A PEEP at Another India: An evaluation of entitlement programs

By Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera with the PEEP Team*

(From our Bulletin Archives: originally published in June 2014)

LogoPerhaps you have heard of the Sahariyas, who used to be known in official jargon as a “Primitive Tribal Group”. Most of them are scattered on both sides of the border between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where they eke out a living from the shrinking forests, tiny plots of arid land, and menial labour. Their living conditions are among the most miserable in India, or in the world for that matter.

We first visited Baran district, on the Rajasthan side of this area, in 2002. At that time, Baran was in the news for a wave of starvation deaths among the Sahariyas. Nearly 50 children were said to have died of hunger, and many Sahariya families were surviving on sawaan, a wild grass.

Vivid memories of that visit include being puzzled at where the Sahariyas lived. There were no roads or even paths to reach their settlements and we often had to cross dry rocky riverbeds to reach them. Public facilities were virtually absent. Forced to fend for themselves, the Sahariyas survived from the sale of minor forest produce, earning barely ten or twelve rupees every other day. Exploitation was rampant – they were paid one-fifth or less of the market value of the products they gathered. Sandy hair, distended stomachs and other signs of child undernutrition were everywhere.

[Box 0: The PEEP Survey]The PEEP Survey took place in May-June 2013 in twenty districts – two of the poorest districts in each of ten states.* In each district, we selected a Block where a local organisation was available to facilitate the survey. In each Block, four villages were selected at random, among those with a population between 500 and 1,500. In each of these 80 villages, 30 households were selected at random from the official list of NREGA Job Cards. In the time available, the survey teams were able to locate and interview 1,926 of these 2,400 households.In addition, we interviewed 12 pensioners in each village, selected at random from the official lists of old-age and widow pensions. Further, we verified the entire lists (3,789 names) case by case, to ascertain whether the pensioners were alive and eligible and whether they were getting their pension.The survey was initiated by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) with support from the Indian Council of Social Science Research, and conducted by student volunteers from Delhi and elsewhere.* Katihar and Muzaffarpur (Bihar), Rajnandgaon and Surguja (Chhattisgarh), Kullu and Sirmaur (Himachal Pradesh), Dumka and Latehar (Jharkhand), Mandla and Shivpuri (Madhya Pradesh), Nandurbar and Osmanabad (Maharashtra), Koraput and Sundargarh (Odisha), Baran and Sirohi (Rajasthan), Dindigul and Villupuram (Tamil Nadu), Chitrakoot and Lakhimpur Kheri (Uttar Pradesh)

The government, however, was in denial mode. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot faced a lot of criticism for saying that sawaan was actually quite tasty. Kheer made of sawaan, he claimed, was a local delicacy prepared on festive occasions.

Baran hit the headlines again ten years later, when many Sahariyas who worked as bonded labourers were found and rescued. This time, the state government – under the same Chief Minister – swung into action and launched a slew of relief measures. When we revisited Baran in 2013, the impact was visible. All Sahariya families had an Antyodaya ration card with special entitlements: 35 kg of wheat per month along with 2kg of moong dal, 1kg of ghee and 2kg of edible oil. There were functional anganwadis in the Sahariya villages and mid-day meals at school. About half of the households we sampled had worked under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in the previous twelve months, and nearly half of all widows and elderly persons were getting a pension. This was not the end of poverty by any means, but these entitlements did make a difference. Starvation, for one thing, had disappeared.

On the other side of the border, in Madhya Pradesh, we did not find anything like the same improvements. In Shivpuri, adjoining Baran, the public distribution system still ran in the traditional mode – less for the benefit of the people than for that of corrupt dealers and their political patrons. When a Gram Panchayat functionary was confronted with evidence of extortion from NREGA workers, he just said “So what? I am not the only one who does this, it happens in all Gram Panchayats”. The Sahariyas were still mired in a daily struggle for sheer survival.

