The wide-ranging vulnerability induced by the current pandemic has heightened global interest in shock-responsive social protection (SRSP), i.e. adapting social protection (SP) for addressing the impacts of large-scale natural disasters, economic shocks, pandemics and political crises. Figure 1 shows the common SRSP strategies which policymakers can consider for addressing covariate shocks.
Figure 1. Adapting social protection systems for crises
Until recently, India’s SP system was largely limited to the formal sector. While there is still a considerable degree of fragmentation and multiple federal schemes operate in silos, there is a growing policy recognition for consolidation and convergence backed by integrated systems.1 The last 15 years witnessed a growth in rights-based entitlements and systemic reforms to build a more inclusive system.2 These encompass the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Public Distribution System (PDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and National Social Assistance Program (NSAP). These programs show a greater degree of institutionalization in terms of legal and/or policy backing, benefit design and implementation processes, resulting in improved coverage.
The COVID-19 crisis has seen unique innovations involving piggybacking on India’s most extensive safety net, the PDS, for shock response, reiterating its relevance for SRSP. For instance, the Government of Bihar piggybacked on the PDS (although with challenges and swift course corrections)3 to provide a one-off transfer of Rs.1000 to ration-card holders during the COVID-19 crisis. This experience needs to be systematically documented, as it will play a crucial role in informing future preparedness actions. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh (UP)4 and Odisha5 piggybacked on the extensive network of fair price shops (FPS) to distribute food grains (in lieu of in-school cooked meals) to beneficiaries of MDM, while Delhi6 and Kerala7 used it to distribute ‘essential item kits’. Leveraging existing delivery systems helped save crucial time and reduce errors in distribution.
PDS also demonstrated flexibility by expanding vertically (topping up entitlements) and horizontally (increasing coverage). Entitlements for over 80 crore ration-card holders were doubled8 and eligibility was relaxed to include non-ration card holders 9 such as migrant workers10 and some families who are above the poverty line11. On March 26th, the government announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) for the period of April to June, further extended till November 2020, for providing free ration (5 kg of rice/wheat and 1 kg of pulses), in addition to the pre-existing entitlements of PDS beneficiaries12. Several states announced their own relief packages, which supplemented this quantity of ration and/or expanded the basket of items. 13,14 Under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, free rations were extended to migrants from May till August. The pandemic and the consequent exodus of migrants also hastened the speed of ensuring inter-state portability of ration cards through the ‘One Nation-One Ration Card’ (ONORC) approach, though challenges persist.
Although the PDS played a critical role in alleviating the vulnerability induced by the pandemic, several inadequacies of the system were exposed as well. The challenges posed by the PDS need to be addressed in order to respond better to future crises. The most fundamental criticism of the current PDS regime is the exclusion of eligible beneficiaries. This exclusion is layered and hierarchical, shown in Figure 2. The use of outdated 2011 population census figures to determine the extent of the coverage of the scheme has excluded more than 100 million people from the system.15 The second layer of exclusion emanates from the mandate of linking Aadhaar with ration cards.16 Both these shortcomings represent the plight of vulnerable non-ration card holders who suffer disproportionately because of the difficulty in identifying them for delivering immediate relief. As the ONORC does not address the previous two layers of exclusion, it is plagued by their associated drawbacks too.
Figure 2. The PDS Exclusion Hierarchy: Introducing ONORC without accompanying measures for addressing the deeper issues of large-scale exclusion is merely touching the tip of the iceberg
Another welfare program that can learn from the PDS and respond better to future shocks is NREGS, which came to the rescue of many distressed workers in the wake of the widespread job losses induced by the current pandemic. 17 While this surge in demand resulted in significant expansion of the program, spatial mapping of the newly issued job cards across rural districts with their population shares of outmigration and poverty revealed substantial unmet demand. 18 At the same time, the lack of a national urban employment guarantee (UEG) scheme left the urban poor unprotec#srsp18ted. The long overdue UEG is finally under consideration19, and its timely implementation will bring urban informal workers within the ambit of wider crisis management. However, the success of both NREGS and UEG depends on the ability of the states to generate sufficient employment opportunities corresponding to the surging demand. Mobilizing local authorities for identifying such opportunities is a prerequisite to yield tangible results, especially during crises. Another important issue is that of inadequate compensation. NREGS wages are lower than the minimum wage for agriculture in many states.20 Times of crisis unquestionably demand a top-up over the guaranteed wage. The recent guidelines on streamlining NREGS wage payments21 is a welcome move, however, the government must still consider switching to cash payment during difficult times at least in remote areas. NREGS therefore presents a case for both horizontal and vertical expansion.
In conclusion, the detrimental consequences of delayed SP response22 witnessed during the current pandemic only strengthens the case for instituting an emergency response framework across these schemes to fast-track assistance deployment when it is needed the most. The starting point for making SP shock-responsive is to map existing SP systems in terms of their coverage, adequacy and comprehensiveness: to understand the reach of routine SP systems, their capacity to deliver relief adequately and the range of risks covered. An efficient way to do this is to transition from multiple independent program databases to an Integrated Social Protection Information System. Additionally, the shortcomings of existing systems that hinder effective coverage during crises demonstrate that successful adaptation of such systems for emergency response requires them to be resilient in the first place. Given that the case for short-term universalization of SP during a crisis rests on fiscal considerations and political will, ensuring minimum exclusion errors in identifying beneficiaries becomes the most effective strategy for increasing the resilience of existing SP systems and improving the coverage of SRSP systems. Flexible delivery mechanisms form yet another critical element of a resilient SP system.
Adapting SP for accommodating the expanded pool of vulnerable population prompts the need for a National Social Registry backed by comprehensive and dynamic socio-economic data in order to cater to those outside the purview of routine SP (urban poor, migrants). Moreover, vulnerability and needs assessments23 can be leveraged to prioritise regions and households for better risk preparedness and response24. Expanding routine coverage in areas frequently affected by shocks along with appropriate monitoring and evaluation can serve as ideal pilot studies for iterative, evidence-based design tweaks.
SRSP contingency framework must also be incorporated within the ambit of the formal policy, so that readily deployable Standard Operating Procedures are in place in times of need25. This includes an assessment of the fiscal space for shock response in terms of assessing alternative sources and channels of contingency financing26. A final ingredient of successful SRSP systems relates to a context driven approach. Decentralized decision-making enables policy response to be based on local context, which is extremely relevant for crisis management. Hence, states and their local governments need to be empowered, especially financially, and be involved in formulating SRSP as they know the ground realities and local vulnerabilities most thoroughly.
The current context of COVID-19 has and will throw up many challenges, particularly by amplifying already existing inequalities. In these times, developing strong SRSP systems is paramount to mitigate such adverse impacts.
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2. Dreze, J. & Khera, R. (2017). Recent Social Security Initiatives in India. World Development, 98, 555-572. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.05.035
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19. Bloomberg. (2020, September 12). India plans to extend rural jobs guarantee scheme to cities, to address urban unemployment. Financial Express. https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/india-plans-to-extend-rural-jobs-guarantee-scheme-to-cities-to-address-urban-unemployment/2072309/
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25. UNICEF. (2019, December). Programme Guidance: Strengthening Shock Responsive Social Protection Systems. https://www.unicef.org/media/63846/file
26. O’Brien, C., Holmes R. and Scott, Z., with Barca, V. (2018) ‘Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems Toolkit—Appraising the use of social protection in addressing largescale shocks’, Oxford Policy Management, Oxford, UK.
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