Housing, sanitation, gas connections (Ujjwala), direct benefit transfers (DBT), income support (PM-Kisan) —were few of the welfarist programmes launched by the last government.
In their implementation, these schemes had ambitious targets, tight centralised monitoring and outreach resulting in an accelerated pace of activity. But they also brought to the fore deeply contested questions about the architecture of the welfare state, its functions and capability.
The effectiveness of welfare policy will rest on the government’s willingness to invest in building state capacity.
Building a competent welfare bureaucracy:
- Targeted programmes like PM-Kisan require bureaucrats to identify eligible beneficiaries. To do this, critical data like land records and socio-economic caste census needs to be regularly updated and disputes between claims of citizens and official records should be negotiated.
- Getting the DBT architecture right requires bureaucrats to engage citizens and coordinate across departments — a skill that Indian bureaucrats simply do not possess.
- Countries like Brazil and Mexico have invested in large cadres of social workers at the local government level to do just this. But in the rush to bypass bureaucrats through DBT and transfer cash directly into bank accounts, this crucial investment has been ignored.
The success of welfare programmes in Modi 2.0 will depend on willingness to recognise that building a competent welfare bureaucracy, even if it’s only task is to move money, will require empowering local governments with skills and resources.
Active citizen participation:
Responsive governments require active citizen participation.
Digitised efficiency risks casting citizens as passive recipients of government largesse rather than active claimants of rights.
Digitised welfare systems genuinely risk closing off spaces for citizens to complain, protest and demand accountability when rights are denied.
A balance needs to be struck between efficiency gains through centralised control and responsiveness through decentralised, citizen-centric governance.
With Ayushman Bharat, a significant step was taken towards an architectural shift in India’s welfare system, away from direct provisioning towards financing citizens and regulating private providers.
But can a state that struggles with routine tasks regulate a sector as complex as healthcare? The staffing requirement, in Uttar Pradesh alone, would amount to 10,000 employees.
Importantly, in a sector like health where predatory practices are rife, well-functioning government hospitals are a necessary check and balance. Regulation cannot be a substitute for investing in public systems. Ayushman Bharat must be complemented with a concerted focus on strengthening public hospitals.
Flexibility to States:
The multiplicity of central schemes has served to entrench a silo-driven, one-size-fits-all approach that is inefficient as it fails to capture state-specific needs.
- Addressing overlaps and complementarities within existing schemes needs to be checked.
- The World Bank’s social protection analysis calls for developing a national social protection strategy with a core basket of schemes that states can adapt to their needs.
- Greater flexibility to states was also recommended by the Niti Aayog’s chief ministers sub committee report in 2016.
Implementing these recommendations will require a radical shift in the role of the central government away from designing and controlling schemes to strategic thinking and supporting states.
Resolving India’s learning crisis:
The newly-released national education policy emphasises the urgent need to ensure all students achieve foundational literacy and numeracy. This needs to be adopted and implemented in mission mode.
India doesn’t need new schemes, rather it needs consolidation and balancing between competing welfare strategies. Getting this right will require significant investments in state capacity.