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Importance of Social Protection in India

There has been growing consensus in the international development arena that ‘Social Protection (SP)’ plays a crucial role not only for the social but also for the economic and political development of countries. This means that not only is SP one of the Sustainable Development Goals itself but is explicitly cited as a vital instrument for the achievement of SDG1 (ending poverty in all its manifestations) and SDG10 (reducing income inequality) and is also important to achieve SDGs 2-6 (ending hunger, education, healthy lives, gender equality and access to water). Following my time at the National Institution for Transforming India, there was a realisation that SP doesn’t only allow government to progress in nationally-accepted development goals but also can be used to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns and thereby work towards climate stability and thus abate climate change impacts. Deciding to work for the Indian Government had a lot to do with the understanding that the sustainable development and growth of one-sixth of humanity will be of great consequence for the rest of the world.

Considering the inertia of governmental schemes originating from various ministries, it is understandably challenging and politically problematic to bring in fresh, all-inclusive schemes such as the Universal Basic Income or a SP Floor. However, after working at the institution, I realized that incremental changes to existing schemes and programs could go a long way in guiding the population towards the ideal level of SP. Therefore, following are five policy recommendations post in-depth research to increase the efficiency and coverage of SP schemes.

Collate and Integrate.

The Indian Government has a plethora of programs that are directed towards SP. After discussions with officials, it was clear that there are enough programs which, if successful in their entirety, can achieve success in providing SP to the Indian citizens. However, there may be too many schemes that are currently being operated leading to confusion and ineffective targeting of the most vulnerable people. The SP schemes in India, thus, attempt to achieve too much in too many ways.

Actions: Policymakers should work towards accelerating cross-program convergence and consolidation in policy and administration to make the system more understandable to the population, realize economies of scale in policy-development and administration, and simplify ongoing planning and execution of SP programs. Understandably, this shall require enhanced efforts of institutional coordination within and across levels of government and administration. Both at central and state levels, there is a need for the formation of an inter-departmental/ministerial Task-Force that will promote coordination and reduce duplication across SP programs, and therefore, foster a more coherent strategy-development in the long-term policy priorities. This would then assist the transition from the current program-driven approach to thinking in terms of a SP system which is animated more by poverty outcomes and less in terms of scheme-based target fulfilment.

Incentives and Conditionality.

India can ascertain a lot from Mexico’s PROSPERA program, which was one of the first to implement a conditional cash transfer program. It was the first national conditional cash transfer program targeting extremely poor households while integrating basic health, education, and nutrition.  Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programs provide cash to poor households in response to the beneficiary fulfilling specific conditions such as attendance of children in schools, or attendance at health clinics, participation in immunization and the like. CCT schemes have been positioned as instruments that directly impact consumption and income. This is an important dimension in an era of widening inequalities and the growing realization that the response of poverty to economic growth is much lower in countries with a high degree of inequality, presently the case with India. As CCT are instruments that compensate for market-failures, a successful CCT program can contribute to a reduction in inequality and enhance investment in human capabilities and as a result, halt or reverse the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Actions: Cash transfer schemes along with conditionality should be advocated in the Indian context as a measure to enhance the efficiency of delivery of programs. It is well-known that the administrative cost of delivery of services in the country is high, there are substantial leakages, and inter-authority coordination is not optimal. It has been argued by some that the amount of Rs. 2,000 billion that is spent annually on food, fuel and fertilizer subsidies may be better utilized by providing cash directly to the beneficiaries or to the Gram Panchayats who in turn can implement schemes for the poor.

Simpler administration and implementation.

Most SP programs throughout India are characterized by a range of problems which reduce their poverty-reduction impact. There are different experiences with implementation across SP programs. This includes programs which have extensive coverage but are plagued by leakage of subsidies that limit the impact on the poor (e.g. PDS), others which are well targeted and increasingly well designed but face a range of implementation challenges (e.g. MGNREGA), and still others which appear to be well designed and with systems for better implementation (e.g. RSBY).

Actions: Reduce bureaucracy and simplify administration around the organization of SP schemes across the country. This would lead, firstly, to improved targeting of schemes towards its intended beneficiaries as opposed to multiple schemes targeting the same groups of people resulting in ineffective use of resources. Secondly, it will also take care of leakages.

Even if the necessary reorientation of the SP policy and program mix can be achieved, it will not directly improve outcomes for the poor unless it is complemented by a systematic overhaul of SP program administration, including institutional arrangements. Delineating clear lines of accountability accompanied by adequate staff and finances is of prime importance in the administration aspect. Defining appropriate institutional responsibilities for all links of the SP service delivery chain, and aligning the division of functions with the assignment of personnel and allocation of resources for program implementation will be crucial for improved implementation.

Furthermore, rapid and substantial improvements in the basic “nuts and bolts” of program administration and procedures are required. They should involve overhauling bureaucratic procedures which impede funds flow, strengthening the process for administrative and social accountability and transparency of service providers, a thorough modernization of program record-keeping and reporting arrangements (including computerizing systems and taking advantage of India’s IT prowess to look for “technology leap-frogging” such as boosting the use of Aadhaar (National ID-Cards)), building on improved rural-banking infrastructure to revamp payment systems, and building a strong culture of monitoring and evaluation (M&E). A culture of M&E will be essential to track implementation and modifying systems to improve implementation. Simultaneously, it will be beneficial to garner public and political support and demand social programming. This is because, the communication of progress and accomplishments will ensure constant support to the programs in the future, even beyond the current government administration.

Better marketing, awareness, and outreach.

Schemes on offer from the government are in abundance, however, their knowledge is limited to the communities that might require or benefit from them the most. Awareness needs to be brought about on an immense scale across the nation, especially the most vulnerable and least developed regions of the country.

Actions: An improved awareness and outreach strategy will involve several elements. Firstly, developing a better picture of what are the key information sources of the poor on public programs, including what types of information they get from which channels is vital. The limited survey information indicates that typical government media campaigns, web-based information, and information from administrative officials are not the channels through which the poor find out about programs.

The government should disseminate information about the schemes and provisions among the targeted beneficiaries and the ground level and grass-root implementation agencies by collaborating with other governmental bodies, NGOs, civil society, and private organizations. It will be essential to develop functional literacy for social security and SP awareness. Marketing and awareness of the schemes provided by the government can be undertaken through the medium of social start-ups, as has been the case recently.