It seems incomprehensible that even at the height of the crisis of the Covid-19 lockdown, when the shutdown of livelihoods created a vast and acute crisis of hunger for millions of migrants and informal workers, government policy was concerned with the establishment of proper procedure for the identification of beneficiaries for distribution. For any relief that needed to be provided sooner, government policy preferred either the parcel of relief was small enough, such as one meal, for there not to be a misallocation issue, or it was delivered by non-State actors without direct involvement of government funds and materials.
Could the Indian government simply have ‘universalised’ rations through its Public Distribution System (PDS), and made it accessible to all? It was pointed out that government godowns had adequate stocks of food grain to make this feasible. But for reasons that were never articulated, this option was never seriously considered. Instead, the state governments (for in India’s federal framework, this task was left largely to them) tried to extend the reach of the PDS delivery mechanism by devising new procedures to add temporary beneficiaries. They also tried, at least in some cases, to deliver emergency relief outside of the PDS framework through food kitchens and dry rations kits.
Research that covers the states of Kerala, Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana looks at what governments did in response to this crisis. In particular, what did these states do to respond to the needs of vulnerable people who were ‘at the margins of government welfare’ – people who were either ineligible or erroneously excluded from the PDS?
Administrative discretion, burden of beneficiary identification
The scale of response, and the strategies varied across states, but all of the responses were structured by a common framework of rules (both written and unwritten) that set the broad contours of administrative policy and decision-making for the Indian State. This was, however, less of a constraint in some states than in others.
In theory, rules and procedures are needed to limit the scope of administrative power that is available to unelected officials. This does not, of course, mean that the Indian state is not sometimes entirely lawless, but rather that its official form needs a nominal outline of rules. When applied to the question of the identification of beneficiaries for welfare schemes, the advantage (in normal times) for a neutral, precise and rule-bound framework for selecting recipients of government welfare is that it protects the public against an arbitrary and non-accountable state, as also against stigma, discrimination and moral judgement by officials. This is, however, only justifiable if there is a balance between rules and discretion, and if there is some room for discretionary allocations to be made in times of crisis.
However, the idea that discretion is a bad thing is so deeply ingrained in Indian administration, that there is very little room for discretionary decision-making by lower and frontline officials in everyday practice. And as a result, there is very little imagination for the empowerment of the frontline of administration in at the policy-making levels of government.
What was needed at this time was for people to either be able to directly claim food relief if they needed it, or for the state to be able to provide assistance in an effective and responsive manner. The states that managed this to some extent were those that had a well-developed and empowered frontline in place already (as in Kerala) or if they could supplement gaps in their own capacity through close collaborations with non-state actors (as in Delhi). Others seemed only to be able to call on their regular district administration to undertake some new list-making activity to identify new beneficiaries, who then had to be approved by higher levels of administration.
One stop-gap solution to the beneficiary identification and procedures muddle was for the states to work in close coordination with non-State actors. The food and funds brought by the non-State actors – individuals, volunteer groups and NGOs – was free of government rules and could be deployed with greater flexibility. The non-State actors also helped provide expertise for the formulation of policy, put more people on the ground for frontline operations, and led to alternative channels for information and feedback.
Unfortunately, however, not all the states even seemed to be able to collaborate effectively with non-state actors. The structure and depth of collaborations between State and non-State actors varied, and this too depended on pre-existing conditions within the state and the relationship between government and society.
What were the emergency relief alternatives?
In practice, the burden of procedures was such that temporary PDS relief was slow, and sometimes did not materialise in time for it to be of any use. You cannot after all wait for a month for your next meal.
Food kitchens could provide a logical solution to this quandary. Providing people with cooked meals could help stranded and dislocated people who would not have been able to cook, and it did not have a beneficiary identification problem. Giving people dry rations kits and supplies outside of the PDS was another option available to states. It gave people the option of cooking culturally familiar food, and helped them avoid the indignity and inconvenience of daily handouts. This posed a slight beneficiary identification problem, but far less severe than in the case of temporary PDS.
In the states of Delhi and Kerala, there seems to have been some sincere effort to provide cooked meals and emergency non-PDS rations. The other states did not seem to be able to set up food kitchens at scale – for which there is no explanation except that officials were reluctant to take up additional responsibilities. They also did not take up other forms of emergency assistance at any significant scale, even if their governments issued official orders to do this. For this, too, the only possible explanation is that risk-averse officials could not envisage how purchasing, handling and distribution of food grain could be done without regular processes and paperwork.
The reluctance of the states to take up emergency relief is ironic, considering that similar work was being done independently by non-State actors who had not even a fraction of the resources available to the state, but it highlights a key difference in the competences of state bureaucracies and non-state actors. The states that were able to work deeply and closely with the non-state were, for this reason, all the better off for it.
Business as usual has no room for crises
A pandemic of this scale is, hopefully, a one-off event. It has, however, made visible some glaring insufficiencies in the policy design and organisation of the Indian State. First of all, being poor and vulnerable is a far more fluid state than official State responses to food security care to acknowledge. Large number of people who are not officially identified as poor could also be so close to the brink of hunger even in normal times that a brief disruption (such as a few weeks) in their ability to earn labour wages is enough to wipe out any cash and food reserves that they have.
We know that these disruptions need not always be linked to spectacular global events like this pandemic—they could be personal (such as an illness) or localised (like a natural disaster). India’s food security framework—capable and substantially improved in its present institutional form—has no room at all for administrative discretion and response to emergencies. The food security law in fact has no provision for anything that falls outside its precise formulations. There is also no functioning institutional mechanism that can pick up on even the most glaring cases of exclusion, or provide for early warning and reporting of hunger crises.
There is a national policy for PDS portability under implementation — One Nation One Ration Card — that will allow for migrants to access their PDS entitlements in other states, but this also misses the point as it does not envisage the need for timeliness and responsiveness. In its present form, it assumes that entire families will migrate together, which does not account for individual or sub-family migrations. It also does not address the administrative challenge of digitising, accounting and reconciling between states, which can substantially dilute its perceived advantages. Most importantly, however, it is not a crisis response mechanism but an extension of the present institutional framework, and it should be seen only as such.
On the other hand, the study of state responses provides some indication of what a crisis response system could encompass. Such a system would require states to be able to make localised assessments of the situation and design interventions that best address these requirements. This could, no doubt, be substantially improved through better transparency, accountability and clear lines of funding. Moreover, the legitimacy and success of measures that provide greater administrative discretion is dependent on there being a clear and well-defined scope for discretion.
Building state capacity
This brings us to the critical question of competence, credibility and trust within state bureaucracies. Discretionary power can neither be granted nor exercised without this competence. These are constituent elements of ‘State capacity’, and they need to be present in an everyday sense in order to be deployed for emergencies. There is ultimately no alternative but for states to be able to develop this in-house. States needed capacity amongst their top executive, in their district administration and in local government.
State capacity, however, is more than just organisational competence. At this point, we do not know nearly enough about the role of political and administrative leadership. Chief ministers, other key politicians and bureaucrats at various levels of the state administration took risky decisions every time they made even the slightest departures from convention. These decisions would, very largely, have been legally valid but the reason why conventional practice is so appealing to the bureaucracy is that it is driven by precedent and has very few risks for the decision makers. To depart from convention requires ability — to be able to formulate policy, and convince others that the new policy is acceptable. It also requires something extra, a sense of responsibility that greater injustice would happen if something is not done.
Arkaja Singh is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and a part of the State Capacity Initiative. Views are personal.
The article is an extract from a study titled Hunger, Covid-19 and the Indian Administrative State. Read the full paper here.