India is in transition but not all Indians are able to prosper. The country’s growth story has been characterised by widening inequality and a failure of the state to lift its citizens out of poverty and other forms of economic deprivation such as undernutrition among children. While some forms of anti-poverty welfare programmes have existed throughout independent India’s history, they had limited impact.

The importance of redistribution for inclusive growth has risen to the top of the social policy agenda only in the last two decades. The “rights-based” legislative reforms – right to food, work and education – in the early 2000s, in consonance with various independent initiatives by the state governments, made social welfare programmes central to public policy discourse in the country. Expansion of social pensions, maternity benefits, housing and cooking gas subsidies, along with unconditional cash assistance to farmers, have further added to the array of social welfare benefits, along with their significance for electoral outcomes.

In a recent book I co-authored with Prabhu Pingali, The Future of India’s Social Safety Nets: Focus, Form, and Scope, we evaluate India’s performance on providing social support through the various social safety nets as they were introduced, repealed, and re-introduced over the course of its last 75 years of independent history. While doing so, we also anticipate future challenges for social policy design.

The fundamental premise of our argument is that social welfare programmes must be thought of as a “system” of support over an individual’s life cycle, which ensures they do not fall below their developmental capabilities for no fault of their own. Social welfare policies must be carefully designed in terms of their focus (targeted beneficiaries), form (welfare instruments such as cash and food), and scope (developmental goals) with due consideration to the changing economic structure of an economy and the developmental challenges at hand (See Table 1).

Welfare policies, therefore, should be designed around a menu of assistance to ensure a “social minimum” by addressing both the current and the anticipated likelihood of human deprivation.

Traditionally, Indian poverty debates have focused on calorie-centric money-metric assessments, which are limiting as a measure of the scope of human prosperity. Social safety nets, as a system of protection against risks and vulnerability and through social empowerment, we argue, can free individuals from the existing and potential deprivations and therefore broaden the scope of poverty reduction in the country.

Table 1: Major Social Welfare Programmes in India

Form, focus and scope

In the book, we argue that the focus, form, and scope of social welfare policies have historically emanated from exigencies (famine, Green Revolution-driven surplus food grains, fiscal commitments, or a civil society push) rather than concerted action aimed at addressing the causes of human deprivation.

In Figure 1, we sketch out a historical timeline of centrally sponsored social welfare programmes beginning from the introduction of food ration for cities, through the Public Distribution System during World War II. The Public Distribution System, in its early days, was criticised for its “urban bias” but gradually expanded to the rural areas (with a diminished urban focus) as India became food self-sufficient with the advent of Green Revolution technologies.

At the same time, recurrent droughts in many parts of the country led to the creation of the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme in 1973 to provide rural employment. The Employment Guarantee Scheme – on which the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, MGNREGS of 2004 is based – gradually lost its importance during the country’s surplus in food production in the late 1970s. Gradually, the performance of the public distribution system declined too, with excessive corruption and leakages in the value chain during the 1980s and 1990s, and it was re-designed as a pro-poor targeted programme in 1997.

Despite high levels of undernutrition among Indian children, improving nutrition did not emerge on the policy agenda until the mid-1970s. The Integrated Child Development Scheme, the only programme designed to address nutrition, was introduced on a pilot-basis in just a few blocks of the country in 1975, but its effectiveness remained limited because of poor implementation.

As the Indian economy grew in the 2000s, persistently high poor child nutritional outcomes began to attract significant political attention, ultimately leading to an expansion and improvement in Integrated Child Development Scheme. Similarly, while the focus on classroom hunger was missing until the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education was introduced in 1995 – later renamed the Mid-Day Meal Scheme – improvements in the scheme emerged from a directive from the court on mandatory meals at public schools.

Figure 1: Evolution of India’s Social Safety Nets – Form, Focus and Scope

Until the 1990s, social welfare policy was centered around food security. Even the poverty line was couched in “minimum calorie requirements”. The policy focus on rural areas and the limiting developmental scope of food security – largely driven by India’s history of famines (right from the colonial era) – without attention to malnutrition, livelihood insecurity, and health outcomes, were a major oversight in economic planning. Ignoring the cause of urban poverty further underscored the limited scope of social policies.

