Kolkata: The Trinamool Congress (TMC)-BJP slugfest in West Bengal over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is set to intensify as the state government has begun issuing an additional identity card to the state’s residents.
The Mamata Banerjee government is issuing ‘non-subsidised ration cards’, which it says can be used as identity proof apart from Aadhaar, PAN and voter identity cards.
The government has, however, made it clear that holders of the ‘non-subsidised ration cards’ will not be eligible for benefits, such as subsidised food, available to normal ration card holders.
The cards are part of a massive digitisation exercise of ration cards that the state government launched early September. Those seeking these cards will, however, have to provide details of their Aadhaar, PAN and voter identity cards.
The government is justifying the new cards as an attempt to clean up the public distribution system (PDS) in the state.
“There are some people who do not take the subsidised food grains, but retain the cards for identity or as address proof,” the chief minister had said in an administrative meeting in September. “We have directed the administration to issue two types of cards. People can apply for non-subsidised ration cards as identity proof. In this process, we can save the government money and also keep the ration dealers under check as they tend to misappropriate funds. The dates for application have been extended from 5 November to 30 November.”
Cards tied to NRC, says BJP
The opposition BJP isn’t buying the TMC’s claims, especially because the NRC, implemented in Assam, is a prime bone of contention between the two parties. BJP leaders have been insisting that the NRC will be extended to West Bengal, a border state, but Banerjee is vehemently opposed to it.
Earlier, the chief minister had said that any document, including a ration card, makes a person a citizen of the country, and there is nothing to worry about the NRC.
The state BJP now sees the ‘non-subsidised ration cards’ as part of the TMC’s strategy to counter the NRC. The party claims that the chief minister is trying to provide identity cards to ‘infiltrators’ by this ‘uniquely conceptualised’ process.
“We have already submitted a detailed report to the central government about this entire process. This is a massive exercise she has taken up to provide the illegal immigrants an identity proof,” said Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP’s national general secretary. “The MHA is aware of such an exercise. She is scared of NRC and misleading people. She knows that her vote bank of infiltrators will be removed under such exercise. But she will not succeed in such efforts.”
BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta also questioned the nature of the ‘non subsidised ration cards’. “What is this card all about? Is this state a republic already?” he asked. “Is the government in Bengal trying to create a parallel identity card? Will it also have its own passport in future?”
Food Minister Jyotipriya Mallick rubbished the claims. “This is a process to make the PDS cleaner. We are trying to take out the fake ration cards,” Mallick said. “There is no connection between the digital ration card and NRC. BJP is again conspiring against us as always.”
The digitisation process
The ‘non-subsidised ration cards’ are part of the state government’s digitisation process, which also includes digital ration cards.
According to official data, between 9 September and 27 September, the government here received almost 91.75 lakh applications for new ration cards. Of these applications, a major number was for the issuance of fresh ration cards while people also applied for renewal and fresh inclusion of names. There are close to 8 crore people in the state who hold old ration cards.
“We have already enrolled 60 lakh people under the new digital ration card system,” Mallick told ThePrint. “The process is still on.”
For the non-subsidised ration cards, the government has two categories — application for non-subsidised ration card and application for conversion to non-subsidised ration card.
While they can be availed online, the state’s food department has set up hundreds of camps in districts to accept offline applications as well.
Confusion on the ground
There is little clarity on the ground on the need for the new digital cards.
Pradip Mondal, 68, a resident of Hooghly, stood in a long queue at a ration shop near his house for hours, filled up the form, submitted photocopies of his Aadhaar card and voter ID card. He, however, does not know why he is participating in this exercise.
“We saw advertisements in newspapers and on TV about this card. It looked like a mandatory government document for identity,” Mondal said. “We were told by the municipality that the old card will not remain valid anymore. Some local leaders told us that death certificates would not be issued if we did not have the digital card.”
Krishna Bhattacharya, 45, a nurse from Kolkata’s Maniktala area, took a day off from work to submit her application. “Our councillor told us that this is the single most important document for identity,” she said. “We all should have this card and will need this if NRC gets implemented.”