A day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reviewed the progress of the government’s ambitious direct cash transfer scheme, the Congress endorsed it. Wearing his party hat, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram congratulated the government for this “pioneering and path-breaking reform” that aims at efficient delivery of benefits to the poor. “Aapka paisa, aapke haath [your money, in your hands] – that is the goal of this “revolutionary, historic programme,” summed up Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Less than 18 months before the next elections, the cash transfer scheme — which Mr. Chidambaram described as a “game-changer” — clearly aims at bringing back the aam aadmi back to the party fold from the civil society activists-turned politicians, who are seeking to snatch them away.

The scheme’s purpose, from the briefing given by the two Ministers accompanied by party spokesperson P.C. Chacko at the Congress headquarters, appeared twofold: one, to send out a message to the aam aadmi, particularly the poor, that this was a government that cared for them, and two, to make a serious effort to put an end to corruption.

While answering a question, Mr. Chidamabaram stoutly denied the charge that the scheme had something to do with the approaching elections: “Elections will come and elections will go. Governments will come and governments will go. Parties will come and parties will go. But look at it through the eyes of the people of this country,” he said.

“The Congress is a political party, not an NGO. We had promised cash transfer of benefits and subsidies in our election manifesto of 2009,” Mr. Ramesh said, asking “Where is the talk of elections?”

In the coming weeks, the district magistrates of the 51 districts chosen for the first phase, starting January 1, 2013, would be summoned to New Delhi to sensitise them to the scheme, Mr. Chidambaram said. The Congress district committee chiefs of the areas being covered would also be called to the national capital shortly and would be addressed by party general secretary Rahul Gandhi and Mr. Chidambaram, Mr. Ramesh said. In keeping with Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s exhortation at the party’s recent samvad baithak, the government and the party will work together.

Initially, 29 welfare programmes — largely related to scholarships and pensions for the old, disabled — operated by different ministries will be transferred through Aadhaar-enabled bank accounts in 51 districts spread over 16 States from January 1, and by the end of the next year it should cover the entire country, Mr. Chidambaram said. He added that only at a later stage would the government consider the feasibility of cash instead of food (under the Public Distribution System) and fertilizers, since it was more complicated.

Mr. Ramesh stressed that this was “not a transfer of cash but of the haq [the right] of the people” that aimed at placing “your money in your hands”. Referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s historic speech in which he had said that only 15 paise of every rupee reached the poor, now, he promised, the entire amount would. “This is not a bribe; this is the right of the people.”

Explaining the scheme’s benefits, Mr. Chidambaram said there would be “practically no case of falsification or duplication. The efficiency gains will be incalculable.” He said the government expected “considerable savings” from the scheme, but refused to speculate on the amount.

The districts that will be covered in the first phase include five each in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, four each in Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, three each in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tripura, and two each in Haryana, Kerala and Sikkim.

The 29 programmes are run by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Human Resources Development, Minority Welfare, Women and Child Development, Health and Family Welfare, and Labour and Employment.

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