Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ratna Column: Relevance of volunteers turns into poll plank in AP!

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Due to aberrations that have crept over the past few years, the prescribed and routine functions of about 2.6 lakh volunteers engaged in the system by the Andhra Pradesh government with the professed objective of taking administration to the doorstep of the poor and needy people have thrown up a wordy duel between the opposition parties and the ruling dispensation. Things have come to such a pass that this verbal warfare has tended to make the relevance of volunteers a plank for the upcoming Assembly and General Elections.

The ruling YSR Congress Party strongly believes that the system of volunteers has been delivering the desired results. The volunteers, at the time of their appointment, were given clusters consisting of 50 families. Each of the volunteers was expected to help those families in accessing government benefits and services, particularly pensions for the old, widows, physically challenged etc. The system was widely welcomed mainly because pension was made available at the beneficiary’s doorstep, instead of putting him or her through the ordeal of receiving pensions at the gram panchayat office accompanied by an attendant.

Jana Sena Party (JSP) chief and actor Pawan Kalyan set the cat among the pigeons by accusing the volunteers of collecting highly objectionable information about people in their allotted clusters. This included details such as the marital status of the female members of several families that allegedly contributed indirectly to helping those involved in human trafficking. Creating a sensation in political circles of Andhra Pradesh, Pawan also claimed that he had gathered this information through intelligence sources in New Delhi. He went on to claim that nearly 16,000 young women, reported ‘missing’ in the state, might have become victims of human trafficking.

Naturally, outraged members of the public and other circles, including political ones, started questioning the administration on the whereabouts of the missing young women. Surprisingly, the state government has not yet responded to this crucial gap in information, though it has made a scathing attack on those who had made allegations of human trafficking in the first place.

The system of volunteers is believed to have been designed to ensure YSR Congress Party’s return to power. The volunteer posts were given to youth workers of the party who had worked tirelessly for the victory of YSRCP. So, for the ruling party, the volunteers serve as a bridge between the state government and the people, mostly in respect of welfare schemes. Of course, there have been cases of volunteers running away with cash meant for disbursement, sexual harassment of innocent village woman, and the like. Such things have since been overshadowed by apprehensions over the ‘safety’ of people’s names in the voters’ lists. For, it is alleged that leaders of the ruling party have access to names of voters who would not vote for the ruling party. There is a view in party circles that these names would eventually and surreptitiously be deleted from the electoral rolls.

Presently, the ruling YSRCP is firm on retaining power. It is a do or die situation for the Telugu Desam Party. The JSP is set to play a key role in deciding the winner because of its equation with the dominant Kapu caste.

The volunteers have reportedly been offered a hike in salary to Rs 15,000/- per month. This would cement their commitment to the ruling party.

There are concerns over the potential impact of the volunteers on the electoral rolls. Opposition parties are crying foul at the undue importance being given to volunteers, instead of relying on government staff working at the gram panchayat level.

The 2.6 volunteers are offered Rs 200 each for getting a daily newspaper. No prizes for guessing the newspaper. Rs. 5.2 crore of public money would go every month to the owner of that newspaper. People can’t do anything, though they know that public money is being diverted.

In view of the overriding need for safeguarding public interests, the Andhra Pradesh government would do well to come up with a list of dos and don’ts for the volunteers so that sensitive matters can be better handled. At the end of the day, people do know the real value of volunteers!

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