The PEEP Survey

Baran and Shivpuri are among the country’s poorest districts – the sort of places that were vividly evoked by the journalist P. Sainath in his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, published in 1996. In those days – less than twenty years ago – public facilities in these areas were few and far between. Most people were left to their own devices. Some of them enjoyed a bountiful environment, and perhaps their lives had a freedom and zest that has been lost today. But many others lived in the shadow of hunger, insecurity and exploitation, with no public support in their hour of need. Many villages had no school, no health centre, no ration shop, no approach road, no post office, no telephone, no electricity, and perhaps even no convenient source of drinking water. Where an anganwadi existed at all, it was often closed. There were no public works around, and no pensions for widows or the elderly.

To claim that the situation has radically changed would be a serious delusion. Yet, the picture today is very different from what it used to be. Not only have public facilities steadily expanded, people are also forming new expectations of them and demanding more. Slowly (much too slowly!) but surely, the principle of social responsibility for people’s basic needs is taking root.

During the last ten years, student volunteers have been conducting regular field surveys in the country’s poorest districts, sometimes looking at schools or health centres, sometimes at NREGA or the Public Distribution System. Over time, we have seen a great deal of change, often – not always – for the better. The ground realities, at any rate, are strikingly different from the picture of doom and gloom that emerges from the mainstream media. It is a good thing, of course, that the media swiftly blow the whistle when things go wrong. But what tends to be lost in this stream of “drain inspector’s reports” is the quiet progress that many states are making in providing essential facilities to their citizens.

The last in this series of surveys, nicknamed Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes (PEEP), took place in May-June 2013. This survey, initiated by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), was conducted in ten states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. In each state, the survey focused on two of the poorest districts and covered five entitlement programmes: the Integrated Child Development Services, mid-day meals, the Public Distribution System, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and social security pensions. This essay conveys some of the insights of the PEEP survey.

Among these insights is a startling diversity of achievements across the country. Some states, like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, have a good record of efficient and equitable public services across the board. Others, like Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, are incorrigible offenders. Most are somewhere in between – improving in many fields, stagnating or even regressing in others. Behind this diversity, however, there is an important pattern, well-illustrated by Baran and Shivpuri’s contrasting experiences: states reap as they sow, in the sense that serious efforts to make things work often produce results. Even states with an embarrassing reputation for corruption and misgovernance, like Odisha or Chhattisgarh, have shown that change is possible. Recent experience also shows that it is mainly through democratic struggle that advances have been made.

Anganwadis Come to Life

More than sixty years ago, in 1951, the eminent scholar G.C. Sen aptly described child development services as “a ladder to a healthier and happier nation”. Indeed, early child care has a critical and lasting influence on our health, skills and wellbeing. Alas, this foresight was not widely shared, and it is only much later that India initiated serious action in this field under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).

Under the ICDS programme, anganwadis (child care centres) are supposed to provide a range of nutrition, health and pre-school education services to children below the age of six years, as well as to pregnant or lactating women and adolescent girls. In fact, according to Supreme Court orders, all children below the age of six years are entitled to all ICDS services. In reality, the programme is still striving to achieve “universalization with quality”.

In 2004, the Focus On Children Under Six (FOCUS) survey examined the status of ICDS in six states: Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The first three were found to have reasonably active and effective anganwadis. The last three, however, were described as “dormant states”, where the programme was yet to take off. An extreme case of apathy was Uttar Pradesh, where anganwadis were barely functional. For good measure, children’s food was supplied across the state by a single contractor – a shady operator who brazenly violated the Supreme Court ban on private contractors to milk the ICDS programme.

The good news is that some of these dormant states are waking up. Not all of them – Uttar Pradesh is still snoring. But Rajasthan and especially Chhattisgarh have made serious efforts to revamp the ICDS programme, with significant results. For instance pre-school education activities, highly valued by parents but rarely seen at the time of the FOCUS survey, now take place in many anganwadis. Health services such as child immunization also seem to be in much better shape today, with a little help from the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) – village women who have been trained as frontline health workers.

