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Wages of Haste

twitter-logoShweta Punj | Print Edition: Jan 20, 2013

In the labyrinthine lanes of Chawri Bazar in Old Delhi stands a Gender Resource Centre (GRC) of the Delhi government's 'Mission Convergence'. Along with over 100 other such centres, it is tasked with executing the ambitious "Cash for Food" programme, Annashree Yojana, launched on December 15 in the presence of UPA Chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

The centre is a twelve-feet square room on the first floor of a dilapidated building, furnished with four tables, a dozen-odd chairs, an old, ripped sofa and five computers. There are about six women, mostly in burqa, waiting for their paperwork to be completed - which mainly comprises filling up a form seeking basic details such as age, names of family members, etc. The forms are being filled on their behalf by a GRC worker.

It is a-first-of-its-kind project. The Union government eventually plans to implement direct cash transfer schemes in lieu of subsidies across the country. The Annashree scheme entitles the seniormost woman of a beneficiary household to Rs 600 every month, provided she does not claim food entitlement from a public distribution system (PDS) outlet.

The process of cash transfers has three attributes for the beneficiary: an identity in the form of an Aadhaar number, a bank account, and cash. The money will be transferred, electronically and automatically, to the bank account, and the beneficiary should be able to withdraw it from a micro-ATM at any of the GRC centres using her Unique Identification Number (UID) - linked biometric authentication.

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Namia Begum
Namia Begum has been waiting for money to be credited to her bank account for nearly two months
The scheme may well be a good idea, but a Business Today investigation reveals that the government has missed out on fine-tuning the details, crucial to making the scheme work, before starting it.

Micro-ATMs, for instance, are yet to be installed, and there is still ambiguity about the criteria for selecting beneficaries. The awareness campaigns of the government lack focus and the registration forms are in English, which immediately alienates a majority of the intended beneficiaries. It makes the process prone to errors and manipulation.

Two of the six women at the GRC centre in Chawri bazaar had been waiting for money to be credited to their bank accounts for nearly two months. Namia Begum, 63, enrolled in the Annashree Yojana in October - enrollment had begun before the formal launch - but since she does not have an account in one of six banks that have been specified, she has received nothing, while technically the money has been transferred to her bank account. She says that when she enrolled, she was never told that having an account in one of the six specified banks was a precondition.

Six days after the scheme began, a data correction option was introduced in the enrollment form. "We will be able to start the process of opening her bank account today. We just got the data correction option," says Girish Chandra, Project Coordinator at the Chawri Bazar GRC.

While desktops have been placed for the beneficiaries to supposedly verify the data being entered, the form being in English makes it impossible for most to do so.

How long will it take for the micro-ATMs of the specified banks to be installed?

"We checked with Bank of India (one of the six partner banks). They said their system is not updated," says Chandra.

There was also widespread cynicism about the scheme actually working. Most of the intended beneficiaries were apprehensive that the project would not be well planned and executed and were reluctant to register, preferring to stick to their ration cards. The fear could also be partly due to a campaign against the project by the Bharatiya Janata Party during the Delhi municipal elections in early 2012.

"There was some ambivalence around the project, because the opposition party ran a campaign stating that those who take cash transfers would be thrown out of the BPL (Below Poverty Line) list," says Santosh Vaidya, Director, Mission Convergence, and Special Secretary to Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Those in the BPL list get government assistance through various schemes, not just the PDS.

In Delhi under the Annashree Yojana, 300,000 families will get cash subsidies , according to state government estimates. For several of the women, a lump sum amount of Rs 4,800 - the Delhi government is crediting money with retrospective effect from April onwards - is a substantial amount, giving them hope of making a new beginning.

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Shakila, for instance, has nine children, and hopes to get one daughter married with the money. Babita, 29, has difficult choices - she wants to secure a future for her two-year-old daughter and also create some kind of regular income stream for her husband who has been out of work for months.

But for the moment the cash transfer scheme - while a promising alternative on paper to the existing inefficient, corruptionridden PDS - needs a lot more spadework to deliver the goods.

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