Throughout the duration of the lockdown, thousands of people have 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, and it is imperative that we now re-engage on these fundamental and systemic issues to 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. The governments have put up quick and temporary systems, such as helplines for migrant workers, commissioning surveys to identify households without ration cards, and apps to identify workers for cash transfers. We suggest that 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 for long-term and resilient solutions that go beyond addressing the immediate COVID-19-related issues. These are based on years of evidence of failed systems brought to light on Mobile Vaani, through voice-reports from hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and industrial workers in Delhi NCR and Tamil Nadu.
1. Ration cards
At the enrolment stage itself, 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 institutionalising this process via the panchayats, 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 needs to be deeper consultations in order to build in provisions for families where one or a few members 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 urgent attention is needed on questions around re-registration of biometrics, alternatives to when biometric failure happens, and assistance to families facing denial of benefits due to technological issues. Until we build robust strategies to manage this socio-technical interface with improved technology design and simple grievance redressal processes, biometric authentication should be uniformly suspended. Similarly, until exclusion errors are not plugged, universal PDS should be adopted by all states, as 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.
Rumours that if the cash was not withdrawn quickly the government would take it back, led to significant overcrowding at the banks, with flouting of physical distancing norms. | Picture courtesy: Mobile Vaani2. 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.
“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, and later for travel registration for migrant workers to move back to their homes. Notwithstanding the complicated registration process that can be simplified, such systems have 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 be used to also facilitate inter-state integration of benefits, to ensure that social security benefits like health insurance and PDS reach the workers and they are never left stranded again.
The role of civil society in times of crisis
3. Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) and banking services
Several cash transfers were initiated via the DBT system for lockdown-related relief measures, 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, or that the accounts were inactive because of incomplete KYC or broken Aadhaar linkages, problems which 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 kept people from disability and widow pensions, and the PM-KISAN benefits. People were also befuddled with complicated procedures or simply did not know how to apply for relief measures such as cash benefits offered by states 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.
Those lucky enough to have these issues sorted faced problems in getting their hands on the cash—bank branches can be really far, ATMs and rural customer service points have had frequent network connectivity issues, and biometric failure again emerged as the most common reason for authentication errors. Rumours that if the cash was not withdrawn quickly the government would take it back, led to significant overcrowding at the banks, with flouting of physical distancing norms.
“In a country where cash is king and where technology has not reached all corners, relying on digital payments alone can result in the exclusion of many.”
In a country where cash is king and where 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 reach those in rural areas, especially 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 to especially safeguard people against fraud—phishing is rampant, but so is even service fraud by banking correspondents and kiosk operators. Suitable technology modifications of the POS devices for cash withdrawal can go a long way in raising consumer awareness. For example, simply audio enabling the POS devices so that consumers can hear what transactions are happening, why these transactions might be failing, and the recourse that they should take, can inform the consumers, so that banking correspondents, or similarly ration shop dealers in the case of Aadhaar enabled authentication for PDS, are not able to bluff consumers with false excuses.
Three steps the state can take
The issues we have highlighted are not new and unique to the lockdown; they existed before, but were thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has not listened enough to the evidence of existing systems not working, highlighting its lack of empathy, especially for the poor, marginalised, and disenfranchised.
We suggest three critical elements that the state can focus on, to address some of the challenges mentioned above.
1. Effective communication
Awareness about rights and clear communication to people on how to avail benefits are much needed, as is the necessity for strong communication against discrimination, fear, and communalisation. Further, since the action for many measures is local, robust communication infrastructure is essential for the administrative departments to communicate to the panchayats and get regular status updates from them, as well as 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 the 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 of gender, literacy, 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, any gaps are plugged regularly, and the disenfranchised have opportunities to raise their voices if their rights are denied.
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, where collectively more than two million people have directly touched their platforms. Several elements of their work have also been adopted by government departments in India for scaling up, and have influenced the use of ICTs for development within many international aid and development organisations.
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. She also gives her time to TARSHI, a nonprofit that works on sexuality and well-being, and runs an online literary magazine called Spark.
This article was first published in IDR Online
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