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Three Ways to Fix India’s Broken Welfare System

Thousands of people have failed to receive COVID-19 relief measures because the welfare system was broken to start with – from ration cards to worker documentation. But some governments put up quick and temporary solutions, which should now be strengthened.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on India Development Review.

Throughout the lockdown, thousands of people shared on Mobile Vaani — a voice-based participatory media platform for rural and low-income communities — their stories on how relief measures did not reach them. These failures happened largely because systems for the delivery of public services were broken to start with. We must now look to solve these fundamental and systemic issues and uphold the rights of marginalised and disenfranchised citizens to livelihood, food security, nutrition, and health.

The immense lockdown crisis has created a window of opportunity to address these issues. Governments have put up quick and temporary systems, such as helplines for migrant workers, surveys to identify households without ration cards, and apps to identify workers for cash transfers. These fragile, rudimentary systems should now be strengthened to build robust systems for service delivery and social security, to ensure that nobody remains excluded.

We make the following suggestions based on years of evidence on how the welfare system has failed. All of this was brought to light on Mobile Vaani, through voice-reports from hundreds of thousands of people from the rural areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and industrial workers in Delhi NCR and Tamil Nadu.

Ration Cards

Although systems are in place to register families who do not have ration cards, or to update their ration cards, the process is not straightforward. Some states have online forms while others require the panchayat to verify or forward hard copy applications. During the lockdown, several proactive district commissioners asked their panchayats to conduct a survey to identify families without ration cards, and in some states, self-help group (SHG) networks were tasked with identifying such families. There is much merit in conducting this process via the panchayats even beyond the lockdown – with a rigorous survey every six months, to identify left-out families who need ration cards.

These surveys need to coincide with migration cycles, so that migrants can be enrolled and get benefits irrespective of where they are. In this regard, discussions around one-nation-one-card are encouraging, but there need to be deeper consultations in order to provide for families where one or a few members may migrate while others stay back.

When it comes to ration distribution, biometric authentication, which is the norm in most states, has been riddled with issues. This was thankfully suspended in some states during the lockdown, but we must still answer questions around re-registration of biometrics, alternatives to biometrics when they fail, and assistance to families fail to receive benefits due to technological issues.

Until we manage to improve technology design and build simple grievance redressal processes, biometric authentication should be uniformly suspended. Similarly, until exclusion errors are plugged, ration should be given to anybody who needs them and is willing to stand in queues for them. This has been widely recommended by many experts too. We must rely on people’s willingness to opt out rather than focusing on the ‘misuse’ of benefits by a few.

Worker Documentation

While cash transfers were announced by several governments for workers in different industries, the lists of workers eligible for these were woefully inaccurate and incomplete. By and large, whether for Provident Fund, Building and Other Construction Workers, or other welfare boards, employers or contractors are expected to declare their workers. But employers have a clear incentive to under-report or not report at all, to save on compliance cost, social security, and responsibility of worker safety.

During the initial stages of the lockdown, we saw many apps and helplines initiated to help workers register themselves for cash transfers. Later, migrant workers were allowed to register themselves for travel back home. The complicated registration process can be simplified. However, such systems provided an initial database of workers, their identity details, industries in which they work, and even employer details in some cases. These systems should be leveraged for worker-initiated enrolment for various social security schemes, as they put power in the hands of the workers rather than relying on declarations by contractors or employers.

Such lists can be continuously updated through awareness drives to familiarise workers with their rights, through registration camps organised by unions, and also by working with panchayats to maintain registers for both people moving out for work and those coming to their panchayats for work. These lists can also be used to facilitate inter-state integration of benefits, to ensure that social security benefits like health insurance and PDS reach the workers wherever they are.

Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) and Banking Services

Several cash transfers during the lockdown were initiated via the DBT system, but many people have had issues accessing them, due to fault-lines that have existed since much before the lockdown.