It was a pleasant surprise to find relatively good anganwadis in Odisha – a state not known for exemplary governance. There were clear signs of real efforts to create a friendly environment at the anganwadi, both for the child and for the anganwadi worker. In most of the sample villages, anganwadis were relatively well-equipped – some even had mini-toilets especially designed for small children. Many anganwadi workers were active and well trained, not just for routine work at the anganwadi but also for home visits. Children had uniforms, helping to convey that the anganwadi is not just a parking lot but a centre of learning. And indeed, many anganwadis had simple pre-school education activities such as games, songs and counting.

ICDS still has a very long way to go. But at least there are now good reasons to feel hopeful about the programme. Indeed, more and more anganwadis in north India are beginning to achieve standards that were thought to be possible only in a few states like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. Few programmes are more important for the future of the country and of Indian children.

Good Marks for Midday Meals

Is school just a place for imparting formal knowledge, or does it have a larger purpose of protecting children’s basic right to education, health and nutrition? This purpose is all the more important as parents often lack the resources, time, power or knowledge to safeguard the wellbeing of their children. India’s midday meal scheme is part of this vision of a caring school environment for every child.

Box 1 Anganwadis: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Photo 1: Many anganwadis in north India used to look like this relic of the past, found in a remote village of Latehar district in Jharkhand: a deserted, run-down building with no-one around other than a placid goat. Photo 2: In the same areas today, many anganwadis now look much better, and open more regularly. The walls have been nicely painted in this anganwadi of Purni Palheya village (also in Latehar District), to help children learn counting, alphabets and simple words. Photo 3: In states like Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, most anganwadis are lively and well-equipped. The anganwadi worker is treated with dignity: for instance, she has a uniform and is paid on time (Nandurbar District, Maharashtra).
Anganwadi Jharkand
Photo 1: Another PEEP at India

 

Improvement in infrastructure JHP07J AWC, Purni Palheya, Latehar (Jessica Pudussery)
Photo 2: Another PEEP at India
Monitoring growth: Weighing children in HP
Photo 3: Another PEEP at India

 

The scheme has come a long way since November 2001, when the Supreme Court (in PUCL vs Union of India and Others) ordered all state governments to provide cooked midday meals in primary schools. It made a slow start, with very frugal “meals” such as turmeric rice or ghoogri (sweetened boiled wheat). Bihar took nearly five years to put the programme in place. But year after year, the midday meal scheme has been making headway – kitchens were built, hand pumps were installed, the menu was improved, and reluctant upper-caste parents were persuaded to shed their prejudices against Dalit cooks or inter-dining. (Even when parents are reluctant, children sometimes eat together behind their backs!)

The benefits of India’s school meal programme are now well established from a series of studies. Aside from improving school attendance, child nutrition and even pupil achievements, there are other benefits as well. For instance, the programme employs more than two million rural women as cooks and helpers. Most of them are Adivasis, Dalits, widows or other disadvantaged women with few opportunities for dignified employment.

In most of the sample states, schools were closed for the summer holidays at the time of the PEEP survey. However, some insights about the midday meal programme emerged from the household interviews.

First, the good news: midday meals are in place almost everywhere. Even in the most deprived and remote villages of Bihar and Jharkhand, parents confirmed that their children were getting a cooked meal in the local school. Further, their view of the midday meal programme was generally positive: for instance, 61 per cent were “satisfied” with the quality of the food being served. Almost all were in favour of the continuation of the programme.

