of West Bengal were included among the 106 districts as a gesture by the prime minister in the pilot project when it was announced by him on August 15, 2018. But on the pretext of a dispute over branding the scheme, the letter being sent to the beneficiaries with a photo of the prime minister, the state government withdrew from the scheme on January 10, 2019. It further raised an anomaly about naming the scheme. In its letter of withdrawal, the state government stated that since it already had a well-established scheme Swasthyasathi, as launched in 2016, it would like to retain the name even in the new scheme instead of PMJAY. For the central scheme, the pullout was then a setback because it could affect its national portability. Kolkata being the preferred destination for many people from the north-east and from states like Bihar, it would thus impact more people than just the people of the state (Source: Indian Express, January 14, 2019).
 
Farmers of the state are also getting deprived due to the state government having rolled out from PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme (PM-Kisan). This is a 100 percent central assistance scheme. In this, the state government does not have to pay even a single penny. Money is sent by the central government directly to the bank account of the beneficiary farmer family as per the scheme without any involvement of any officer or leader in between. PM-Kisan, which was made operational from December 2018, a total income support of ₹6000 per year in three equal instalments is provided to small and marginal farmer families comprising husband, wife and minor children. Initially, it was granted to such families having a combined landholding / ownership of up to 2 hectares, which was extended to all farmers irrespective of the size of landholding from June 2019 onwards. State government and UT administration identify the farmer families which are eligible for support as per the scheme guidelines. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the Kisan Credit Card (KCC) scheme was linked to PM-Kisan, by which the farmer was to get a loan of up to ₹300000 at 4 percent easily. Fisherman and animal husbandry farmers were also linked in this drive. Thus a huge number of farmer families in West Bengal, the only such state in India, were deprived of the direct and indirect benefit of the scheme.
 
The state also did not recently join the central scheme of “one nation, one ration card” announced on January 20, 2020, an initial time till the month of June being given to the states and UTs for joining it. The state food minister argued in favour of the government stand of not joining the scheme on the pretext of a state initiative of having issued digital ration cards recently incurring a total expense of ₹2 billion (or, 200 crore) so that the same doesn't become useless (Source: Economic Times, February 27, 2020). On May 13, union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said that the families will be allowed to procure pulses and food grains even if members are located in different states. This has been announced as a relief measure for millions of India’s migrant workers in this cruel time. Presently, 20 states in India have adopted this scheme and have implemented ration card portability in their jurisdiction. The participation in a scheme like this would have been much more beneficial for the common people of West Bengal. They have faced in recent times the worst possible mismanagement during pandemic or post-Amphan cyclone relief distribution through the state public distribution system.
 
The state also did not recently join the central scheme of “one nation, one ration card” announced on January 20, 2020, an initial time till the month of June being given to the states and UTs for joining it
 
On September 9, 2020, the Chief Minister of the state had written a letter to the union agriculture minister giving her condition to join the PM-Kisan scheme if funds are transferred first to the state government. Herewith she had invited the age-old system of not transferring the direct benefit to the people going against the condition of the scheme. She also referred to her own state scheme Krishak bandhu in which every farmer/sharecropper was receiving ₹ 5000 from the government and further a death benefit of ₹ 200000 in the age group of 18 to 60. Her claim of 7 million (or, 70 lakh) farmers, almost all having joined the state scheme being contemporary to the central one, seems to be not convincing. If her scheme is at all such popular among the farmers then question arises why she is reconsidering to join leaving her stand of stiff opposition to any central scheme! On the same date, in another letter to the Union Health Minister, she also expressed her willingness to join PMJAY if the central government bears 100 per cent of the premium.
 
This is just another whimsical stand in the aftermath of joining of majority state governments in the scheme in a pre-fixed state-centre ratio of 60:40 of the total premium. This is nothing but a very casual approach after batting so long with her state scheme. Questions have also been put forward during these pandemic days specially as to why she has kept people of the state deprived from the ambit of such a comprehensive public health insurance scheme. The critics are of the opinion that the Chief Minister could guess an impending legal snubbing in the apex court as regards non-implementation of PMJAY because of a petition having been filed. The Supreme court of India has issued a notice on September 11, 2020, to Odisha, Telangana, Delhi and West Bengal in this matter. Pending the assembly election in May, 2021 she is likely to face an uphill task in convincing the people of the state that her decisions of not joining the central schemes had any logic behind except an irresponsible political opposition.
 
(The writer is Professor of Commerce, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore)