Why we need social welfare in India


Biraj Patnaik

is among the leading activists in the Campaign for the Right to Food in India. He is currently advising the Supreme Court in Delhi on these issues.

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

Social Policy and Programs in India

Poverty is ubiquitous in India. Millions of children suffer from malnutrition. That is why the prevailing opinion, especially abroad, is that the Indian government does not care for those in need. There has been an ambitious social policy and numerous large-scale social programs for years. However, the effect of these measures is limited - mainly because there are massive problems in implementation.

A garbage collector scoops up water on a rubbish dump. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Despite economic successes in recent years, there are still massive social upheavals in India. Compared to other countries in South Asia, India has even fallen behind in terms of social indicators since the early 1990s. Even Bangladesh has overtaken India in some areas. According to official figures, 46 percent of Indian children suffer from malnutrition or malnutrition, which is by far the most in the world. More than half of Indian women have anemia and almost a third of children are underweight at birth. According to the state's National Family Health Survey, the number of malnourished children could be reduced by just one percent between 1999 and 2006 - and that in the years with significantly high economic growth.

Even more ironically, even though India produces enough food to support itself, chronic malnutrition persists. Even more: India has been exporting grain such as rice and wheat for years. In other areas, however, India's record is unimpressive. According to the planning commission, around a third of all Indian citizens live below the poverty line. Hygiene is also a problem. United Nations data shows that only every third Indian has access to their own toilet. Many are forced to defecate in the open air.

A wealth of social programs and fundamental rights

Little known is the fact that India has an abundance of social programs in all areas from nutrition, work, health and education. A total of around 66 central government programs are funded. In addition, there are state, county, and community initiatives. According to official information, the government spends around 2 percent of gross domestic product on social programs. If you add the contributions from the federal states and municipalities, the amount increases to 7 percent. In the OECD countries, however, expenditure in this area is almost twice as high on average.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All) initiative is India's flagship project in the field of education LINK and costs the government the equivalent of 2.4 billion euros annually. The expenditure on agricultural subsidies, including guaranteed purchase prices for agricultural products and the distribution of inexpensive food to the needy, is the equivalent of 12 billion euros.

Apart from the financial restraint in recent years, there was a trend in Indian social policy after the Congress Party came to power in 2004: the adoption of laws that guarantee central fundamental rights. These include the right to education, the right to food, the right to work, the right to information and the right of citizens to compensation and rehabilitation in the event of land acquisition by the state. Land ownership rights for India's indigenous people, the Adivasi, were also enshrined in the Forest Rights Act.

These fundamental rights have constitutional status. Before that, they were merely Directive Principles of State Policy, which, unlike fundamental rights, are not enforceable. This is a courageous step in social policy - not just for India, but globally, because in many countries the tasks of the state are being continually reduced. Indian politics also seem to run counter to developments in the industrialized nations, where the welfare state is being eroded step by step.

In India today there are government programs that support the needy in almost all areas of life. These include free health care LINK and school education LINK, pension payments for the elderly, widows and the disabled, the construction of private toilets, housing programs for the rural population, housing for the homeless in the cities, free lunch for school children, allowances for pregnant women and a free cooked meal for any child under the age of six.

The fact that the social indicators have hardly improved in the past decades despite the many initiatives is mainly due to the problems with the implementation of the programs. The responsible authorities lack responsibility and transparency, and there is also a massive problem of corruption, because control mechanisms usually only exist on paper. In this context, however, it must be viewed positively that laws such as the right to information and the anti-corruption movement of 2011 and 2012 LINK are increasingly encouraging citizens to protest against financial leaks in government programs. Innovations such as public hearings or social audits, in which information about government programs are made public and discussed, have also increased transparency.

The right to food, the right to life

To understand the opportunities and challenges of social programs, let's look at the example of the National Food Security Bill. The law from 2013 is intended to guarantee the food security of the Indian population, because despite the world's largest storage of almost 60 million tons of rice and other grains per year, malnutrition and hunger are still a major problem in India.

Against this background, the leading civil rights organization People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) turned to India's Supreme Court in 2001 to enforce the right to food. The procedure is now considered to be a worldwide precedent, as the judges have issued more than 150 relevant orders to date. This includes programs such as food aid but also job creation measures. The Supreme Court has consistently confirmed that state welfare benefits fall under Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life. It is noteworthy that the court interprets the right to food as part of the right to life, although the Constitution does not explicitly define it as a fundamental right.

After more than ten years of legal battles and as part of the nationwide Right to Food Campaign, the Indian Parliament finally passed a law in September 2013 called the National Food Security Bill. It includes special assistance for almost all age groups. For newborns and toddlers, for example, there are Integrated Child Development Services (analogously: Integrated Services for the Development of Children, ICDS), from which pregnant women and nursing mothers also benefit.

