Social security should be a rights-based approach: ILO India

ILO-India’s national project coordinator for SPF, Ranjit Prakash talks about importance of guaranteeing universal access to income and health, and the role of stakeholders

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Sonal Matharu | April 4, 2016


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Ranjit Prakash, ILO India
Ranjit Prakash, ILO India

In 2014, the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO) set foot in Odisha to guide the state in ensuring and extending basic guarantees of income and health to the poor and the most vulnerable through its joint UN project, ‘Social Protection Floor’ (SPF). Odisha became the testing ground for SPF which links exclusion and poverty, and leaves it to a country to decide the basic social security guarantees it should provide to its people. ILO-India’s national project coordinator for SPF, Ranjit Prakash, talks to Sonal Matharu about the importance of guaranteeing universal access to income and health, and the role of state and other stakeholders in ensuring the same.

Tell us about the SPF initiative. How does it attempt to achieve universal access to income and health?

The social protection floor is a joint initiative of the UN which the ILO is anchoring. Under SPF, ILO suggests social security guarantees which the government and policymakers must define in consultation with the stakeholders of the country. The country must also decide what should the minimum levels and elements of those two (income and health) be. SPF is an international instrument of the ILO and has been agreed upon by member countries (more than 180 countries), including India, in 2012.

Many programmes and schemes already exist in the country but there is a need to enable law to ensure that social security becomes a right for people. This requires multi-dimensional deliberations and discussions at the level of policy makers, bureaucrats, beneficiaries, etc. The stakeholders must understand the concept of SPF through dialogue and should agree to a minimum level of social security elements. ILO is not defining what SPF is. It is not saying what its elements should be. This is the beauty of this initiative.

There are wide variations in the states’ initiatives to ensure social security. How does ILO balance SPF advocacy on a countrywide scale?

We are talking of universal coverage of these guarantees, which means the centre has to take a call. Even in this federal setup, the centre has the power to legislate for each and every citizen of the country. That is why we first approach the central government. To demonstrate a model on pilot basis, we go to states depending on the level of social security existence there.
In India, we see a trend that policies and programmes are largely designed at the centre while implementation lies with the state governments. In some of the states, like in Odisha where we worked, the governments have their own social security programmes also. These may be inspired from the central design. However, we believe that the policy has to be initiated at the centre and all citizens must receive the guarantees ensured at the national level through parliament.

Why was Odisha picked for the pilot?

As one of the UN development action framework [UNDAF] priority states, in consultation with the erstwhile planning commission, Odisha was selected. Odisha is also a ‘bimaru’ state [the term denotes economically weaker states]. However, we realised that the state already has a good system of social security but legal entitlements are missing. We ran the SPF programme for about a year there and did not work in any specific district. Our purpose was to first familiarise the state with the concept of SPF and support them with evidence-based information. In the process, we also sensitised the media to reach out to people. We are conveying the message to the governments and other stakeholders that social security should be a rights-based approach; each person should have the right to employment and health.

What have been the results of SPF work in Odisha? 

We have undertaken a study on the request of the Odisha government to chart out what schemes already exist, what could be treated as social security provisions and what the government requires to do to expand them. The findings were very encouraging for the state government. It was observed that this kind of policy framework, that is, universal coverage of social protection, will require almost six-eight years covering one state. Considering all these factors and the socio-economic development of the state, the study has recommended that Odisha can move in the direction of social security. The study is being finalised.
ILO is not giving any specific recommendations to the state but we are giving them an idea about setting up a framework and a policy design to achieve the goal. The actual design has to be decided by the government itself in consultation with other partners.

How was the response from the stakeholders in running the programme?


We received support from all corners in Odisha – media, government, people’s representatives, trade unions, civil society organisations. We also managed to bring civil society organisations together to form a network on social security though it is at a very early stage. We have explained and convinced them to change their viewpoint from traditional understanding of social security, like simply believing in schemes, to policy and legal entitlements (what ILO is talking about).

