AP: YSRCP, TDP at loggerheads as ECI stops door delivery of pensions by volunteers

Following an order by the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the Election Commission has asked the state government to stop village and ward volunteers from participating in election-related activities and cash disbursement to scheme beneficiaries.
Andhra CM Jagan and opposition leader Chandrababu Naidu
Andhra CM Jagan and opposition leader Chandrababu Naidu
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An order of the Election Commission of India (ECI) has sparked a war between the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) and the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP), as it has caused a delay in delivering pensions to the beneficiaries in the state. The ECI issued orders on March 30 prohibiting village/ward volunteers from distributing cash to beneficiaries of various schemes at their doorstep. This came after the High Court disposed of a writ petition on the alleged involvement of volunteers in influencing the voters. The court also directed the state’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Mukesh Kumar Meena to keep volunteers out of elections and placed restrictions on their participation. Subsequently, the state government issued a circular on March 31 and asked the beneficiaries to collect their pensions at the village and ward level through the secretariat staff. This sparked a political debate between the ruling YSRCP and TDP, as the former alleged that the TDP had conspired to deprive people of their pensions.

The ECI, in a letter to the AP CEO, said that in view of complaints about volunteers, newspaper reports about volunteers influencing elections at the grassroots level and the order by the AP High Court, village/ward volunteers to be barred from distribution of cash benefits under any scheme (including pensions) to eligible beneficiaries.

Further, it had directed the AP government to send the money through electronic transfer or through other government employees. The ECI has also directed that electronic devices such as phones, tablets, etc, provided to the volunteers be deposited with the district election officer till the Model Code of Conduct period.

The order was issued after Citizens of Democracy, an intellectual forum set up by former bureaucrats, approached the AP High Court, alleging that the volunteers were motivating the beneficiaries to vote for the ruling YSRCP led by Chief Minister YS Jagan. The opposition party, TDP has written to ECI requesting to bar volunteers and has been raising concerns regarding their involvement in election campaigns. 

Subsequently, the court ordered the ECI to take necessary actions on March 13. However, the issue gained attention only a few days before April 1, as it was unclear who would disburse the pensions in place of volunteers. 

Muralidhar Reddy, CEO of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), a nodal agency for the distribution of pensions, said that the government was initially considering volunteers to be involved in the disbursement of pensions during MCC. For April, May and June, volunteers had been asked to carry an authorisation letter while withdrawing cash from banks and disbursement of pensions as there would be a restriction on carrying cash due to MCC. However, after ECI’s order, this decision was taken back by SERP and fresh orders were issued by the state government directing village/ward secretariat staff to disburse pensions. 

The amount for pension schemes is credited every month into the account of the Drawing and Disbursing Officer (DDO), authorised to issue cheques to each secretariat office in the mandal. The secretariat staff encashes the cheque and volunteers are assigned to disburse the amount to each beneficiary in an envelope. Upon receipt of the amount, the beneficiary has to put a thumb impression as acknowledgement. 

The village and ward volunteer system was launched by the YSRCP government in 2019 and more than two lakh volunteers were appointed for door delivery of schemes. Each volunteer is responsible for identifying beneficiaries and ensuring that scheme benefits are delivered to fifty households assigned to him in the area. Opposition parties TDP and Jana Sena Party (JSP), led by Pawan Kalyan, had earlier alleged that the volunteers were profiling voters, manipulating the electoral rolls and gathering information about citizens illegally.

So far, 556 volunteers have been terminated from service for violating MCC rules, according to a Hindu report. Reports surfaced that volunteers were campaigning for YSRCP and were later suspended.

Meanwhile, YSRCP advisor Sajjala Ramakrishna accused TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu of being responsible for delaying pensions. He also accused Naidu of colluding with Citizens of Democracy and conspiring to demolish the volunteer system. “People are wise to make decisions and vote. For the past four years, volunteers have been delivering pensions at doorstep. With one complaint, this link between beneficiaries and government is cut off. This reminds me of those days when people had to stand in queues,” Sajjala said at a press meet. 

Naidu retaliated and alleged that the government has plotted to convey that TDP is responsible for the cancellation of door delivery and the delay caused regarding the pensions. “Various leaders of YSRCP have been criticising TDP for obtaining orders from ECI to gain political mileage by maligning our party image,” he stated in his letter to ECI on Tuesday, April 2.  He questioned the government’s order asking why secretariat employees, numbering over 1.5 lakh, could not distribute pensions at the doorstep. “It is inhuman that the elderly, wheelchair users and other pension beneficiaries have to walk to the village/ward secretariats about 3-4 kilometres away. I request the Chief Electoral Officer of India to instruct the Chief Secretary to make arrangements to deliver the pensions at home,” Naidu said.

Meanwhile, the AP High Court dismissed a writ petition challenging ECI’s order barring volunteers from disbursing pensions on Wednesday, April 3. According to reports, the bench said that several states are functioning without a volunteer system. The court also stated that the government had given an assurance that pensions would be delivered to wheelchair users and severely ill persons directly through village/ward secretaries.

Elections to the 175-member Assembly and all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the state are scheduled to be held on May 13.

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