Box 2: An Egg a Day…Eggs are an excellent source of animal protein for young girls and boys. In fact, they contain all essential nutrients except for Vitamin C. Alas, most children in rural India rarely get a chance to eat an egg. But this is changing, thanks to the midday meal programme and ICDS.Indeed, quite a few states have started serving eggs in schools and anganwadis. In Tamil Nadu, where midday meals go back to the 1920s, school children now get an egg every day, along with sambar and rice. In Odisha, when children were asked what they get to eat at school, they often exclaimed “eggs!” This is because eggs (served twice a week in Odisha) are seen as a special treat. With good reason: at home, children’s diets are sorely lacking in variety and nutrition. According to the National Family Health Survey, only 5 per cent of adult men and 3.5 per cent of adult women eat an egg every day.Jharkhand recently joined the list of states where eggs are on the school menu. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, however, powerful upper-caste lobbies have succeeded in keeping eggs out of midday meals. This obstruction is hard to justify since there is no difficulty in having a vegetarian option (say, a banana) for children who prefer not to eat eggs. Surely vegetarianism is about abstaining from certain food products, and not about enforcing the abstention on others.Shortage of funds is another reason why eggs are often dropped from the menu. More money for eggs at the local school and anganwadi is one of the best investments India can make.

There were other hopeful signs of qualitative improvement in the midday meal scheme. Most schools have a kitchen, a cook, and basic equipment. The weekly menu is usually displayed on the wall, along the scheme’s catchy logo. And the menu seems to be improving year after year. For instance, many states have started serving eggs with the midday meal, at least once or twice a week. In Tamil Nadu, children get an egg every day!

These positive trends, however, are in danger of being reversed as food prices go through the roof and financial allocations fail to keep up. How are cooks supposed to prepare a nutritious meal with as little as Rs 2.5 per child per day (aside from 100 grams of rice or wheat)? When prices shoot up, teachers are often constrained to beg for credit from local shop-keepers, or even advance money from their own pockets, to keep the midday meal going. Aside from being unfair, this breeds resentment against the programme among teachers. Unless midday meal budgets stay ahead of price increases over time, all the good that has been achieved under this scheme may get undone.

Turning the PDS Around

Most families in rural areas of Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh enjoy a well-functioning Public Distribution System (PDS) which supplies them with cheap food – not just wheat or rice but also other essential items such as pulses and edible oil. Talking to them, one realizes the importance of the PDS for poor people. Aside from helping them to eat better, the PDS brings some security in their precarious lives. Sometimes their attachment to the PDS even took the form of exaggerated statements, such as that of an old woman in Tamil Nadu who asked “how will we survive if the ration shop closes?”

Box 3 What About Cash Transfers? Cash transfers are often proposed as an alternative to the Public Distribution System. In an earlier survey (PDS Survey 2011), covering nine states, we sought people’s views on this. More precisely, we asked women and men from BPL families how they would feel if the PDS were replaced with equivalent cash transfers paid into their bank accounts.Responses varied with the context. For instance, where markets and banks were close, people were not always averse to cash transfers. Where the PDS was functioning well, a large majority were opposed to cash as an alternative. Poor people were especially attached to the PDS.Overall, two thirds of the respondents preferred food over cash. In the PEEP survey, again, two thirds of the respondents preferred food.More interesting than this mere tally were people’s reasoned explanations. Common concerns about cash included the danger that cash might be misused, hassles at the bank, and the unreliability of local markets. “Local traders will raise prices if the PDS closes”, observed Palaniammal in Tamil Nadu. Others feared that cash transfers would not be revised as prices increases. As Ratan Lal in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh, put it, “the government will increase the amount only when elections are due”. Rampant delays in cash payments of old-age pensions and NREGA wages also gave people little confidence that cash transfers would be regular and timely.Interestingly, the common argument that “men will drink the cash” was rarely invoked. When it was, it was often by drinking men themselves. Giving people food instead of cash is often seen as “paternalism”, but when people themselves are afraid of cash being misused, is it paternalistic to give them what they prefer?It can be argued that we were not asking the right question. If the PDS is replaced with cash, it would be possible to give people more than the cash equivalent of their current food entitlements, because the government would save a lot of money in storage and transaction costs – so goes the argument. So the PEEP survey also asked people how they would feel if the PDS were replaced with cash payments worth twice as much as the market value of their current food entitlements. Even with double the amount, many – not all – felt that cash payments were not an adequate substitute for the PDS.

