On Friday morning, at around 11 am, Mahendran*, a resident of an apartment complex in Chennaiâ€™s Pallikarnai received a group text from the building association on his phone. A member of the association management said that government staff had dropped forms at the office for those in the building and when the 41-year-old software professional went down to see what is was, he was completely taken aback.
On the table of the association office stood a bunch of forms to be filled by residents to receive Rs 2000 each from the government, as part of a poverty alleviation scheme meant for families below the poverty line (BPL).
In February, the Tamil Nadu government led by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had allocated Rs 1200 crore to carry out the scheme targeting 60 lakh BPL families in the state. And yet there they were, hundreds of forms, at a posh residential complex in suburban Chennai.
"My apartment has 465 flats and I own a two-bedroom house here. The basic rent for even a one-bedroom house here is Rs 10,000. So, I did not understand why any of us are even eligible to fill out this form meant for BPL families," Mahendran tells TNM. "The instruction was that if you fill the form and submit it with your Aadhaar details, the money gets automatically credited to your bank account," he adds.
And Mahendran is not alone. Throughout the last week, residents and home owners in posh localities of Chennai including Adyar, Kottivakkam and Thuraipakkam are reporting that they have received the forms meant for a government scheme targeting BPL families. And this, social activists and former bureaucrats allege, is an indication that the government is inflating numbers of BPL families to misappropriate taxpayers' money and to bribe residents into voting for them in the upcoming polls.
Who was the scheme meant for?
When the Chief Minister made the announcement in the Assembly, he had said that the cash assistance was for poor families that have been severely affected after Cyclone Gaja and the prevailing drought in the state.
Announcing his decision in the state Assembly he had said, "I am happy to announce the governmentâ€™s special cash assistance to all BPL families, especially, the labourers in agriculture sector, firecracker units, fisheries, power loom and handloom, construction, weaving, tree climbing, salt pan, footwear and leather, conservancy, pottery, craft artists and others."
The move was to benefit 35 lakh families in rural areas and 25 lakh families in urban areas.
Except, according to the government's own admission in 2018, 60 lakh BPL families don't even exist in the state.
The real numbers
In 2018, when Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who also handles the Finance portfolio, tabled the state budget, the document in clear terms said, â€śIn 1973-1974, the percentage of persons living below poverty line in India was 54.88%. At the same period, it was 54.94% in Tamil Nadu. As per 2011-2012 NSS survey, this percentage has come down to 11.28% in Tamil Nadu as against 21.92% at all India level.â€ť
In such a case, considering Tamil Nadu's population to be 7,21,47,030 as per the 2011 census, the total number of individuals who fall below the poverty line, is 81,38,184. To figure out the number of BPL families, if this number is divided by four (as per the official practice), it comes up to only 20,34,546 families.
Satta Panchayat Iyakkam (SPI), an NGO working against corruption further points out that if we were to go by data from Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation website, the number of families that hold the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) ration card meant to provide highly subsidised food, is only 18.64 lakh.
"Not only does distribution of these forms show that the government is trying to bribe voters across the economic spectrum," says Senthil Arumugam of SPI. "But it also shows that they have blatantly lied in the Madras High Court about having data to match their claim of 60 lakh BPL families in the state," he adds.
Did the government lie to the court?
On February 13, two days after the government's announcement about the cash assistance, SPI went to High Court and challenged the move. In the PIL, the NGO alleged that the government did not have data to match the figures announced and requested the court to direct the state government to prepare a new list with the actual BPL families that will fall under the defined parameters. They further asked that implementation of the scheme not be carried out till then.
"But in response to the PIL the government filed a reply saying they have accurate data for 60 lakh families and that they will go to exact addresses to give these forms. In fact, they told the court that all they needed from the families was their bank account number, Aadhaar number and IFSC code for the account. After hearing this, the government dismissed our petition saying the government had enough data," says Senthil. "But these blank forms that have arrived at the doorsteps of people who are clearly not BPL, shows that the government was lying to the court and now they are scrambling to meet the numbers," he alleges.
Copies of the form that TNM has accessed ask for details of ration card, occupation, home ownership, property, livestock, vehicles, income tax, use of government subsidies and even if the house has a toilet. According to the Centreâ€™s definition, a family that earns below Rs 27,000 a year is considered to be BPL.
"Considering all these basic necessities to be a BPL family, I don't even understand why these forms are coming to us," says Mahendran.
But Senthil alleges, the government is merely covering its tracks.
"If they (residents) accept the forms, the government can show that they gave Rs 2000 to the families that filled it," he says. "If they really do give it will serve as bribe for the election, and if they don't it will go into their coffers for election expenditure," he alleges.
*Name changed to protect identity