Achilles’ heel of social policy

Jairam Ramesh's criticism of NREGA highlights that a rights-based approach to poverty reduction cannot work without improving implementation

The clamour for the right to social pensions is another attempt to deal with the Indian state's inability to provide adequate social protection to its poorest citizens through targeted programmes. India's vulnerable continue to be excluded from social safety nets. The multi-layered problems with social welfare schemes can be summarised in one word: implementation. Implementation is the Achilles' heel of Indian social policy. But why can't the Indian state, with its colossal welfare apparatus, prioritise the poor and implement effectively? Some believe the problem is administrative discretion, which allows bureaucrats leeway to circumvent rules, impose red tape, and make side deals with select citizens. In this view, rights-based guarantees themselves will improve implementation — the bureaucracy can be coerced into compliance.

But a right alone does not create capability. We believe improving the access of the poor to services needs to both increase citizen demand and expand the capability to implement. Simplistic views that demand alone can stimulate capability underplay the organisational culture and complexity of public administration faced by those tasked with implementation. Bureaucratic bottlenecks may be a deliberate strategy to ease the queue for limited resources. Fiscal constraints, filing system delays, the slow speed of fund flows and weak staffing capacity may render the bureaucracy unable to effectively finance and administer legally mandated entitlements for all eligible applicants. Moreover, programme officials lack protection from administrative transfers. They possess limited expertise and information to verify, prioritise and solicit applications from the poorest. As a result, "street level bureaucrats" meant to manage and allocate welfare benefits have incentives to depend on political brokers. When eligibility becomes brokered, the costs of weak implementation are disproportionately borne by those who lack the money, socio-political capital or time to personally queue for services, pay middlemen or make deals with intermediaries to facilitate priority in accessing the welfare state.

Despite criticism by Jairam Ramesh, the rural development minister, on the nature of employment and assets created, NREGA is held up as an example of a rights approach to poverty reduction that accords dignity to the demands made by the poor, limits the role of administrative discretion and bypasses middlemen. However, these causal claims are contested. Wage payments remain erratic. In the absence of planning expertise, local governments are unable to generate enough employment projects for the rural poor. Meeting legislated mandates induces bureaucrats to under-report the mismatch between supply and demand for employment to avoid court cases and paying unemployment allowances.

A rights-based approach to pensions can only work for the poor if the state is able to both meet the inherent fiscal demands and engineer a responsive bureaucratic ecology. This requires administrative re-organisation and investments in implementation for three reasons.

First, social pensions are different from public works programmes. The need to do manual labour to receive wages deters the non-poor from seeking employment through public works. But pensions are pure transfers and so everyone wants one, especially if the cash amounts are large. Therefore, either one has to budget for everyone, or set criteria to exclude someone. But if you can exclude someone, you can exclude anyone. Eligibility decisions are fraught with tension and hence require immense sophistication and skills to implement.

Second, making pensions universal does not make the politics of paperwork redundant. The poor must prove they exist in the world of administrative records. Many suggest that the UID, once linked to bank accounts, can make universal pensions paperless. However, the majority of those on the Aadhar database already possess proof of residence. Those without documents rely on letters of introduction from an array of government staff and politicians to provide credibility to their claims of citizenship. Again, UID registrars have discretion in allowing such ID-less individuals to gain registration. The ministry of home affairs has frowned upon the use of introducers for security concerns. Thus, chances for those without any pre-existing identity documents to apply for Aadhar registration and pensions look dim.

Finally, universalising access to pensions does not change the incentives for administrators and citizens to depend on middlemen. Consider Delhi. Despite large budgetary allocations, firm political commitment, relaxed documentary and eligibility requirements, the slum-dwelling poor still face serious problems in proving residence and eligibility. Applicants rely on politically powerful middlemen to aid their quest for documents and pensions. Accessing such actors is too costly and cumbersome for the poorest and most marginalised sections of urban society. Even in a resource rich state such as Delhi, where the poor are excluded by the way eligibility determination is done, creating a universal right to pensions could yield perverse outcomes. Expanding the number of applicants increases the need to use social and political connections to jump the queue. The ultra-severe poor without connections or documents could face longer wait times and lower chances of receiving benefits compared to status quo. Exclusion could become worse if the criteria are poorly implemented, the power of brokers and the entrenched elite is unaddressed, and budget constraints on pensions are binding — all three of which are real possibilities.

An alternative approach focuses on bolstering capability to recognise and meet the claims of the poor by building on existing functional channels. For example, in Delhi, simple measures like organising enrolment or documentation camps in slums, whereby citizens can gain required paperwork and signatures from local area representatives, could expand access to pensions. Such fora reduce the costs faced by administrators in reaching the poor, while subsidising the costs of queuing for poor urban citizens.

Rights do not eliminate the need for administrative reform. Even if the government had funds for universal pensions, the mechanisms for pro-poor implementation would still be missing. Implementing a universal right requires changes in how the poor prove citizenship, access courts and apply for schemes; and in how bureaucracies are trained, funded and staffed. There is a larger concern here. By using the rhetoric of rights, without shoring up the commensurate resources to incentivise and enable their implementation, the state risks further delegitimising the rights discourse and disenchanting its own citizens. Without building legitimacy, rights-based approaches cannot fulfill their potential. Legitimacy can be built by getting things done right, not by rights alone. You can't legislate your way to good implementation.

Pritchett is professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Bhattacharya is a graduate student of public administration at the Kennedy School

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