Looking beyond model states, the PDS is the terrain of a fierce battle for change. In many states, particularly in north India, large quantities of PDS rice and wheat used to end up in the black market. Whatever was distributed at the ration shop was often unpredictable, overpriced, or of poor quality. Under public pressure or otherwise, many state governments have initiated PDS reforms, with varying success.

An earlier survey, carried out in nine states in 2011, found clear signs of improvement: “below poverty line” (BPL) households had received 84 per cent of their PDS entitlements during the three months preceding the survey. Similar findings emerged from the PEEP survey. But there is a catch: rampant corruption continues under the APL (“above poverty line”) quota. In some states, like Uttar Pradesh, most of the APL quota seems to head straight for the black market. Many APL households don’t even expect any rice or wheat from the PDS, and treat their ration card as a “kerosene card”.

Even BPL households are still being roundly cheated in some areas, especially in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and even Maharashtra. In Dhadgaon Block of Nandurbar District in Maharashtra, the sample households got barely one third of their PDS entitlements during the preceding three months. In one village, Kelapani, they were able to buy their rations only once over a whole year.

The situation in Chhattisgarh was not much better just a few years ago. Unlike Maharashtra, however, Chhattisgarh has made serious efforts to plug leakages and fix the loopholes. The management of ration shops was transferred from private dealers to collective institutions such as Gram Panchayats, cooperatives and women’s self-help groups. The coverage of the PDS was expanded, with clear entitlements (e.g. 35 kgs of rice per month at Re 1/kg), enabling people to put pressure on the system to work. Records were computerized. Grievance redressal facilities were put in place and corrupt middlemen were sent to jail. In this and other ways, the PDS was “turned around” within a few years.

Other states have followed in Chhattisgarh’s footsteps, with similar results. An interesting example is Odisha, especially the “KBK region” (undivided Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput districts), which used to be known mainly for starvation deaths. Today, the KBK region has a near-universal PDS, which seems to work quite well. A recent study found that PDS cardholders in Koraput get 97 per cent of their rice entitlements under the PDS, a finding consistent with the PEEP survey.

Much remains to be done to extend these gains across the country, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh that show little willingness to reform themselves. Putting an end to the “APL scam” is the most urgent task. The rollout of the National Food Security Act is an opportunity to put this house in order.

The NREGA Crisis

In the PEEP survey’s “bad news” register, the chief item is the sorry state of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Of the five entitlement programmes covered by the survey, NREGA is the only one that seemed to be getting worse rather than better.

The early years of NREGA were a time of hope and progress. Within a few months of the act coming into force, on 2 February 2006, millions of workers found employment at NREGA worksites. Women who had never earned any income of their own were able to earn the minimum wage at their doorstep. Gram Sabhas came to life in areas where they were rarely held before. Creative institutional and technological innovations, from social audits to a path-breaking Management Information System (MIS), were introduced. Corruption was fought step by step. Despite all the hurdles, there was steady improvement year after year. The programme seemed to have a real chance to survive and thrive.

During the last few years, however, NREGA has gone downhill. Employment levels have declined, sharply so in some states. NREGA expenditure fell from nearly 0.6% of GDP in 2009-10 to 0.3% or so in 2012-3. After growing quite rapidly for several years, wages were frozen in real terms and delinked from minimum wages. Long delays in wage payments further reduced the real value of NREGA employment for rural workers. Other entitlements, such as basic worksite facilities and the unemployment allowance, continue to be denied to the vast majority of NREGA workers.

