With the Assembly elections knocking at the door, the West Bengal chief minister is now projecting herself as being accommodative of pro-people central government policies. But if her stand in respect of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN), and Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (Ayushman Bharat), is looked at, it will be seen that she is imposing her conditions upon the central government for joining the schemes.
On September 9, the chief minister wrote to the Union agriculture minister expressing her desire to be an intermediary for the farmers as a condition to join the PM-KISAN. The Centre earlier appealed to her on a number of occasions, including one when the Union agriculture minister, on February 24, 2020, made a public request to join the scheme on its first anniversary. But as in her proposal, she was just not ready to accept the basic condition of direct benefits transfer, and the central government expectedly rejected the proposal on September 25. The Supreme Court, however, in the other scheme, Ayushman Bharat, sent notice to the state, based on a petition seeking explanation from the state government for not joining the central public health insurance scheme.
West Bengal is the only state which has not joined PM-KISAN. Unlike Ayushman Bharat, in which the state has a 40 per cent premium liability per beneficiary family, PM-KISAN is a 100 per cent central assistance scheme. The BJP leaders are accusing the state government of West Bengal for not joining the central schemes and causing deprivation of the state’s people. Under pressure, the chief minister has also adopted a strategy of showing her good intentions. But since the acceptance has been conditional on each occasion, the outcome remains the same. West Bengal is still out of both PM-KISAN and Ayushman Bharat.
The policy of direct benefits transfer in PM-KISAN has been hailed by public policy analysts, as the beneficiary need not go through any officer or leader in order to obtain financial assistance. The central scheme is conceptually indebted to Rythu Bandhu, the state scheme of Telangana by which a grant of Rs 4,000 per acre is provided to each farmer in the state. Every season, farmers are given the assistance to purchase inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, labour and other investments in the field. Rythu Bandhu was implemented from 2018-19 after receiving accolades from none other than the World Bank. In Odisha, too, in a similar state scheme called Kaliya, financial assistance of Rs 10,000 was initially granted to small and marginal farmers in two instalments for separate crops in a year. The scheme had additional provision of providing interest-free crop loan of up to Rs 50,000 to all farmers. While both these state governments continued with their grant, the Odisha government reduced it to Rs 4,000 after joining the central scheme.
PM-KISAN was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 24, 2019, when Rs 2021 crore was transferred to bank accounts of more than 10 million beneficiaries. According to the scheme, a total income support of Rs 6,000 per year is provided in three equal instalments. In the beginning the families of only the small and marginal farmers (those having a combined land holding/ownership of up to 2 hectares) were eligible. Later, from June 2019, the scheme was extended to all farmers irrespective of the size of their landholding. On the official website of PM KISAN, pmkisan.gov.in, there's a section called the 'farmers' corner'. If the farmer has a revenue record, Aadhaar, mobile number and bank account number, then s/he can register herself/himself through the portal and know the status of her/his payment. After registration, state governments and UT administrations identify and authenticate the farmer families on physical verification.
Authentication of farmers’ personal information with Aadhaar, however, has become a big issue in states like Assam and Tamil Nadu. On allegations of a faulty beneficiary list, the chief minister of Assam had to initiate an enquiry on May 18 under the responsibility of the additional chief secretary of the state. In Tamil Nadu, an estimated Rs 110 crore was fraudulently credited to the bank accounts of 550,000 ineligible people during the current pandemic in 13 districts. The fraud could be executed taking the opportunity that the authenticity of the beneficiaries could not be physically verified during lockdown after such online registration. The government could reportedly recover Rs 32 crore by mid-September. A few other states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Sikkim are found to be slow in the authentication process causing delay for the beneficiary farmer to start obtaining the grant.
On the recommendation of the Union agriculture ministry, which is responsible for execution of the scheme, on May 22, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the central government had released Rs 19,100 crore to around 95.5 million farmer families across the country. Further 2.5 million new Kisan Credit Cards (KCCs), as linked to PM-KISAN, were sanctioned with a loan limit of Rs 25,000 crore. Thus, KCC has become easier for beneficiaries of PM-KISAN by which they could avail of a loan of up to Rs 3 lakh at 4 per cent only. Fishermen and animal husbandry farmers have also been linked in this drive. Subsequently on August 9, the sixth instalment of PM-KISAN was released by which 100 million farmers obtained Rs 2,000 each in their bank account, totalling a huge Rs 20000 crore.
The beneficiaries under PM-KISAN will not have to provide any document for Pradhan Mantri Kisan Maandhan Yojana (PMKMY), a co-contributory old-age protection and social security scheme meant for the small and marginal farmers. PMKMY, effective from August 2019, would provide each small and marginal farmer with a minimum assured pension of Rs 3,000 per month after 60 years of age. Further, if the farmer dies, the spouse of the farmer shall be entitled to receive 50 per cent of the pension as family pension. Farmers have the option of paying their portion of a small amount of premium for this scheme from the benefit of PM-KISAN when linked.
West Bengal is predominantly an agrarian state with a population record of 7.13 million farmer families. But 96 per cent of these farmers fall under the small and marginal categories, much worse than the national average of 86.2 per cent according to the 10th agriculture census of 2015-16. Thus, a huge number of needy farmer families of the state remain deprived of the direct and indirect benefits of the scheme. According to the Union agriculture minister’s statement on the occasion of the first anniversary of the scheme, about 1 million farmers of the state already self-registered for the scheme via the online portal. But they could not be given any grant because of no corresponding authentication from the state.
The chief minister highlighted her own state scheme Krishak Bandhu, in which every farmer/sharecropper was receiving Rs 5,000 from the state government. Further a death insurance benefit of Rs 2 lakh, according to her, is also attached in the state scheme for the age group of 18 to 60. But the claim of 7 million farmers, which is almost all of the state, having joined the scheme does not seem to be convincing. If her state scheme is at all such popular and so rewarding for farmers, why was she reconsidering to join PM-KISAN, leaving behind the stand of stiff opposition to any central scheme!
The central government has so far exhibited a serious intention to turn around the unattractive agriculture profession. This was emphatically expressed 20 months ago with the launch of the PM-KISAN scheme as well as with the very recent enactment of three Bills in the farm sector. A pan-Indian implementation of the central government policy could still not be achieved for agriculture, most of which is in the state list of the Constitution: The West Bengal chief minister is using that politically.
The author is professor of commerce at Vidyasagar University, West Bengal