Specifically, this means that young mothers are supported in feeding their children exclusively with breast milk up to the age of six months. To ensure this, the women receive the equivalent of 75 euros in total, and they are also entitled to a cooked meal or other food aid every day. Children between the ages of seven months and six years are also guaranteed a daily hot meal prepared in 1.6 million ICDS centers nationwide. Families who cannot take advantage of this receive the food directly. Schoolchildren up to intermediate level also receive hot meals every day as part of the Mid Day Meal Scheme (analogously: lunch program, MDMS). The measures mentioned apply to all citizens. So there is no need to submit an application or to prove the neediness.

In addition, the law guarantees almost 820 million people, around 67 percent of the Indian population (75 percent of them in rural areas and 50 percent in cities), the supply of subsidized food. Each individual is entitled to at least five kilograms of rice, wheat or millet per month at a price of three rupees, two rupees or one rupee per kilogram. For a family of five, that's 25 kilograms of rice, wheat or millet per month for 75 rupees (0.90 euros), 50 rupees (0.60 euros) and 25 rupees (0.30 euros) each. Around 20 million particularly poor households receive ten more kilograms of grain than a total of 35 kilograms.

The National Food Security Bill is one of the most extensive laws in the world on the right to food. It goes back to a strong public campaign, a series of high court orders and ultimately the political will of the Indian government to bring about changes in favor of the poor.

Problems with funding and implementation

The concerns about this legislation are twofold. On the one hand, it is about the financial burdens, especially times in which the world is still struggling with the consequences of the economic and financial crisis and growth has also weakened considerably in India. On the other hand, problems with implementation.

The law has been criticized as a waste of public money, something that a country like India cannot afford. But that is not the truth. According to the government, the annual costs for the program amount to the equivalent of around 15 billion euros. But that's less than one percent of the gross domestic product. In addition, even before the National Food Security Bill was passed, India invested almost 12 billion euros annually in food aid and similar services. The total expenditures in this area are also only slightly above the expenditures for the defense budget LINK zu Mehta. In addition, the long-term costs to society would be much higher if the widespread problem of malnutrition and hunger in India were not addressed.

In addition to the financing, the implementation of the law is a headache. One of the reasons for this is the massive problems with the Public Distribution System (analogously: Public Distribution System, PDS), under whose roof subsidized food has already been distributed in the past. Critics fear that the intentions of the National Food Security Bill will be undermined if the distribution system does not work. This is a valid objection, because estimates estimate that annual financial losses under PDS amount to almost 40 percent. However, states such as Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh have recently shown that the system can be reformed and made efficient through greater transparency and control as well as the use of modern technology.

The greatest challenge, however, goes beyond the implementation of the National Food Security Bill, because it is about a holistic approach to the problem of malnutrition in the country. Support for young mothers, free meals, and subsidized cereals can help alleviate the problem. However, it is unlikely that this will have a significant impact on the social indicators of child malnutrition. This is because areas such as access to clean drinking water, hygiene or adequate health care, which are also directly related to the problem of malnutrition, remain in a deplorable condition.

The largest job creation program in the world

The experience with the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a government job creation program for rural areas, passed in 2005, is very similar. The program guarantees a member of a poor family 100 days of paid employment per year, which are paid at 100 rupees per day (1.20 euros). If the government cannot offer a job, applicants receive some kind of unemployment benefit. The annual costs for the program amount to the equivalent of 4.5 billion euros, with expenditures falling in recent years. Regardless, MGNREGA now covers the entire country, making it the largest job creation program in the world.

In the 2013/2014 financial year (April to March), the law created employment opportunities for more than 83 million people. However, the average number of working days is less than 50 instead of the recommended 100 days. Nevertheless, MGNREGA has a positive effect on wage developments in rural areas. In addition, the proportion of women and relatives from particularly poor families is high.

Despite numerous control mechanisms, corruption is also a major problem with this program. The sometimes massive irregularities and financial losses have now even been investigated by the Supreme Court. In order to curb corruption, public hearings or social audits are now mandatory. In order to further improve transparency, all data relating to MGNREGA will be posted on the Internet. Some states have also introduced biometric IDs to curb abuse.

Another bottleneck is the late payment of wages to the workers, who usually only receive their money after four or five months. This puts a lot of people off and could explain the program's dwindling popularity. In addition, there has been increasing criticism in recent years that the program has hardly created lasting values ​​in the villages, such as the improvement of agricultural productivity or infrastructure. This should be improved in the future through a decentralized planning of the projects, in which the management of natural resources and the long-term securing of people's livelihoods will be the focus.

Regardless of this, India is at a crossroads in social policy, because despite the use of considerable financial resources and an abundance of programs, the results achieved do not reflect the effort. However, there is room for optimism, because public awareness of social problems and one's own basic rights is increasing. That's good because a lot is at stake for India's development.