Box 4: NREGA: The Awareness Problem…Anyone who is reading this is literate and has access to many sources of information – newspaper, books, friends, the internet, and so on. It may be difficult for us to appreciate how hard it is for many others to know their rights, let alone defend them.The helplessness of rural workers is a big hurdle for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The whole idea of NREGA is to give people entitlements that they can demand as a matter of right – work on demand, minimum wages, payment within 15 days, and so on. To this day, however, NREGA workers know little about these entitlements.Further, people’s awareness is not rising over time, judging from a comparison of the PEEP survey with an earlier survey of NREGA workers. Even in Rajasthan, NREGA’s stronghold, people seem to know less today than they did five years ago.Awareness Levels: 2008 vs 2013

Proportion (%) of NREGA workers who are aware of various entitlements
Five statesa Rajasthan
2008 2013 2008 2013
100 days of work per year 42 55 90 70
Minimum wage 43 17 67 27
Payment within 15 days 54 35 54 48

a Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh: the five states – other than Rajasthan – covered in both surveys.

The interests of those who have the information (NREGA functionaries) and those who need it (NREGA workers) are often at odds with each other. This is one reason why awareness drives, using the mass media and other means, are necessary. Many states, including Rajasthan, used to do this in the early days of NREGA – colourful slogans were found everywhere. Today, however, NREGA is out of focus. Declining employment and declining awareness are feeding on each other.

Intrigued by claims that the UPA’s electoral victory in 2009 was due to NREGA, we also included the following question in the PEEP Survey: “Which of these four leaders has done most for the creation of NREGA: Mahatma Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, or Rahul Gandhi?” Sonia Gandhi was the winner – but with just over one-tenth of respondents getting it right. Most of them had no idea. Four per cent ignored the Gandhis and argued for some other name: Manmohan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, their own Chief Minister, or even the local sarpanch!

This deterioration was evident from the PEEP survey. NREGA worksites were few and far between. Most respondents had done very little NREGA work. Long delays in wage payments were common. Even people’s awareness of their entitlements under NREGA did not seem to be higher than what we had found five years earlier. Only a few states, such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, seemed to have sustained the programme’s initial momentum.

There is an odd view, in official circles, that the decline of NREGA is good news: it reflects a reduction in the demand for work due to better employment opportunities elsewhere. The PEEP survey debunks this myth: when NREGA workers were asked how many days of employment they would like to have over the year, assuming that they are paid on time, an overwhelming majority (83 per cent) answered “100 days” – the maximum entitlement. Only 8 per cent, however, had actually done 100 days of NREGA work in 2012-13. The message is clear: there is an enormous unmet demand for NREGA work.

The decline of NREGA is not irreversible. However, reviving NREGA requires firm action to address the multiple roots of this decline: stagnating real wages, delayed payments, technocracy, and a pervasive lack of accountability, among others. The first step is to recognize the crisis, instead of taking refuge in wishful thinking.

The silver lining is that the struggle against corruption seems to be making headway. When we compared the number of days of NREGA work done by the respondents in 2012-3 according to official records with their own estimates, we found a good match: 24 days and 22 days respectively. Interestingly, the same records suggest a fair amount of fudging in earlier years. We take this as tentative evidence of the impact of transparency measures: bank payments of NREGA wages, a sophisticated MIS, social audits, and more. Whether the harsh discipline of transparency has made it all the more difficult to sustain the initial scale of NREGA employment is an unresolved enigma.

Pensions: Beyond Small Mercies

How would you feel about living on Rs 200 or 300 per month? Incredible as it may seem, this is the plight of many widows and elderly people in India, who have no other means of subsistence than a meagre social security pension.

Consider for instance Vifai, an 80-year old Dalit widow from Getara village of Surguja District, Chhattisgarh. She lives alone (her sons have abandoned her) and is too frail to work. She receives an old-age pension of Rs 300 per month – the standard amount in Chhattisgarh. To collect it, she has to limp all the way to the bank, 12 km from her house. She said that she subsists from pension money and the Public Distribution System: “Sarkar paisa deti hai, sarkar khana deti hai, bas usi par jeeti hun” (The government gives me some food and money, that’s how I survive).

