What might Bengal’s voters base their choice on in this election?
This is a question we went to rural Bengal to find answers to. We spoke with people in villages and small towns about any benefits that they may be getting from governments, state and central, and whether they are happy with the Mamata Banerjee government’s performance.
While we spoke to a multitude of people, this report is in no way a summary of what voters across the state make of government schemes. It is but a collection of the most compelling stories we found on the ground.
Some people were very reluctant to let us take their pictures and include their names in the story, so they remain anonymous.
First, we headed to Makdampur village, which is ward number 1 in the Bolpur constituency of Birbhum district. It’s on the outskirts of Bolpur city.
On day two, we started from Santiniketan in Bolpur, the place where Rabindranath Tagore is worshipped and people from South Kolkata build summer homes. The first stop was Illambazar, a small market town surrounded by villages. From there we drove to Nunoor, Parota and back to Bolpur.
Day two of travel.
Day three involved a 200-km multi-stop drive through Ichapur, near Durgapur, Pratappur and Kiamacha, and ending in Jhargram.
We asked some very basic questions to the people: what have state and central governments provided for you? Do you know about the state government’s welfare schemes? Did you have to pay any money to avail the benefits? How satisfied are you with the Mamata government?
The schemes that we talked about with the people are the state’s most popular – Swasthya Sathi Yojana, Kanyashree, Rupashree, and Sabooj Sathi. We also spoke about Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, or PMAY, Jan Dhan Yojana and Ujjwala Yojana.
Here are three key takeaways from this exercise.
Mamata’s schemes for women are effective
The state government has launched a flurry of schemes specifically for women since 2016, most notably Kanyashree and Rupashree. Both of these are meant to encourage girls under 18 to keep studying and not get married early. If they decide to get married after turning 18, the government will help them with the expenses.
The twin schemes were all-pervasive in the places we visited but their implementation was a bit of hit and miss. In Nunoor village, Chandana Majhi, a student of class X, told us she availed Kanyashree in 2017. “I got Rs 25,000 in my bank account,” she said. “I got it once and nothing after that. But I got a bicycle from the government too.”
Chandana was referring to the Sabooj Sathi Yojana which provides free bicycles to middle school students.
In an , we provided instances of corruption in Rupashree. Namita Kundu, a resident of Banguri near Ichapur, is a victim of such corruption. “When I went to the BDO office to apply, they said I would have to give Rs 2,500 to register the marriage and apply for Rupashree. I paid and my daughter got Rs 25,000 in her account,” she claimed.
In Ichapur, Nivedita Roy told us her sister got Kanyashree money within two-three of getting married. She took us to a nearby shed where they had kept the bicycle her sister got from the government before she got married. “My son uses it to go to school now,” she said.
“Didi has done a lot for us,” said Dolly Bagdi of Ichapur. “We get money under the employment guarantee scheme regularly, my daughter has got money for Kanyashree too. The only complaint we have is that this area has a lot of water supply problems, if that is fixed it would be very helpful.”
As we were talking to women of the Bagdi household about the welfare schemes, Anil Bagdi, the man of the house, chipped in, “Didi has given them a lot but hasn’t given me anything. I have been unemployed for 10 years and can’t get a job,” he said. “All these schemes are ok, but what about me?”
While the women were reluctant to have their photos taken, Anil said, “Take mine. I’m not afraid of anything.” Their neighbour, Porona, also decided to be in the picture.
The Bagdi household.
“I live there, in the house across the street,” Porona said. “I just want the sewage and water problems to be fixed. Otherwise I am happy with the government.”
Another popular scheme for women is the Swasthya Sathi Yojana, launched in 2016. Under the scheme, every family gets a smart card in the name of the woman of the house which enables them to get health insurance coverage of Rs 5 lakh per family. There is no cap on the number of family members who can use the card to get free treatment in empanelled private institutions or government operated hospitals in the state. In 2021, the Bengal government extended the scheme to cover all residents of the state.
Namita Kundu, a resident of Banguri near Ichapur, said she got the Swasthya Sathi card four years ago and used it to get a gall bladder operation in 2018.
“I took the card to IQ City Medical College in Durgapur and they put it in a machine. The bill they gave me was for Rs 20,000, but when I swiped the card I didn’t have to pay anything,” she claimed.
When we asked her if she had to pay a bribe to obtain the card or avail its benefits, she replied in the negative.
Like Namita, Indranath Gorai, a businessman from Ichapur, also availed the scheme. “My father got a fracture in 2018,” he said. “We went to a private hospital nearby and got treatment. The bill came to Rs 75,000, but I didn’t have to pay anything.”
I asked him about the process and whether it was smooth, and he had an observation to make. “The process was smooth but I think it was because we used it in the initial years of the scheme launch. I have heard of recent cases where people weren’t able to use the card to get treatment.”
But while the beneficiaries are happy, private hospitals and doctors aren’t. It might become a big point of contention now that the scheme has been universalised in the state.
We spoke to a doctor, who requested not to be named, about the implementation of the scheme and how private hospitals see it. “This scheme has an upper limit per procedure and treatment,” she said. “Hospitals are not able to recover the costs because the government has set low upper limits, causing losses for private hospitals. Plus, the government doesn’t release the reimbursement amounts for two to three months, which means the hospital has to bear all the costs till then. A lot of private hospitals are not able to cope with this.”
