In the current coronavirus crisis and the ensuing lockdown, most migrants in India find themselves suddenly jobless as factories close, supply chains shut down and services freeze. The Narendra Modi government has responded to the crisis by announcing several social protection schemes, including direct benefit transfers for certain sections of the population and free LPG refills, grains and pulses for the poor.
But large sections of the population, including urban informal workers, are ‘invisible’ to the state. There is also no single view of ‘who is getting what’ and ‘who should get what’ to enable an efficient entitlement-based approach to social protection.
The answer to the question of ‘who to pay’ thus lies in building a comprehensive and dynamic social registry.
Figuring out who to pay
In order to determine if the government schemes will be able to mitigate this long-term impact of Covid-19, it is important to take stock of the current design of India’s social protection system.
We have programs that offer either in-kind assistance such as subsidised food rations (PDS), subsidised fertilisers, subsidised cooking gas or cash transfers by way of pensions, scholarships and job guarantee programmes (MGNREGS) and contribution schemes such as Employees’ State Insurance. These programmes are run by multiple ministries and state governments who also have hundreds of other smaller programmes. Then why worry?
The reason is that the government faces a challenge of not just fiscal constraint of ‘how much to transfer’ but the key issue of ‘whom to pay’. While India has solved the key issue of ‘how to pay’ using the Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) trinity in which it has invested over the last decade, maybe this is the time to consider a platform approach to social protection frameworks in India that can help answer the question of ‘whom to pay?”
In a country of 1.3 billion people, many of whom are very poor, it is a challenge to identify who is eligible for which benefit. For instance, with the lockdown and Covid-19, since large numbers of people have suddenly become unemployed, the income levels of individuals and families have dropped, and many more have become eligible for benefits. Many have also moved from urban to rural areas, making eligibility tracking even more difficult. This means the government may not be able to accurately identify if an individual is eligible for a rural scheme or an urban one, or is eligible at all. Various ministries that offer such schemes have their own databases. But there is neither a central database nor a mechanism for databases to talk to each other to understand who is getting what.
According to the World Bank, ideally, the process of delivering social benefits includes three steps. First, is figuring out the potential eligibility via outreach, application and registration for assessing people’s needs. Second, is to take decisions on the enrolment and benefits of the service package. The third and final step is carrying out the transaction implementation. The way in which India’s social benefit programmes are set up, through the JAM infrastructure, it is easy to carry out the second and third steps. The government, however, is unable to effectively carry out the first step of figuring out eligibility.
Making one social registry
Building a common social registry could be the solution to this eligibility conundrum. This registry can provide a ‘gateway’ for potential inclusion of eligible populations especially if multiple social programmes use one common registry.
However, the task of creating a common social registry is tedious as the experience of countries such as Turkey and Philippines shows. But it is not impossible. The central, state governments, as well as district administrations, already have multiple databases from existing welfare schemes. The first big step would be to comb through these databases and find ways to combine it with large databases such as PM Ujjwala Yojana, Public Distribution System (PDS) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
Although there are challenges to this approach, a determined effort could result in a comprehensive albeit inchoate social registry within six months. In some states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which already have unified social registries such as Samagra and Bhamashah, the de-duplication against national databases would happen quite fast. While this consolidation effort will, by no means, be the end product, it will provide a more efficient benefit delivery mechanism for dealing with the immediate crisis.
In the medium to long term, the social registry governance model could be firmed up based on examples of various countries. India can choose from several models around the world. For example, countries such as China, Georgia, Mexico, Philippines and Turkey have a separate ‘central social agency’ to manage and operate their social registries. Brazil and Montenegro’s social registries are hosted and managed by one central social agency, but implemented by separate ‘operating agencies’; this seems to be a more suitable model for India, given its vast population and diverse social welfare schemes. A decentralised model like X-Road in Estonia could also be considered.
Leaving no one behind
India already has several key enablers such as Aadhaar, population-scale payment solutions such as Aadhaar Payments Bridge, NEFT and UPI, beneficiary data and comprehensive schemes already in place. The addition of a unified social registry, will greatly enhance the country’s ability to offer social protection to its citizens.
In a time of crisis, people put their faith in governments to see them through tough times. Critical decisions taken by policymakers, executed with speed and conviction have helped numerous countries tread a path to recovery.
Even if the situation starts to improve and the lockdown is relaxed, this migrant population may not be willing or able to come back to their urban jobs. It thus becomes imperative for the Modi government to think about the long-term second-order economic impact of this crisis, which will pan out over the next year or two.
How India will emerge from this crisis will depend heavily on its government’s ability to uplift its citizens through a new social contract in which no one is left behind.
The author is a senior adviser, Technology and Society program at Carnegie India.