It is politics over hunger at its most blatant. After hijacking the Congress-led central government’s Food Security Act (FSA) by merging it with state’s own atta-dal scheme, Punjab’s SAD-BJP regime has diverted the subsidy meant for families with low annual income — up to Rs 60,000 as per the criteria — to the politically important Bathinda and Muktsar districts, the home turf of the ruling Badals.
Under the FSA, nearly 30 lakh families — 1.4 crore of the state’s population — qualify for the food subsidy. Since 18 lakh families are already covered under the old atta-dal scheme, below poverty line, and poorest-of-the-poor Antyodaya Anna Yojana, the state had to add another 12 lakh families.
The lion’s share of the the new ‘blue cards’ issued to beneficiary families in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls has gone to Bathinda, represented in Parliament by Harsimrat Kaur Badal, and Muktsar, which is the home district of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and includes Lambi, his assembly segment that is part of the Bathinda LS seat.
Acting on complaint by the Congress, the Election Commission had asked the Punjab food and civil supply department to stop distribution of new blue cards and give a break-up of those distributed before the poll code came into effect on March 5. The department replied that nearly 70% new cards — 8.8 lakh of 12.44 lakh — were distributed before the code. The pick-and-choose policy had begun before that, when, based on political affiliations, the 23 lakh applications received for the new scheme were pruned to around 12 lakh. Since deputy commissioners were responsible for enlisting beneficiaries, the food department’s claims on the number of cards issued before the poll code could not be verified. However, the district-wise tally exposes how the Centre’s scheme has been used by the Badal regime to its own political advantage.
In a classic paradox, while Harsimrat is seeking re-election on claims of development, the “prosperous” Bathinda district has the third highest number of “poor” families in Punjab, going by the 98,341 new blue cards. The figure looks more glaring given the fact that Bathinda is ninth in terms of population among districts. Over 82,000 of these cards — with pictures of CM Badal — were made and distributed within 10 days by the Bathinda district administration in weeks preceding the poll code. Ironically, Harsimrat had accused the UPA regime of “playing politics over hunger” during the debate on the Food Security Act in Parliament.
In the more populous district of Jalandhar, 81,450 families got new cards, Patiala 54,549, Sangrur 74,269 and Hoshiarpur 49,174. Only Ludhiana and Amritsar, the number one and two districts, respectively, in terms of population, have more “poor” families than Bathinda. In the old atta-dal scheme, too, a whopping 1.01 lakh families of Bathinda are covered.
Also presenting a stark mismatch is Muktsar, 14th in population. While districts which exceed its population by several lakhs got no blue cards, 40,075 families in Muktsar, mainly in Lambi area, were given the cards.
Gurdaspur got just 18 new cards, while Ferozepur and Tarn Taran got none. The Gurdaspur Lok Sabha segment, currently held by state Congress president Partap Singh Bajwa, is contested by the BJP as per the alliance’s seat-sharing terms. However, Tarn Taran happens to be the home district of SAD’s food minister Adesh Partap Singh Kairon, whose department is executing the scheme. In the old atta-dal scheme, too, Muktsar is way ahead of these districts with 1.05 lakh beneficiary families.
Punjab chief electoral officer VK Singh said the scheme “is under the scanner of the EC”. Distribution of new cards has already been stopped, while the poll panel has also banned distribution of six-month advance ration that was started recently.