Meagre as they are, social security pensions are a lifeline for many widows and elderly people. Most of them live a harsh life, even when they get some family support. The monthly pension is a chance to afford small comforts: relieving their pain with some medicine, getting their sandals repaired, winning the affection of their grand-children with the odd sweet, or simply avoiding hunger. The pension amounts, however, are ridiculously small. Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme (IGOAPS) and Indira Gandhi Widow Pension Scheme (IGWPS), the central government contributes Rs 200 and Rs 300 per month respectively. Many states top this up with their own resources, but few go beyond Rs 400 per month.

Like several other studies, the PEEP survey suggests that pension funds are well spent. For one thing, the recipients are among the poorest of the poor – elderly women and men who get by on very little even after a lifetime of hard work. For another, the survey did not uncover any evidence of major fraud in social security pensions. Among nearly 900 respondents selected at random from the official pension lists, 97 per cent were getting their pension. Most of the remaining 3 per cent were cases of faulty record-keeping rather than fraud. We found only one case of “duplicate” pension (one person getting two pensions). There are leakages here and there, for instance when post-office employees take a cut to disburse pensions, but nothing like the scams that plague many other forms of government expenditure.

Having said this, pension schemes also have major flaws. Their coverage is small, and the application process tends to be very bureaucratic. Pension payments are very irregular in most states. To get their measly pension, widows and the elderly expose themselves to numerous ordeals and indignities: waiting endlessly for the pension to be sanctioned, harassment from greedy middlemen, queuing for hours at the local bank, and more.

At a public hearing in Manika Block of Latehar District, we were amazed at the number of old men and women who poured into the cramped compound of the block headquarters, some stooping, some barely able to walk, but determined to register their demand for a pension. Reflecting the sentiment of the crowd, one angry woman from Bishunbandh village grabbed the mike during the hearing and shouted, “My husband died waiting for his pension, will I have to suffer the same fate?”

All these problems are easy to fix. The main reason why it is not happening is that the people concerned count for so little. But this is changing: widows and the elderly have started agitating for their rights, with a little help from associations such as Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan and Pension Parishad. Under public pressure or for other reasons, many states have started improving and expanding their pension schemes. Tamil Nadu, one of the pioneers of social security pensions, pays Rs 1,000 per month under IGNOAPS and IGNWPS. Rajasthan has recently adopted the principle of near-universal social security pensions– every widow and elderly person is entitled unless he or she meets specific exclusion criteria. In Odisha, pension schemes are being streamlined from A to Z. For instance, pension lists are regularly updated, pensioners have well-maintained passbooks, and pensions are promptly paid in cash at the Gram Panchayat office on the 15th of each month – even on 15th August.

[Box 5: The Pension League]

  • 1 Tamil Nadu
    • 1000/month, plus 4 kg of free rice from the PDS
    • Well-monitored payments – bank, money order or business correspondent
    • Monthly payments but no schedule
  • 2 Odisha
    • 300/month
    • Cash payment at Panchayat Bhawan on 15th of each month
    • Pension lists are up to date and transparent
  • 3 Rajasthan
    • 500-750/month
    • Move towards near-universal coverage
    • Bank or post-office payments, often delayed
  • 4 Chhattisgarh
    • 300/month
    • Monthly payments but no fixed schedule
  • 5 Himachal Pradesh
    • 400/month
    • Home delivery (money orders) in some places
    • Payments are bunched for several months
  • 6 Bihar
    • 300-500/month
    • Move towards universal coverage
    • Cash payment at Block office, no fixed schedule
  • 7 Jharkhand
    • 400/month
    • Erratic payments
    • Post office staff often take a bribe
  • 8 Uttar Pradesh
    • 300/month
    • Bi-annual payments
    • Getting a pension sanctioned often requires a hefty bribe
  • 9 Maharashtra
    • 600/month
    • Chaos: central and state contributions paid at different times!
    • Erratic payments, bunched for several months
  • 10 Madhya Pradesh
    • 175-275/month
    • Confusing entitlements, e.g. different amounts for different age groups
    • Erratic payments

The central government, for its part, seems unable to get its act together on this issue. A recent committee report has made useful recommendations to improve pension schemes, but little has been done to act on them. The ‘savage cuts’ (as Hon’ble Minister Jairam Ramesh called them) in social expenditure sought to be imposed by the Finance Ministry are not going to help matters. The axe of fiscal austerity weighs most heavily on the poor and powerless, including destitute women and men who are expected to get by with Rs 200 per month even as prices go up and up.

