‘Welfare’ in transition

Budgetary cuts in social programmes mark the beginning of a much-needed change

veenarao

Veena S Rao | October 23, 2015



There has been abundant criticism following the budgetary cuts imposed on social sector programmes in this year’s budget, with socialist evangelists terming them as an attack on the welfare state. Understandable, because we continue to measure our commitment to the welfare state in terms of budgetary allocations and expenditures, and not on proper utilisation and outcomes. To what extent these budgetary cuts will be compensated by tax devolution arithmetic of the 14th finance commission is not yet clear. However, several development experts and practitioners view this new development as the beginning of an overdue, much-needed transition within the ‘social sectors’ of government.

Independent India had no option but to start as a welfare state with a planned economy, to build up its abysmal economic and human capital. For a country with a meagre per capita income of  '249.6, a literacy rate of 18.33% (with female literacy at 8.86%), male and female life expectancy at 26.91 and 26.56 years respectively, a death rate of 21.8 per 1,000, infant mortality rate of 158 per 1,000, and maternal mortality at 20 per 1,000 live births, the welfare state and social development schemes were a governance imperative. [All data from the first plan document.]

The planned economy pursued a vigorous agricultural, industrial and social development agenda. The first five-year plan placed high priority on creating sound public health structures, based on the James Bhore committee report, 1946. Regarding the nutritional status of the population, the plan referred to the findings of India’s first diet surveys conducted between 1935 and 1948, namely, inadequate consumption of protective foods, good quality protein, minerals and vitamins, and that “in terms of average income it would hardly be possible for more than 30% of the population to feed themselves on an adequate scale”. Shockingly, despite several social development schemes of the welfare state, they remain valid even today, going by the NNMB Repeat Surveys of 1988-90, 1996-97 and 2011-12, which have almost identical findings regarding calorie-protein and micronutrient deficit in people’s diet. Clearly, our welfare state has not been able to crack our under-nutrition problem.

1975 was a watershed year for India’s welfare state. Our GDP was by now '1,321 at current prices; life expectancy had reached 52.58 years (female: 52.24 years); literacy rate had risen to 43.6% with female literacy at 39.3% (Census 1981); maternal mortality dropped to 468 per 1,00,000 live births, and infant mortality to 140. It was the year of the fifth five-year plan, the 20-point programme, the minimum needs programme and the ICDS. It was also the year of the Emergency, which badly required parallel populism through the platform of development.

The 70s and 80s saw the maturing of democracy and the establishment of welfare programme delivery systems. But side by side, a rent nexus had also started evolving between the political class, budget handlers, and service providers. Service delivery was indeed happening and people’s lives were improving gradually, but leakage mechanisms were also getting entrenched. Today, almost seven decades after independence, we see the full-blown rent nexus, well past the danger mark, and most welfare programmes and institutions in a state of irretrievable collapse.

A glaring failure of the welfare state has been in improving the nutritional profile of our population, even though health indicators, particularly for women and children, have steadily improved during the last decade, as consistently brought out in recent surveys – SRS 2010, the NIN Report 26, 2012. One of the reasons for this could be that national health programmes in India have periodically reviewed themselves, and programme gaps, if not completely, are progressively addressed. For example, the national family welfare, child survival and safe motherhood programmes were amalgamated in 1997 into the reproductive and child health (RCH) programme, which in 2005 was upgraded into the national rural health mission (NRHM), addressing several gaps such as institutional delivery, ambulance services, adolescent anaemia, and an additional health volunteer. This has been one of the main factors for improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates.

The same periodic reviews have not happened within the ICDS or the orphan nutrition sector that still remains without a national programme to address undernutrition. In this void, the ICDS is wrongly or rightly perceived as the guardian of the nation’s nutritional well-being (without a programme to back it), and bears the brunt of our stagnant malnutrition situation across all age groups, confirmed by NNMB 3rd repeat survey, 2012.

The ICDS has never reassessed itself or made any vital need-based adaptations since its inception in 1975, even though the demographic and socio-economic profile of rural India, and the character and aspirations of its target groups have changed substantially since then. Its several critical gaps remain unaddressed, both conceptually and programmatically. The reality in the more developed parts of rural India is that private nurseries, primary schools and medical clinics are mushrooming, and it has become a matter of status and pride for families at the edge of the poverty line, or having just stepped out of it, to send their children not to anganwadis, PHCs or government schools, but to private institutions and private doctors. In this scenario of changed social aspirations, and unchanged, entrenched corruption, the anganwadi in many parts of the country has become synonymous with ghost numbers and vast leakages. Repeated evaluations of the ICDS over the last two decades have pointed out its chronic deficiencies and coverage deficits. The CAG performance audit report of 2012-13 presents its semi-collapsed situation. The 50% budgetary cut may not adversely affect actual ICDS operations on the ground. But, yes, its fictional operations and the rent nexus will surely receive a massive jolt. This is just one example of the welfare state crippled by the rent nexus. 

Apart from providing services for public good, welfare schemes have several other uses that make them attractive to all: they assuage the conscience of governments, when acting unethically, or against public or national interest; they provide employment to vast numbers of the semi-literate, low-skilled work force, especially in rural areas, in the form of cooks, helpers, attendants, etc., the closest they can get to is a ‘government’ job; they provide opportunity to NGOs, genuine or spurious, to partner/piggy-back welfare schemes, which also boosts rural employment; and the higher the welfare state’s financial allocations for development, the larger will be the supervisory governmental machinery, adding greater numbers to the bureaucracy, advancing promotion prospects, lengthening hierarchies, deepening leakages, and expanding rental cronyism. 

However, during its prime, the welfare state did indeed create the enabling environment for laying the foundation for modern India, for its social and economic progress, however relative. Our latest socio-economic indicators speak for themselves. Per capita income for 2012-13 is '5,729 per month; male and female life expectancy has risen to 65.48% and 67.08% respectively; literacy rate is 70.04%, (female literacy 65.46%); maternal mortality and infant mortality rates have dropped to 178 and 47 respectively (SRS 2010). The momentum for economic growth and human development can only accelerate.

The budget cuts suggest that this would be an ideal time for the welfare state, particularly its programmes with diminishing or nil returns, to reassess and redesign themselves, in accordance with the needs and aspirations of the poorest layer of present-day Indian society. The NITI Aayog appears to be in a process of rationalising social development schemes and financial parameters. Perhaps it would also be appropriate to revise their objectives, interventions, and delivery mechanisms and match them to contemporary socio-economic requirements and demand.



(The column appears in the August 1-15, 2015 issue)

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