By Pranjal Rawat:
In the summer of 2013, with a bunch of brilliant students from India and China, I traveled to the villages of Himachal Pradesh to study how social schemes work. During the course of the Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes (PEEP) Survey, we covered eight villages in the districts of Kullu and Sirmaur. Himachal Pradesh is a beautiful state that is well known for its strong social security schemes, thus the problems that Himachal faces might be very important for states who intend to catch up later on. We were not just welcomed by the community but also taken into the fold with much warmth. This was evident when we even helped prepare a village feast and served around two hundred people amidst much merry making. We lived with them, ate with them and shared our stories in return for what they had to say. We spoke to more than two hundred households formally and interacted with far more informally.
One thing that appeared very clearly from our discussions with Block Development Officer (BDO), local officials and the villagers is a clear lack of flexibility in social security schemes. Welfare schemes must be more state or even village centric. Be it the Right to Education or Right to Food, social security schemes must be thought from the ground up. The schemes often overlook the geographical conditions and landscape and are not flexible enough to be efficiently implemented. For example, in case of Mid-Day Meals in hilly states, policy makers must consider the difficulty the head master faces in proceeding pulses and vegetables from the market that is very far away. Sometimes, he has to travel over 30 kilometres, since only rice is supplied via the PDS shop. Procuring firewood in some villages of Himachal is incredibly difficult for more than six months due to cold season. In any case, it is not the headmaster’s job to worry about getting firewood or foodgrains. His job is to be there for the students.
One of the most important schemes of the UPA government was Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This law helps provide millions of poor Indians with work and security in harsh times. Today, under the NDA government, there is talk about revamping the scheme and improving it. This is very much welcomed, however, policy makers should bear in mind the sheer numbers involved in this scheme. In the year 2014-2015, this scheme is active in 645 districts and covers more than 77,000 villages. It employs 219.8 lakh men and women, and roughly gives about 30 days of employment to each applicant.
In MGNREGA, we found the policy somewhat inflexible as can be seen from the following instances:-
Firstly, the kinds of assets that the villages really need such as ‘protection walls’ do not fall within the ambit of what is permissible work. There are well-defined boundaries when it comes to sanctioning work. In light of the recent damage caused by the rain, there is need for ‘special shelves’ along with protection walls. However, there is concern that this may not fall within the permissible work. Work is not sanctioned in favor of plantations. There is a need for ‘paudha ropan’ in Himachal. There exists a ban on sanctioning ‘pakka roads’ that needs to be reviewed. One major problem that hurts farmers to no avail is pests. Animals such as monkeys damage the crop and leave nothing for the farmer. A local NGO named People’s Action for People in Need (PAPN) suggests that pest protection should be made a part of ‘permissible work’.
Secondly, identical MGNREGA work in the block headquarters and a village high up in the mountain do not incur identical costs. Work sanctioned in Banjar (block headquarter) costs much less than what it costs, say in the village of Sajwar. For example, building of a protection wall in the plains needs lesser funding since the raw material and manpower are available nearby. However, once a similar project is sanctioned high up in the hills, there is a large amount of transport cost involved. In this case, both labor and raw material are not easily found. The government is overlooking the terrain and still sanctioning identical amounts of money for projects that have differential costs.
Thirdly, the computer database is largely in the hands of the Central Government. If a mistake is made at the Block level then it is very difficult for the BDO or concerned officials to rectify it. There is a long-winded process for rectification of any mistake, even a genuine error, and there is also fear of political punitive punishment arising out of the mess. A lot of projects are suspended or left hanging at the end of the financial year due to these technical difficulties.
Lastly, local knowledge about the village/land/society is not utilised. A lot of valuable and deep insights await policy makers if they unearth this local wisdom. The BDO of Banjar district rightly pointed out that a lot of collaboration is required between the Centre, State and Local officials for successful implementation of these schemes.
In Pension scheme, we observed a lot of problems in Sirmaur district. Unlike Kullu district, the pension was not being delivered at their doorstep. It is very sad to see such old and weak people trudging up across mountains just to receive a pension of Rupees 500 a month that they are entitled to. Unlike the other States where bank or post office may be near and easily accessible, in Himachal, distances in the mountains are harder to traverse and sometimes it may even takes six to seven hours to collects one’s pension.
Let us now observe the food security schemes. Some policy experts have been suggesting to stop all such welfare schemes and instead just give people cash, and let them buy what they need. A majority of the respondents were against any cash transfer scheme and preferred the Public Distribution System (PDS) to continue. It is difficult for the villagers to use banking services since banks are located very far from the villages and road connectivity is inadequate. At the banks, especially Punjab National Bank, the people complained of long queues and frequent electricity/computer breakdowns that prevented them from accessing their accounts easily. Respondents also told us that it was difficult for them to shift to other banks such as SBI because of complex procedures. Since every bank account is linked from father to son, it becomes difficult for the son to carry out this activity. All this reinforces the fact that banking infrastructure is neither intrinsically (internal structure, capital, services) functional nor extrinsically (travel time, distance, transportation) functional to facilitate the cash transfer scheme.
One objection long raised by policy experts is that, if we were to universalise (provide to as many as possible), the poor will object to the rich who have become eligible for the rations. This is meant to be a ‘political constraint’. However, what was observed was contrary to this. In the Harijan hamlets, there exist very poor people holding (Below Poverty Line) BPL or even (Above Poverty Line) APL cards. Compare this to the Rajput hamlets where people hold Ultra-poor cards or the Antodaya Cards. Hence, the real political constraint is the objection to exclusion (being left out) and not inclusion (let in by mistake).
Social security schemes must be more flexible to take into consideration the demographic and geographic differences that prevail in India. Policies will have varied effects in the plains and in the hills. Social policy experimentation and testing can be used to determine the nature of impact a policy for all is likely to have in different states. One size fits all approach has to be abandoned. Special provisions for special regions and climates must be added to the Food Security Bill. An inquiry should be conducted to evaluate the difficulties a state has in inputting data into the central database. There is a lot of scope for improvement.
It is evident that social action is required. There is a lot of caste and class conflict that is obstructing the path of potent public action. The exclusion of the Harijans from both work and information is not only detrimental to them but also to society as a whole. Even within this segmentation of society, there is substantial oppression of women, especially in the lower castes. There is no doubt that relative to other states, the people of Himachal enjoy a higher standard of living. They have food to eat and homes to live in, but for further development to take place, the people must unite on a common agenda. Social inequality is hampering the progress in Himachal and limiting the potential of its functioning social security schemes.
Social Security is not awarded the funding it deserves. For every rupee spent on social security efficiently, the return is much higher in the future. Every healthy and well-educated adult will contribute ten times more than a malnourished and illiterate adult over the course of their lives. The morbid fascination with growth rates continues to deviate the focus of expenditure from the real issues. Subsidy to the poor must not be considered as a burden to the country, since it enables development and growth in the future and more importantly, it is an end in itself.