Understanding the role of state in improving welfare of its citizens
With the rise of neoliberalisation in the late 1970s and 1980s after failure of the laissez faire model, state intervention came to be viewed as a necessity to avoid market failures (Chang, H., J., 2001). State intervention in improving the welfare of its citizens has to be analysed by the policies formulated by the state. For a political democracy, like India, to escape the economic and social dimension of democracy was never an option. Dr. Ambedkar has even stated that social and economic democracy are the tissues and the fiber of a political democracy and the tougher the tissue and fiber is, the greater is the strength of the body, which in this case is the state (Dreze, J., 2005) Citizenship, hence goes beyond subscription to certain democratic rights and extends to economic and social citizenship as well. Essentially meaning that political, social and economic democracy are inextricably linked. In order to understand the efficiency of a state, hence, would mean evaluating all these dimensions.
Extending the notion of social democracy envisaged by Dr. Ambedkar, the role of state institutions in achieving the same becomes important. Evaluating the development of a state, in this sense, goes beyond looking at the rate of growth of GDP. On one hand, it was established by the failure of neoclassical Market mechanisms in order to achieve development is problematic as it talks about utility being achieved for an individual by reducing the utility of the other (Pareto optimality) and a much better way as will be discussed below is. According to Amartya Sen, the notion of capabilities (the ability to choose) and freedom need to be inclusive within the discourse of evaluating development. Sen elaborated that the expansion of freedom of individuals and the removal of unfreedom should be what states should strive to achieve (Sen, A., 1999) The link between social development and individual freedom is rather direct as what people can essentially achieve depends on various factors such as the economic opportunities, basic education, political liberties, health infrastructure etc. (Sen, A., 1999). Freedoms are not only the end of development, Sen argues are also the means to achieve development (Sen, A., 1999) The five types of freedoms as has been elucidated by Sen in his book Development as Freedom i.e, political freedoms, economic facilities, social protection, transparency guarantees and protective security help in enhancing the capabilities of an individual. Enhancement of capabilities of individuals is hence crucial measurement to assess how developed a state actually is. The role of the state should then be to address the inequality in substantive freedoms by creation of social opportunities to achieve social equity and justice. Public policies, in this sense, should facilitate in creating these social opportunities in order to achieve expansion of capabilities and substantive freedom of an individual to achieve overall development. Creating social opportunities has a direct impact on capabilities and quality of life which enhances the productive capabilities of an individual which inevitably leads to economic growth which is equitable.
Having established that freedom and development go hand in hand before, assessment of how developed a state can be done by looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of the interventions/policies made by the state. Efficiency in terms of evaluating whether the interventions are enhancing the freedoms of people or not. Effectiveness of the interventions refers to free agency of the people (Sen, A., 1999).
Taking cognisance of the theoretical understanding of state intervention being central in the neoliberal discourse, the next section would discuss an intervention made by the Indian government to enhance the food security in the country in 2013, i.e the National Food Security Act. Keeping in mind that to evaluate progress of a state and how effective the state really is, depends on enhancing the capabilities of people. Hence, the evaluation of the efficiency of the NFSA to enhance the capabilities has been discussed below.
Evaluating the effectiveness of NFSA, 2013 through Hunger Watch Survey; Findings and reflections
To assess the efficiency of public policies to improve overall welfare of the people and drawing on the above discussion, a survey was conducted over the course of the month April-May 2022 in the state of Delhi. To record the experiences related to hunger experienced during the pandemic, 7 interviews were conducted as part of the hunger watch survey. The questionnaire was developed by the Right to Food Campaign, India to essentially record the effectiveness of the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
NFSA which was enacted on July 5, 2013, is meant to be a paradigm shift from earlier based welfare approach (through Public Distribution System and Targeted Public Distribution System) to rights based approach (NFSA, 2013). Food security being an important determinant to enhance capabilities of an individual, can provide an opportunity to alleviate economic and social vulnerabilities that the citizen might face due to economic and social disadvantages. . Under the National Food Security Act, 75% of the rural population were entitled to subsidised food grains and up to 50% of the urban population at the national level. As a whole nearly 67% of the entire population of the country is eligible for subsidised food grains under the NFSA (Ghatak, S., 2022).
During the pandemic, along with the NFSA, the government also introduced a scheme, i.e, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which extended 5kg of free food grain per person per month to the beneficiaries under the NFSA (Damodaran, H. & Agarwal, S., 2022).
The occupation the respondents of the survey were primarily concentrated were auto rickshaw drivers, e-rickshaw drivers and security guards. The findings were interesting to note, with certain similarities observed in every response and certain dissimilarities as well. When it came to food consumption it was noted that not a lot of variation was noticed before and after the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. Which meant that the food availability in the household remained the same despite a significant decline in income of all the respondents surveyed. However , two of the seven respondents which did not issue ration cards did face difficulties in terms of purchasing food items and cooking gas and in comparison to before lockdown had to compromise on the quantity of consumption as well.
The above finding does inform us that the public provision of food grains under the NFSA were somewhat successful, when compared to buying food items from the market. The magnitude of vulnerability, especially those working in the informal sector economy had to face during the pandemic, did leave most of the population economically much worse off.
