Making COVID Social Protection Accountable to India’s Vulnerable Citizens

Date: August 2020
Author(s): Suchi Pande
Publication type: Blog
Published by: From Poverty to Power (Oxfam)

Note: This piece by Dr. Suchi Pande was originally published on August 26, 2020 on Oxfam’s From Poverty to Power blog. This post discusses two development policies that sound technical, but which are really important. Social protection is the set of services that help protect people against economic shocks or disasters, and from the ups-and-downs all people face in their life-cycle. Social audits are organized by citizens to audit, monitor, and help improve public services. In India, social audits have used government information on program implementation together with worker testimonies, physical verification of worksites, and citizen input during participatory deliberative forums to monitor NREGA implementation and to identify and redress problems. Social protection is vital to how countries manage the COVID crisis but vast new outlays on weak public systems could mean more corruption and less citizen trust in governments. India was ahead of most developing countries when the pandemic struck: it already had a functional scheme for protecting people against extreme poverty – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). This has been a lifeline for the rural poor at a time of national economic crisis, with demands for work up 70% compared to last year. What is less well known is that India also boasts a tried and tested system of social audits that helps the poorest and most vulnerable citizens hold local authorities to account for providing this lifeline. There are signs that through this system of independent popular scrutiny of public accounts, in some states of India, relief is being delivered more accountably. These are not abstract notions, but matters of life and death, ensuring the most vulnerable citizens stand a better chance of getting the help they need. Vitally, both the NREGS and the social audits came about because citizens organized to make them happen. The Indian social audit system bears testament to the truth that strong states need strong civil societies: without the movement that made them happen, neither NREGS nor the social audit system that keeps (parts of it) accountable would have been there for India’s 833 million rural poor.

NREGA is the Lifeline for India’s Rural Poor

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown to combat COVID-19 on March 25th, millions of migrant workers were left stranded and broke. Some were humiliated and harassed by the police on their long and dangerous treks home. Having returned home, the question of survival loomed large. Workers migrated in the first place because they were landless or earned little as small farmers or agricultural workers. If so many left because they had no livelihoods in their villages, how would they survive there now in the midst of a pandemic and a major economic contraction? India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 established the scheme that ensured the legal right to 100 days of work at minimum wages for all rural adults, on demand. Even before the pandemic, for a country like India with massive social inequalities, jobless growth and rising unemployment, NREGS was a vital social safety net, generating over 2 billion person days of work each year between 2008 and 2014, covering some 53 million rural households in the peak year of 2009-10. Despite this vast achievement, in 2014, the incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to NREGS as a ‘living monument of [the previous government’s] failure.’ While Modi recognized an outright attack on the immensely popular NREGS would be political suicide, he began to quietly kill the rural job guarantee program through budget cuts and withheld wage payments. Even amidst the pandemic, Modi’s cabinet ministers recommended diverting NREGS funds to private enterprises, instead of expanding the work scheme with more funds and extending it to urban areas. Yet it is NREGS that has provided India’s rural working poor with some relief amid the government’s botched lockdown and the ongoing economic crisis. According to the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, a record number of households were employed in the first quarter of 2020. It could do even more if entitlements were extended: every ten days, almost one hundred thousand households complete their allotted employment guarantee, and so have to drop out of the scheme for the rest of the year. This high demand underscores the need to double the entitlement from 100 to 200 days and the need to ensure transparency.

Social Audits are Key to Making NREGA Work

While imperfect, social audits are the most powerful mechanism for ensuring that India’s most important social welfare scheme—and the largest in the world—works for its intended beneficiaries. Opponents of NREGS have long pointed to corruption to delegitimize the program. Yet, at the behest of social movements, the NREGS legislation required social audits, a mechanism for citizen oversight and participatory accountability. In states where social audits originated in earlier struggles, such as Rajasthan, they have enabled a deeper form of citizen participation. For example, social audits have revealed fraud in construction worker benefits. However, until 2017, several state governments did not organize social audits or, if they did, provided little reliable evidence on their actual performance. This scenario led the country’s Comptroller and Auditor General to collaborate with NREGS activists to develop national auditing standards. As of 2018, 20 out of 29 states have set up independent social audit units. Moreover, social auditing is being extended to other welfare programs. A social audit of food security, nutrition and maternal and child welfare schemes by the Jharkhand social audit unit revealed that nearly 48% people did not receive their food security benefits, and 34% of families with pregnant/lactating mothers and children below five years of age did not receive nutritional support during the lockdown. In the absence of social audits, it is impossible to know the leakage from such key programs.

Trust in government needs civil society

As an already vulnerable Indian rural citizenry grapples with Covid-19 and associated lockdowns and economic contraction, India’s existing social programs take on renewed importance. Benefits must be extended, but social audits can also be invigorated to protect the lives and livelihoods of India’s most vulnerable citizens. The pandemic has shown again the need for accountability measures that strengthen citizen trust in their governments. It is in the interests of governments seeking to manage the pandemic well to enable civil society to exact accountability. Social audits may well yet save India’s flailing relief effort, and rebuild trust lost through the callous lockdown policies that hurt some of the poorest and most marginalized Indians the most.