The Trinamool Congress has been accused by its political rivals of illegal data mining and duping womenfolk of the state in the guise of a promised scheme of monthly doles to women.
Trinamool chairperson Mamata Banerjee, launched a promised welfare scheme involving a monthly dole of Rs 1,000 to women of the state, during her visit to the state last December.
Banerjee said the financial inclusion scheme, titled ‘Meghalaya Financial Inclusion for Women Empowerment Scheme’, will be rolled out if her party is voted to power in the state.
Lured by the promise of this dole, a huge number of women, especially from poor families, have been flocking to the newly-established Trinamool offices in the state to apply for this scheme.
Men and women hired by the Trinamool have also been going from door-to-door, in some areas of the state, to register potential beneficiaries. The womenfolk who show interest in being enrolled in the scheme are handed over a form which they have to fill up.
The form lists their names and family data, including their mobile numbers, Aadhar card and Voter Identity card numbers, family income and many other details. The intended beneficiaries (the women) also have to provide details of their bank accounts.
The women are given a card, called the ‘WE’ (women empowerment) card, which has a number, to which they have to send an SMS from their own mobile number. They also have to provide a unique identity number assigned to them at the back of their WE cards. They then receive an SMS confirming that they have been registered as beneficiaries of the scheme.
The problem with this whole exercise is that the Trinamool has no locus standi in collecting all this data. While any political party can promise a sop or a dole, it cannot initiate the process of enlisting beneficiaries even before it comes to power.
“Only a democratically-elected government or a government body or agency has the legal authority to conduct such an exercise of distributing enrolment forms and collecting data from prospective beneficiaries of a scheme. No one else can do this,” clarified William T Syiem, a former bureaucrat who is also a legal expert.
Syiem contends that what the Trinamool is doing is patently illegal and immoral.
“By collecting such data, it (the Trinamool) is committing an illegal act. The party can also be accused of misleading people of Meghalaya. By enrolling women into this welfare scheme that will become a reality only if it comes to power, the Trinamool can be accused of fooling the gullible who enroll. The Trinamool can be accused of perpetrating a fraud and disrupting the level playing field that the Election Commission wants to ensure,” Syiem told Swarajya.
The BJP plans to take this up with the Election Commission of India (ECI). Party state president Ernest Mawrie said that the Trinamool has made a false promise that violated ECI guidelines. “This poll promise of the Trinamool vitiates the purity of the electoral process,” he said.
Political observers are gravely concerned over the Trinamool’s exercise. More so since the Trinamool stands a very slim chance of coming to power in the state.
“Everyone in Meghalaya knows that the Trinamool will not win more than half a dozen seats and it does not even have an outside chance of becoming part of the next government, leave alone forming the government on its own. It has pitted itself against the Congress, the BJP and all other regional parties and so, chances of a post-poll alliance that includes the Trinamool is nil. The Trinamool is widely perceived as a Bengal-based party and no other party wants to be associated with it,” said Robert Lyngdoh, a writer and political science professor at a college in state capital Shillong.
Lyngdoh contended that even Trinamool leaders privately admit that their party cannot win many seats and its influence is largely confined to some pockets in the Garo Hills.
“Why, then, has the party launched this elaborate exercise of enrolling people for a welfare scheme that it itself knows will never see the light of day since it will never come to power in Meghalaya?” he wondered.
The entire objective of this illegal enrolment exercise, say many, is to collect data.
“In today’s age, data is priceless and can be used or misused in myriad ways. My feeling is that the Trinamool is mining data illegally in the guise of enrolling beneficiaries for the promised dole. A lot of the data it is collecting is sensitive, like details of bank accounts and Aadhar or voter identity cards. And this sensitive data can be misused,” warned Charleston Sangma, a retired banker who is associated with the ruling National People’s Party (NPP).
Sangma’s apprehensions find resonance in many quarters in Meghalaya. “Such data can be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. We do not know how the Trinamool is keeping all the data it is collecting secure and what it ultimately intends to do with all that data. This whole exercise of collecting data from people, especially in the rural areas, should be probed,” said Congress leader Pynshingai Nongrum.
The Trinamool, incidentally, has also promised a monthly dole of Rs 1,000 to all unemployed in the age group of 21 to 40 in the state if it comes to power.
“Apart from the illegal data mining angle, the fact is that the Trinamool knows fully well that these are two blatantly false promises. Honoring these two promises of giving out monthly doles to women and unemployed people will bleed the state dry,” said B L Nongbri, a professor of economics.
He explains that of the estimated 18.5 lakh women in the state (2022 population estimates), about 15 lakh would be eligible for the welfare scheme for women.
“That means a monthly expense of Rs 150 crore, or Rs 1,800 crore annually,” he said. Add to this the unemployment dole that a back-of-envelope calculation shows will cost the state exchequer nearly Rs 27 crore a month or Rs 32 crore a year.
Meghalaya is a revenue deficit state and depends almost wholly on the union government to even pay the salaries of its government employees, besides financing various development projects and welfare schemes in the state. The total annual liability of the state would go up by Rs 1,832 crore if these two monthly doles are handed out to all deserving beneficiaries.
That will be a tenth of the state’s total expenditure as mentioned in the state Finance Minister’s 2022-2023 budget speech. It is thus apparent that the state can incur this additional expenditure of Rs 1,832 crore.
That puts the Trinamool’s promise of monthly doles to women and unemployed in the realm of impossibility. But the larger concern is that the Bengal-based party is mining data in an illegal manner in the faraway hill state and taking the tribals there for a ride.
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