Another interesting finding which was observed was the lack of awareness when it came to the entitlements which the respondents were to receive under the AAY (Antyodana Anna Yojana) card. The respondents often not did not seem to know about the One nation One ration card plan, where migrant workers could apply in order to receive the entitled foodgrains from essentially any part of the country. When asked if they have registered themselves on the e-shram portal, most of them were unaware of the benefits they are entitled to receive once they register themselves on the database. The objective of the portal, as stated by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, is to improve the efficiency of the social security services for the unorganised workers by sharing of information of the unorganised workers (registered under the e-shram portal) with relevant stakeholders which include various central or state ministries/ organisations (Ministry of Labour and Employment). The lack of awareness of how this would benefit them long term not only reflects lack of educational attainment but reflects shortcomings at implementation of the policy.
This is not to take away the merits of the NFSA, the survey also reflected that food security to a significant extent was achieved and the respondents did seem somewhat satisfied with the delivery aspect as well. NFSA, in spirit, does envision India to be a hunger free nation. But an important question to ask is whether enacting an act to benefit the welfare of the people is enough. Last mile delivery involving various middlemen is an important consideration which one has to keep in mind since the time the policy is in the formulation stage itself.
Extending the right to life under Article 21, the right to food may come within the ambit of living with human dignity. Drawing from the theoretical discussion and empirical findings, it can be noted that evaluating the effectiveness of NFSA can be said to have benefited the beneficiaries to some extent. (in terms of alleviating hunger). However when it comes to efficiency in terms of enhancing capabilities i.e, freedom of choice, can be interpreted to be limited. Most of the respondents not being aware of the exact entitlements and provisions under the NFSA and of how it would potentially benefit them, severely limits the choices the individuals have in terms of consumption of food. Some of the respondents being eligible, for issuing ration care, faced hurdles in issuing a card due to lack of relevant documents and Aadhar card authentication.The freedom of the potential capability (in terms of food security) which could be achieved, gets severely undermined. Another observation is reflective of the number of people being excluded from being beneficiaries under the NFSA primarily due to outdated data, i.e, Census 2011. The Census 2011 on one hand suggests a certain number of beneficiaries, however the actual beneficiaries required in 2020 would be much more than the Census 2011 figures (Ghatak, S., 2022).
When it comes to the respondents registering themselves on the e-shram portal, along with unawareness of how it would directly benefit them, it also has to be kept in mind of who has access to technology today. The technological disadvantage that the unorganised workers face (often not knowing how to function a smartphone/register themselves online) and other technical challenges such as Aadhar-linked mobile numbers/ biometric identification at common service centres cannot be ignored (Paliath, S., 2021). Thus, creating an “unfreedom” due to the addition of technological disadvantage which might limit in accessing the provisions/benefits provided by registering at the centralised portal.
It can be hence said that NFSA, in spirit, intends to provide equity in terms of access to food, however, it has at best created utility/benefits for certain individuals at the cost of others. NFSA, in terms of enhancing capabilities of an individual by providing food security, has its shortcomings as a policy, especially in terms of implementation.
To conclude, the essay attempted to reflect on the role of the state to enhance capabilities of an individual. State intervention in ensuring equitable growth is a necessity that one cannot ignore, and the intervention, in turn, helps expand capabilities and freedoms of an individual to ensure social opportunities to be provided to all. The hunger watch survey, prepared under the right to food campaign, was used as a means to evaluate the efficiency of public policy. The findings suggested that even though the delivery of the provisions of subsidised food grains was satisfactory according to respondents, reflecting on whether the respondents were actually benefiting in terms of enhancing their capabilities through these policies, is what should be of concern. Along with evaluating the number of beneficiaries under the NFSA, it is important to evaluate the quality of delivery of NFSA, as well.
- Chang, H., J.(2001). Breaking the Mould; An Institutionalist Political Economy Alternative to the Neoliberal Theory of the Market and the State.United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. pp. 1-11
- Sen, A.(1999). Development as Freedom. Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 1-145.
- Dreze, J.(2005). Ambedkar and the Future of Democracy. Pp. 1-7.
- NFSA, 2013. https://nfsa.gov.in/portal/NFSA-Act
- Ministry of Labour & Employment. About e-Shram Portal. https://eshram.gov.in/e-shram-portal
- Paliath, S.(2021). India’s e-Shram registration portal for workers is facing an unexpected obstacle: Aadhaar. TheScroll.in. https://scroll.in/article/1011766/indias-e-shram-registration-portal-for-workers-is-facing-an-unexpected-obstacle-aadhaar
- Damodaran, H. & Agarwal, S.(2022). PDS has had a spectacular run. That may not last. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/pds-has-had-a-spectacular-run-that-may-not-last-7888894/
- Ghatak, S.(2022). Eight Hurdles the ONORC Has to Cross Before It Can Be Called ‘Successful’. The Wire. https://thewire.in/rights/eight-hurdles-the-onorc-has-to-cross-before-it-can-be-called-successful
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.