From the moment the national Covid-19 lockdown was announced, the unprecedented nature of the humanitarian crisis that was likely to follow was clear. Once the lockdown was in force, there was no doubt that the central and state governments would have to act quickly to ensure that at the very least two things — food and cash — reached the most vulnerable. It was also certain that the ranks of the vulnerable would rapidly start to swell as wages and work were withdrawn. Without the basic cover that the overwhelmingly informal economy provided, many more Indians would have to depend on the state for relief and support to get through this uncertain time.
It was clear from the start then that India needed to shift rapidly towards an inclusive, responsive, and demand-based system of relief that moved money swiftly to the states and gave them greater flexibility in implementation. The discussion so far has been on the fiscal paralysis that has ensued, the long-delayed stimulus, government’s calibrated, micro-dosage, drip irrigation approach to protecting the economy and on the inadequacies of the only relief package announced for the poor.
But even as the need to loosen the fiscal belt gathers ever-greater urgency, we must also fully acknowledge the hardwiring of exclusion in our welfare architecture and take urgent and deliberate steps to undo this in the period ahead.
Exclusionary welfare system
As the Covid-19 lockdown began, we knew our food grain stocks were more than adequate for the present requirements and were in fact three times the buffer stock limit. We also had in place a large, multi-scheme, welfare architecture, including a vast Public Distribution System (PDS) and mechanisms designed to transfer cash via Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT). But whether the government acknowledged it or not, we also knew that these schemes suffered from serious errors of exclusion and that the excluded are usually among the weakest, poorest, most mobile, and therefore often the most invisible. Finally, in a country where one size has never fit all, we were also well aware that the implementation of welfare and social security measures varies greatly across states and schemes and that in an emergency, it is the states that would be best placed to decide how to achieve coverage at scale and speed.
During a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, the need of the hour (and by now the days, weeks, and months) is to move to a demand-based system of relief and welfare, where those in need of food and cash, whether or not they are currently listed as beneficiaries, are able to reach out, ask for and access it. But this is in fact the complete antithesis of the current welfare system, which has been constructed by successive Indian governments.
It also goes against some fundamental and longstanding assumptions. One, that we don’t have the fiscal capacity. Two, that we don’t have the implementation capacity. And therefore, three, that we have no choice but to limit the beneficiaries in any given scheme through processes of enumeration, identification and authentication. The problem is that in the absence of strong, decentralised and responsive administrative capacity, these very processes of identification and verification exclude many intended beneficiaries at any given time.
So, in practice, infrequently revised quotas mean that even those identified as legitimate beneficiaries must routinely be kept pending until others drop out or are bumped off the list. The National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, for example, sets national and state-wise quotas based on 2011 sample survey estimates. Economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera suggest that based on population projections, by 2020 this fixed quota system leaves out 10 crore people. Moreover, while many await registration, others have been cut off from their entitlements on account of failures in linking ration cards to Aadhaar numbers or on account of other documentary gaps, as the burden of proof and the failures of authentication technologies are to be borne by the citizen and not by the state. And as we have just witnessed all too distressingly, the portability of entitlements and benefits — the original justification for biometric identification — is yet to materialise, even as One Nation, One Ration Card (like One Nation, one Market) is spoken of as if it is already a reality. All the while, critical administrative and accounting bottlenecks lead to large proportions of the budgetary allocations for our core welfare schemes remaining unutilised each year.
To understand why this welfare system persists, we need to acknowledge that at its root, targeting and its attendant exclusions are ultimately also justified and sustained by a sense of suspicion that implicates both the public and the state’s own functionaries.
So, delivery is designed on the assumption that dominant local elites and intermediaries — who will otherwise use every opportunity to exploit the poor and while diverting and extracting entitlements and benefits — must be, at least in theory, excluded and bypassed. The poor themselves, even if materially deprived, are often cast as morally undeserving, susceptible to manipulation, expedient, and irresponsible (one only had to witness the discourse around Monday’s nationwide run on liquor stores for proof). And finally, that corrupt and rent-seeking bureaucrats and public functionaries who only work the system rather than keep it working must have their discretion clipped.
The result is a welfare architecture that is so invested in minimising errors of inclusion that it continuously chooses fiscal, bureaucratic and technological ‘solutions’ that systematically enable ‘errors of exclusion’ to multiply.
Decentralisation is required
The lockdown and its humanitarian consequences have begun to fundamentally challenge the mind-set and modalities of India’s welfare architecture. We can no longer afford to live with or simply look away from the exclusion ‘errors’ of the past. Many of the most painful and humiliating effects of the lockdown are likely to remain simply unacknowledged, let alone adequately accounted for or compensated. But, ensuring that people have enough food and cash to survive the crisis should remain non-negotiable.
State governments, at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have been trying to rapidly and systematically identify the unreached (among them, the unregistered, unbanked and unlinked). Some, like the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal, have tried and faltered by using the same systems and technologies (Aadhaar and smartphones) — which have failed in less urgent times — to temporarily provide rations to those excluded. They are now being pushed to do better.
In the end, wherever states, fast-running out of cash themselves, are trying and managing to some extent to reach all those in need, they are having to depend upon and trust district administrators, frontline functionaries, panchayats, municipalities and to work in partnership, wherever possible, with community collectives and NGOs. But it is precisely this kind of decentralised administrative and institutional capacity that has been systematically hollowed out and bypassed over the years.
The lesson we are learning now is that for India to actually release the grain to citizens, she requires the entire system to go against the grain of deeply entrenched state beliefs and practices. After decades of distrust, it’s time to cultivate some moral fibre.
The authors are with the State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research. Krishnamurthy is also an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University. Views are personal.