The economic reforms of the 1990s further curtailed the limited social protection Indian citizens had. Driven by ideas of fiscal prudence, the public distribution system had to be re-designed as a targeted programme with a pro-poor focus.

As a result, in 1997, for the first time, households were classified as below poverty line, or BPL, and above poverty line, or APL, with ration cards identifying these two categories. The APL/BPL distinction has continued since then as a marker of policy focus – barring some states – with the National Food Security Act, 2013, expanding the public distribution system coverage to “priority” and “non-priority” households.

It is also striking that there was no provision for old age pensions for the majority of Indians – barring the tiny minority with public-sector jobs – during the first five decades of independent India. In 1995, the National Social Assistance Program expanded the form and scope of welfare schemes with the idea of non-contributory social pensions for the elderly, widows, and disabled.

However, the National Social Assistance Program like the targeted public distribution system remained a targeted programme – with a focus on below-poverty line families– was implemented poorly and entailed a meagre amount of welfare transfer: a monthly sum of just Rs 200. While a few states have recently revised the pension amount, a life of dignity in retirement (or retirement itself) is elusive for poor workers in most parts of the country.

In the aftermath of severe drought-induced starvation deaths in a part of the country, a 2001 writ petition by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties against the Government of India ushered in a new wave of reforms wherein the Supreme Court of India reprimanded the government and demanded immediate attention to the issue of child nutrition through improving the status of the mid-day meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme. The National Food Security Act further entrenched these programmes, along with other maternal benefits, as a “right to food”. The act had followed the legacy of the Rural Employment Guarantee Act in 2005 which enshrined “right to work” as a legal guarantee.

In 2008, the Indian government introduced a new welfare scheme, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, to provide subsidized health insurance coverage to below-poverty lne households. The idea was to provide social security to the rising share of informal workers in the labor force. In 2018, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana was renamed Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana with a larger beneficiary focus.

The introduction of PM-Kisan in 2018, an unconditional cash transfer to farmers, marked a further milestone in the country’s social policy. Around this time, there was also a significant change in welfare transfers (also referred to as new welfarism) with a technology-driven direct benefit transfer of public provision of private goods such as subsidies for cooking gas, electricity, housing and the like.

This historical overview allows one to appreciate the evolving focus (moving beyond below poverty line households and poverty as a singular welfare objective), form (from food or livelihood based social assistance toward cash transfers), and scope (from symptoms of poverty such as food security, or nutritional and livelihood support toward drivers of poverty such as a catastrophic health shock) of the social welfare policy.

Many state governments have historically innovated and expanded upon focus, form, and scope to chart out their distinct welfare strategies which have also informed national policies.

‘Schemes’ to ‘systems’

While India has successfully created an edifice for extending social protection to the wide majority of its citizens, its isolated welfare schemes are only a band-aid solution to the country’s multidimensional developmental challenges.

While economic growth and deepening of political democracy – slower than our liking, maybe – has created this welfare structure, social democracy can only be achieved when citizens are assured of protection by the state and public systems treat poor citizens with respect.

Therefore, the true potential of social protection can only be unlocked when social welfare programmes are complemented by citizen-centric public systems, better welfare programme design, and economic growth. While independent schemes can provide short-term support against potential hardships over a life cycle, household resilience can be boosted through access to improved opportunities and enabling institutions (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Building a resilient economic security “system” from existing welfare “schemes”

One must note that the success of a social welfare system is reflected in a gradual reduction in the number of people who require such safety nets. Looking ahead, India faces numerous challenges as its economy grows. Food insecurity will increasingly be determined by income insecurity. The urban population (and poor) will surpass their rural counterparts. Traditional schemes, like the rural employment guarantee scheme, therefore, will be less relevant while urban livelihood programmes and health insurance are likely to gain prominence.

By 2050, one-fifth of the Indian population will be 60 years of age or older, requiring greater social pensions. Similarly, despite the expansion of the government’s flagship programme around water and toilets, progress on reducing nutritional deprivation, will depend on how “sticky” social norms around gender and caste are and whether they diminish from public life.

Changes in the economic and social structure, therefore, would require constant revision to the focus, form, and scope of the economic security system to build resilience in the citizens (poor and non-poor) against a lurking adversity. Pre-emptive policy changes would avoid many follies of the past.

Andaleeb Rahman is a Research Associate at Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI), Cornell University.

The interview was first published in India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.