Women in West Bengal are making a beeline to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's latest gender specific cash transfer welcome scheme Lakshmir Bhandar. At stake is Rs 1,000 per month for women of Scheduled Castes and Tribes and Rs 500 for the rest.
The forms for enrolling in the scheme began to be distributed since Monday. In the first three days, 30 lakh women signed up, even at the cost of getting injured in the rush for the forms, at Malda, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas and other districts.
Such was the rush for forms to sign up for the scheme, Ms Banerjee had to give assurances that the last date for enrolment, September 15, will be extended if needed and women should not panic about signing up.
"Lakshmir Bhandar is about a woman's right, a symbol of our respect for them. That's why there is a huge demand. 30 lakh applications in three days already," Ms Banerjee said.
The forms are being distributed at the government's Duare Sarkar or government-at-your-doorstep camps that began on Monday. 46 lakh applications had been filed for 25 schemes on offer. 30 lakh of those forms were for Lakshmir Bhandar - a term commonly used in Bengal for piggy banks.
For Sushma Ghosh, 29, a homemaker and mother of two, who queued up to pick up a form, an assured income of Rs 500 a month is a huge help. "My husband is a driver. He barely makes Rs 10,000 a month. For poor people like us, Rs 500 a month is a lot of money," she said.
She was among thousands at the Krantipur Duare Sarkar camp in North 24 Parganas district, 30 km from Kolkata, to apply for Lakshmir Bhandar. "70 per cent of people here are here for Lakshmir Bhandar. We had 8,000 footfalls in the first three days of the camp and 7,000 of those were for Lakshmir Bhandar," said Argha Mukherjee, block development officer in charge of the camp.
The eligibility criteria for Lakshmir Bhandar are between 25 and 60 years old, unemployed and not a recipient of any pension. This has turned contentious. The opposition BJP says the Trinamool Congress, in its election manifesto, had promised Lakshmir Bhandar for all women in Bengal's 1.6 crore families. But out of five crore women in the state, the scheme was only being given to 1.85 crore women, the BJP said.
"The eligibility criteria of no job, no pension mean women who get any kind of honorarium from the state can't apply. The government has done this because it doesn't have enough money for the scheme. More than half the women in the state are being left out. We want all women in Bengal to benefit," Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari said.
There is some uncertainty whether women who work at ICDS or as ASHA and get an honorarium but not a salary would be eligible.
The opposition wants to punch holes in the scheme as, out of around 3.6 crore women voters in Bengal, 50 per cent voted for Trinamool in the last assembly election. Some surveys say the Trinamool polled 13 per cent more women's votes than BJP to get the winning edge.
But how much will Lakshmir Bhandar cost Bengal? The allocation for the nodal Women and Child Development and Social Welfare Department was tripled this budget, possibly to foot the bill.
From Rs 5,468 crore in 2020-21, the allocation shot up to a whopping Rs 16,046 crore this year. The department was unwilling to share numbers as the whole thing is a work in progress, but from the budget allocation, Lakshmir Bhandar could be all of Rs 10,000 crore.