Many people did not even know they have Jan Dhan accounts. Some accounts were inactive because of incomplete KYC or broken Aadhaar linkages. These problems are not easy to correct without multiple trips to the bank — which again is not easy for many people, and even more so during the lockdown. Similar Aadhaar-related issues deprived people of disability and widow pensions, and the PM-KISAN benefits. People were also befuddled by complicated procedures. Some simply did not know how to apply for relief measures – including cash benefits for migrant workers or daily wage workers, which required different apps and documents. Even the simple lack of internet on their phones to fill out these applications added to the problem.

Some people were lucky enough to solve these issues, but still had trouble accessing the cash — bank branches can be really far, ATMs and rural customer service points have had frequent network connectivity issues, and biometric failure once again caused authentication errors. There were rumours that if the cash was not withdrawn quickly the government would take it back; these led to significant overcrowding at the banks, with flouting of social distancing norms.

In a country where cash is king and technology has not reached all corners, relying on digital payments alone can result in the exclusion of many. Banking correspondents and door-to-door cash delivery have a significant role to play in rural areas, especially to reach the elderly and disabled. Many sources of error can even be identified through the Aadhaar authentication and service agency logs, to proactively reach out to those facing errors in Aadhaar seeding, bank account details, frequent biometric failures that might need a re-registration, and so on. Here again, banking correspondents and decentralised panchayat-led enrolment drives can help.

Finally, financial literacy drives are much needed, especially to safeguard people against fraud — phishing is rampant, but so is service fraud by banking correspondents and kiosk operators. For instance, banking correspondents may underreport to customers the amount of cash that has been withdrawn from their accounts, by making false verbal claims that an inactive-account fee was applied.

To raise consumer awareness, technology modifications must be made to the POS devices used for cash withdrawal. For example, audio-enabled POS devices will allow consumers to hear what transactions are happening, why these transactions might be failing, and the recourse that they should take. With better awareness of these issues, consumers will be less vulnerable to fraud.

Three Steps the State Can Take

The issues we have highlighted are not new or unique to the lockdown, but they have been thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has not listened enough to the evidence that existing welfare systems are not working, especially for the poor, marginalised, and disenfranchised.

We suggest three critical elements for the government to focus on, to address some of the challenges mentioned above.

1. Effective communication

People should be better aware of their rights. Clear communication on how to avail benefits will help, as will strong communication against discrimination, fear, and communalisation. Further, since action for many measures is local, robust communication infrastructure is essential for the government to communicate to the panchayats and get regular status updates from them, as well as to communicate and get feedback from the field cadre across various departments.

2. Decentralised grievance channels

Helplines to listen to complaints related to PDS have been set up in many blocks across the country. These must continue after the lockdown, functioning in a decentralised manner, as the action required is local. Additionally, it is crucial that the locally present civil society is leveraged in supporting communities to register and follow up on these grievances. Civil society has helped the health system cope with the COVID-19 crisis; it has provided food and cash relief and raised community awareness, successfully demonstrating its relevance in expanding state capacity and being its eyes and ears to highlight pockets of exclusion. Civil society is indeed an asset that the governments must leverage more strongly.

3. Institutionalisation of social audits

As a society, we are riddled with inequalities across gender, caste, class, and religion, among others, which means that even the most well-designed welfare systems can fail. Only a strong social audit system can ensure that the systems work, benefits reach those who need them the most, gaps are plugged regularly, and the disenfranchised have opportunities to raise their voices if their rights are denied.

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Aaditeshwar Seth is the co-founder of Gram Vaani. He also teaches computer science at IIT Delhi. Systems built by Aaditeshwar’s teams at Gram Vaani and IIT Delhi have been used by more than 150 developmental organisations in India, Africa, and Afghanistan, and have influenced the use of ICTs for development within many international aid and development organisations.

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Vani Viswanathan is a development communications professional with more than 10 years’ experience in storytelling and campaign management for nonprofits and corporates. She is especially interested in the areas of gender and sexuality and their role in development and access to human rights. At Gram Vaani, she highlights stories of people in India’s heartlands and urban low-income communities through long-form writing and social media.