In Odisha, more than 50 social security schemes exist. The state government is also contemplating a housing security scheme for construction workers. It has become the first state to set up a new department using the nomenclature ‘social security’. Till now state departments were using names like ‘social justice’ and ‘welfare’ that are limited to caste and community issues and do not deal with social security needs of the people. Schemes formulated by the ministry of social justice and empowerment are for scheduled castes or for other backward classes (OBCs). Schedule tribes (STs) fall under a different ministry. For social protection of children, you have to approach the women and child development ministry and the human resource development ministry. Given the current scenario, there is a strong need for coordination and convergence of several departments at the centre as well as the state level.
In Odisha, on our request, the government has coordinated a convergence meeting where chiefs of seven to eight departments meet to discuss their respective roles on SPF. Three rounds of such meetings have already been held.

Why is SPF stressing on guarantees?


Guarantees mean legal rights. As a UN body, we propagate to states that each and every citizen should have a right for social security, irrespective of changes in the leadership. The states can ensure that by enactment of proper laws and not by schemes and programmes alone.
Take the example of a construction worker. If he or she falls ill for 10 days, there is no income backup and no guarantee that he or she will receive the health support required. Despite having all healthcare facilities, a resident of this country does not have any guarantee or assurance that he or she will be provided need-based healthcare.

The ILO’s experience shows that states are eager to take SPF forward but the centre’s focus seems to be drifting away from social security schemes. How much space does ILO then have for SPF advocacy?

These are perceptional issues and I prefer not to comment. There are divergent views about the current government’s stand on MGNREGA and other social security schemes. MGNREGA has been a useful instrument to ensure economic security and as ILO we are happy with such enactments and their implementation. There will be issues at the policy level and implementation, but the fact that MGNREGA is a result of an enactment by parliament which empowers a worker of rural area to have employment guarantee during his or her unemployment days is important for us.

While MGNREGA provides right to employment, right to health remains a distant dream.

MGNREGA and right to education are good initiatives by the government. But there is no right to health. There are several schemes and hospitals throughout the country that have a good system of healthcare, but they do not guarantee healthcare. What we are talking about is already available through Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) but it provides some kind of health guarantee to only workers and that too those in the formal sector. Almost 94 percent of workers in India are in the informal or the unorganised sector. Moreover, out of the six percent workforce that ESIC covers, some employees are covered under other government schemes.
The government, along with other stakeholders, must decide what the minimum requirements in health security should be. Tripartite discussions must take place between the government, workers’ representatives and employers’ representatives. We believe the government will initiate appropriate measures to ensure these minimum social security guarantees – for income and health – to all residents of this country and not just citizens. They should follow the lifecycle approach. Even after a person’s death, the dependents must get some financial support from the state.

Is funding a challenge? MGNREGA work has been slow in the last one year and funding in the social sector has been shrinking.

Funding is one of the major challenges. One has to figure out where the money will come from and when. For instance, it has been seven years since the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, was passed, yet majority of the states have not started its implementation as financing becomes a major issue.

What kind of support can ILO provide to states in moving ahead with SPF?

ILO’s technical division can support the governments on providing evidence-based information on moving towards the framework of SPF. As part of SPF, we convey the message that it is the role of the state to ensure social security, so financing has to be collective which means collecting taxes from citizens and not from targeted individuals. Whether people receive the benefits or not they must pay for them. The state has the power to do so. Collective financing is the best way to arrange need-based funding for ensuring social security. 

Where do you plan to take SPF after Odisha?

On the basis of our Odisha experiment, a few state governments have requested us to hold similar exercises. That is a very positive development. We have already received two requests: one from Karnataka and the other from Uttar Pradesh. Based on our experience of Odisha, these states are seeking ILO’s technical support.
In UP our work has started this year in two districts – Kanpur (urban) and Jaunpur – on pilot basis. In line with the government’s request, we are collaborating towards an understanding of existing provisions for social security in the states, particularly these districts, and what the requirements are to ensure minimum guarantees. In Karnataka, the government was keen to know about the progress made in Odisha and how that could be replicated or adopted elsewhere. Since universal coverage of SPF is vast, particularly for a country like India, the states have asked us to begin with the informal workers.

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(This interview appears in the April 1-15, 2016 issue)

 

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