Jaisalmer, Rajasthan: In Jaisalmer, a part of India’s largest Lok Sabha constituency in terms of area, Barmer, a chronic water crisis remains the most important election issue. Resentment over the Rajasthan state government stalling a financial inclusion programme for poor women is brewing alongside, which may hurt the Congress party’s electoral prospects.
Hopes drowned: Bhamashah project in Rajasthan was especially aimed at taking banking facilities closer to poor women. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
The Lok Sabha seat, spread across 71, 601 sq. km, will go to polls along with 24 other seats in Rajasthan on 7 May. It has some 1.44 million voters who will choose mainly between Harish Chaudhary of the Congress and Manvendra Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, who now represents Barmer in the Lok Sabha.
Lack of enough water, for both drinking and irrigation, continues to be a problem in Jaisalmer, but villagers here are angry that Project Bhamashah, launched by the previous BJP government of Rajasthan, has seen no progress since the Congress was voted to power in the December state polls.
The project is named after a historical character who gave his whole wealth to Maharana Pratap, the ruler of Mewar, to fight Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Also Read Elections 2009 (Full Coverage)
Under the programme, banks were to open no-frills accounts in the name of one woman from each poor household.
Tibba Devi, who is in her 50s and lives in Sam village, some 40km from Jaisalmer town, recalls that she was called to a school one July day last year by the local panchayat (village council) and her picture was taken.
“Since then I have not heard from them,” said Devi, a manual labourer, who was promised a bank account in her name with an opening balance of Rs1,500.
Bhamashah, the financial inclusion programme for 5 million below poverty line (poor) families in the state, was expected to work on the principle of bringing the point of service, or PoS, to as close as 3-4km of the depositor.
These were to work somewhat like automated teller machines that dispense receipts of deposits or withdrawals. A biometric device or thumb impression was to be used for identification.
Under the programme, around 1,300 PoS establishments were to help poor households deposit and withdraw money, and provide other basic banking services.
According to a 2008 Report on Financial Inclusion by a committee headed by C. Rangarajan, then chairman of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory committee, Rajasthan has 2.5 million farmer households, of which nearly half have no access to credit.
In comparison, only 27.3% of farmer households have no credit access in southern states.
“Bank branches are very far-off in Jaisalmer district. These poor women have to forego a day’s work in order to go to the bank,” said Govind Garg, a teacher in the local school at Sam. “Bhamashah would have been a great help as banking facilities would have come closer to them. It’s sad that Congress has dumped the project.”
In Sam, there is only one branch of Punjab National Bank (PNB), the only bank with a presence in the village. According to an employee at the bank’s branch, villagers from other far-off hamlets have to travel 15-20km to get to this branch.
Vasundhara Raje, who was the state’s chief minister during the BJP rule, wanted to complete the project by September, two months before the state went to polls but a public interest litigation put it in a limbo. Then the Congress came to power.
“Project Bhamashah has been referred to a committee of five ministers and is headed by state home minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal. The ministers have met four-five times since then but there hasn’t been any progress,” said a senior official in the state capital Jaipur who is close to the development, but did not want to be identified.
“We have honest intentions behind this ambitious scheme. You may think it is just to please women. But I feel if a woman is empowered, the whole family gets empowered,” Raje had earlier said explaining the need to continue with the project.
Jalam Singh Bhati, a BJP leader in Jaisalmer, also said: “Bhamashah was an excellent project especially in Jaisalmer where women go at least 5-6 km to find jobs, another 3-4 km to fetch water...”
Lakshmi Dalpatram, a resident of Sam, agrees. “I thought I would do some financial planning with the opening of my account, but nothing came through. The Congress will see our wrath in the coming election.”
Puri Girdhar of Jaisalmer town, whose husband maintains an account in Sam’s PNB branch, said: “My picture was also clicked. I was looking forward to having my own account through which I could save money for my children. Now, all my hopes are drowned. The Congress will have it in the elections, at least I am not going to vote for the Congress.”
Noor Mohammad, who runs a teashop, also works as a photographer, said: “Women in the village were so excited that day. They had kind of begun doing their financial planning and now the Congress has decided against the project itself.”
On his part, the president of the Congress’s Rajasthan unit, C.P. Joshi, dismissed such charges and put the blame on the previous government: “There are problems with the project...we are looking into it...we are trying to sort them out. It was the previous government’s fault that it wasn’t planned carefully.” He didn’t elaborate.
PNB had already opened 2.6 million accounts across Rajasthan. The state government has so far deposited Rs160 crore in 1 million accounts.
“Everything is stalled now and we cannot move till further notice,” said a senior official at PNB who didn’t want to be named.