The Swasthya Sathi website contains a list of procedures covered by the scheme and how much money would be reimbursed for each procedure. You can see it .
Didi is fine, not her workers
There is a common sentiment that Mamata’s schemes are good, but their implementation has been shoddy because of her party workers.
Abhijit Dhava and Promila Das, residents of Illambazar, spoke to us about the implementation of welfare schemes in the area. “My daughter got money under Kanyashree when she was in madhyamik. But my sister didn’t get Rupashree money when we applied for it,” Promila said.
When asked if they had to pay money to apply for these schemes, Abhijit and Promila said they didn’t. “If politicians take money for Kanyashree, which is a scheme for little girls, they’ll get beaten up. They don’t dare steal from there,” Abhijit said. “These local political people steal from housing construction mostly. You know how it works. That is enough from them.”
Rupa, also a resident of Illambazar, told us that she applied for Rupashree but didn’t get any money. Rupa lives in a half-constructed house under PMAY with 12 other people. She hasn’t benefited from any other scheme.
“We don’t have gas in the house,” she said. “When we went to apply for the free connection, the man there asked for Rs 500.” When I asked how they found out if it was free, she told us, “This is the Ujjwala Yojana which the PM Narendra Modi had launched. Some BJP people came to our house and told us about it, so we went to apply for it. We don’t have money, so we couldn’t get the connection.”
When I asked about the house they are staying in, Rupa’s father-in-law Naresh said that they got the first installment, which they used to build it. “We got Rs 1 lakh first to build this. But when we went to get the second installment, the person at the bank asked us for Rs 20,000. He said if we pay, we’ll get the rest of the money,” he said. “We didn’t have the money so the house has been incomplete for three years.”
Rupa told me that three other families live in the same house. “The others had also applied for a house, but didn’t get the first installment either. The BDO’s office told them their name is not on the list. They were our neighbors before this house was built. Now we all live here.”
The incomplete house.
We tried to speak to the BDO of Illambazar but he refused to comment on the issue.
In Makdampur, we found another similar case. Pramod got one house under the Indira Awas Yojana 10 years ago and his son got one under PMAY in 2019, right beside it.
“The local councillor, Damu, took Rs 25,000 from us to get the second house done. He said he won’t release the money to our bank accounts if we don’t pay,” said Pramod. “We paid him in installments and then this house was finally built.”
Parvati, his daughter-in-law, told us that they haven’t received any benefits other than this from the government. “We have no complaints against Didi, but her party people are not very good,” she said. When I asked them if they got any receipt for the money they paid the councillor and whether I could see it, Parvati said, “He took the money in cash and didn’t give a receipt. We wanted to get this house built, so we didn’t want to anger him. We just paid the money.”
After asking around, we found out that Damu is local councillor Surojit Bottobel. The residents told us he has resigned and shifted to the BJP. We met the TMC block president and asked him about this allegation. He alleged that most “corrupt elements” in the Trinamool had gone over to the BJP and those who remained would be taught a lesson once the election was over.
We were unable to reach Surojit for comment.
Modi's lockdown scheme is mentioned everywhere
The PM Jan Dhan Yojana, by far, has been the best scheme in terms of implementation. Or so we were told.
Practically everyone we spoke to, from Makdampur to Ichapur, to Kolkata, everyone with a zero balance account, had received Rs 1,500 during three months of the lockdown in 2020. In a done by my colleague, Manisha Pande, where she spoke to Laxmi Devi in Kolkata, she mentioned that she got Rs 500 a month during the lockdown.
Bikas Chaudhary of Nunoor said, “During lockdown, we got Rs 500 every month. For three months we also got money for gas depending on the rate for that month — which was Rs 700-750.”
Namita is the one person who got all the benefits, both from centre and state schemes. But the one thing that stuck with her most was the lockdown benefits. “The money we got during lockdown really helped,” Namita said. “We couldn’t work and didn’t have a source of income. We got the ration properly in the first month, but faced difficulties later. The money given by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government helped us buy food and other essentials from grocers and markets which were open.”
What’s also striking is that everyone we spoke to credited the money transfer to Modi. There is a clear understanding of what benefits people have received from the centre and what they have received from the state.
Abhijit told us that money coming straight into bank accounts through direct benefits transfer has made indulging in corruption for local party workers and bureaucrats. “We didn’t have to pay a single paisa to get the lockdown money, which came directly to our bank. But with state schemes, the local party workers have found a way to skim some money even after the deposits are made to banks.”
“A lot of people here in Illambazar are illiterate,” he said. “They don’t understand how to fill forms and what schemes they can get. Party people exploit this and act like agents. They do their paperwork and tell people to pay a fee for their service. These people do it in housing schemes and wherever large amounts of money are involved. The workers sit outside BDO office, banks and other places where residents go to collect scheme benefits, then extort them.”
There is not much of a battle of schemes going on in the villages of Bengal. While women voters are happy, because the Mamata government has made a considerable effort implementing schemes targeting them specifically, others are also keeping the most recent example of pandemic lockdown related benefits in their mind.
Corruption thus seems to be the one big factor that could hurt the Trinamool Congress in this election, especially if the BJP keeps drumming up the “Cut money cholbe na” rhetoric.
The battle is close and the election results will tell us whose schemes won the people over.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
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