Originally Published 2020-08-19 10:00:06 Published on Aug 19, 2020
India: Time for rethinking social security

India celebrated its 74th Independence Day last week. Achieving political freedom from a prolonged reign of colonial rule was indeed a significant feat which was driven by a formidable mass-based freedom struggle. More importantly, the independence from the foreign rule heralded the beginning of popular sovereignty as independent India became a democratic polity. The introduction of parliamentary democracy laid the foundation of political equality which accords one man with one vote which has one value for choosing the political representatives.

But “a life of contradiction” that would mark the discourse of democratic politics in India was highlighted by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly. Such a contradiction emanates from the deeply embedded economic and social inequality that would have to co-exist with the political equality that Indian democracy promised. Ambedkar went ahead and warned that the perpetual existence of such a contradiction might endanger the very foundations of political democracy in India.

However, the impediments of deepening social and economic inequalities didn’t dislodge the existence of democratic polity in India. But such inequalities have undoubtedly diminished the possibility of realising freedom in the truest sense for a major section of vulnerable and marginalised sections in India. As they need to perennially struggle for basic means of survival, their political right to vote appears to be largely devoid of substantive impact on their lives.

Constitutional design

But the constitutional design as well as the imperative of democratic accountability have led to the formulation of certain measures to ameliorate the sufferings of these marginalised sections. The Indian Constitution ensures right to equality for all sections of people regardless of their social and economic vulnerability or strength. Article 21 of the Constitution also guarantees the fundamental right to life with basic dignity to all. The Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution also envisions a basic source of livelihood of the citizens of the country.

The administrative apparatus of the Indian state, which constitutes both the Centre and the States, have been obligated to roll out a social welfare policy regime for uplifting the economically vulnerable population from the scourge of poverty, deprivation and insecurity. Moreover, as the materially deprived sections constitute a major section of the society, they are instrumental for the electoral mobilisation of the political elites. Hence, a multi-dimensional social security measures became one of the major means through which Indian democratic state negotiates with its economic and social inequality since from the time of its inception.

However, the ongoing pandemic have once again reminded us of the abysmal level of deprivation and deep-rooted vulnerabilities that defines the lives of a substantial section of population in India. The massive health crisis has also brought to the forefront the glaring loopholes in the social security measures that aims at reducing the sufferings of these marginalised sections. The Covid-19 crisis have revealed two of the major challenges, amongst others, that have crippled the effective working of social security measures in India.

Exclusionary approach

One of the most prominent loopholes regarding the social security policy in India that got revealed during the Covid-19 is that it is largely exclusionary in nature which keeps a considerable section of needy population out of its purview. The prolonged lockdown and the pandemic have resulted in massive joblessness and livelihood crisis for the daily wage labourers largely in the unorganised sector. Under such circumstances, the food security schemes, although has been expanded considerably in this crisis, still had a limited impact to completely cater to the needs of all sections of people. The Food Security Act, 2013 seems to have been unable to touch a major section of people who were in dire need of food for survival. The lack of adequate documentation of the people who were entitled to the social welfare benefits made it largely exclusionary and inadvertently selective in nature.

Moreover, ground level corruption and ineffective implementation of the Public Distribution System (PDS) have further aggravated the problem. Apart from the possibility of mass hunger, the lockdown also revealed a massive lack of proper housing facilities for the migrant labourers working as daily wage labourers in various urban conglomerates in India. Though the Central Government has taken concerted efforts to bring universal ration card for effective reach of PDS benefits and social housing schemes for labourers, these measures appeared largely to be reactive and would require substantial amount of time for implementation.

Inadequate implementation

A reason for such exclusionary, delayed and inadequate implementation of social welfare measures can be attributed to the lack of humane imagination in policy making. First, the hurriedly declared lockdown and the unpreparedness of both the Centre and the States in dealing with the situation of the migrants show how these vulnerable migrant population remained at the margins of the priority of the governance ecosystem.

Furthermore, when the migrant workers crisis blew out of proportion during the lockdown, the priority of the government was to stop the march of migrant workers back to their villages. So, a major section of them were kept in shelters made by the government and provided them with necessities like food and shelter. But what evaded the imagination of the state is that apart from the economic crisis, there were other emotive factors behind the mass return of the migrant workers to their villages. The economic migrant who were stuck in the alien urban centres in the middle of the health crisis, wanted to go back to their native villages for getting the comfort and security of their family in such uncertain times.

Second, the government issued directives for maintaining social distancing in order to curb the spread of the disease. But it seemed to have skipped the attention of the policy makers that as a large section of people dwells in congested and overcrowded homes, social distancing might be an unachievable idea. It is true that all sections of people appeared equally susceptible to the disease. But it is the vulnerable sections who suffered much more in the pandemic due to lack of structural social security which is more sensitive to their needs.

Hence, the pandemic provides an opportune moment for the social welfare policy regime in India to undergo a paradigmatic shift in its approach towards policy designing as well as its implementation. Only a more inclusive and humane approach towards perceiving the need of social welfare can guarantee an effective way of assuaging the suffering of the vulnerable sections of the population. The present crisis once again has send out a crude reminder that unless social and economic inequalities are better managed in a more cohesive manner, the benefits of political freedom will be limited to a major chunk of Indian populace.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Weekly.

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Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...

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