A Tentative Scorecard

Before concluding, we take a quick panoramic view of how different states are doing, based on one key indicator for each of these five entitlement programmes (see Table 1). One thing is for sure: recent progress is not the work of a particular political party. Different parties have contributed – or failed to contribute – in different states. In Tamil Nadu, there has been a steady commitment to universal social policies even as ruling parties come and go. In Himachal Pradesh, too, both the Congress and the BJP have been under pressure to provide well-functioning public services to all. Elsewhere, these national parties have done well in some states but badly in others. For instance, if the BJP deserves some credit for the turnaround of the PDS in Chhattisgarh, it must take responsibility for the dismal state of the same programme in Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, the Congress has a very uneven record of commitment to NREGA in different states. The nature of democratic politics in different states seems to matter far more than specific parties.

We could not resist the temptation of hatching a tentative ranking of the ten PEEP states in terms of their overall performance with entitlement programmes. One way of doing this is to first rank states in terms of these five programme-specific indicators (e.g. Tamil Nadu has rank 1 for NREGA and Madhya Pradesh has rank 10 for the PDS), and then take a simple average of ranks over the five programmes. In line with earlier research, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are “leader states” in this set of ten, but Chhattisgarh is an interesting new entrant in that league. The next group consists of Odisha, Rajasthan and Maharashtra – “learner” states that are following the leaders’ footsteps. Some of us expected Maharashtra to emerge as a leader state, but in the sample districts at least, it turned out to have much to learn, for instance in terms of PDS reforms. The “laggard” states in the third group are the usual suspects – Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. But even in these states, there are signs of change and vast possibilities for more.

Outlook

This completes our quick peep at the PEEP survey findings (for further details, see the survey website: http://web.iitd.ac.in/~reetika/projects.html). Needless to say, there is still an enormous way to go in meeting people’s basic constitutional rights. For instance, while it is certainly heartening that children (girls and boys) are now flocking to schools across the country, the quality of school education remains abysmal. Similarly, the coverage of vaccination programmes has greatly expanded in recent years, but India is still way behind Bangladesh in this respect. If the survey brings a ray of hope, it lies in further evidence that public services do improve – often at unexpected speed – with adequate resources, political support and application of mind. Conversely, the penalties of neglect can be severe, as the recent decline of NREGA illustrates. Further democratic struggle is the only way to ensure that positive trends have the upper hand.

This brings us to a final observation. Democratic struggle requires space for dissent and protest. In the poorest districts, this space is often threatened by multiple forms of repression and violence. The old hierarchies of caste and gender continue to keep many people in chains. New conflicts have developed over the control of natural resources. Large numbers of people are threatened with forced displacement as mining companies and other enterprises are moving in – grabbing land, clearing forests, damming rivers, guzzling groundwater. The state typically sides with the powerful, and is often better known in these areas in the guise of a forest guard or police officer rather than that of a smiling anganwadi worker. Journalists or lawyers who stand up to vested interests face tremendous risks. Physical insecurity, real or alleged, also provides a convenient excuse for teachers, doctors and other development workers to desert these areas and seek refuge in the towns. The future of India’s poorest districts depends a great deal on the defence of democratic space, not only in these areas but in the country as a whole.

(With inputs from Aashish Gupta, Anindita Adhikari, Ankita Aggarwal, Inayat Sabhikhi, Karuna Muthiah, Nandini Nayak, Neenu Suresh, Raghav Puri, Ria Singh Sawhney, Saloni Chopra, Sandesh Lokhande, Sudha Narayanan and Ujjainee Sharma.)

(This is a revised version of an article previously published in Outlook magazine, March 24, 2014)

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