How the new Indian welfare state fails in addressing core social, economic and political concerns

It seems what we are currently witnessing is a metamorphic, amalgamated evolution of the new-and old welfare state.

 |  4-minute read |   07-07-2020
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In a nationwide address recently, PM Modi announced the extension of free ration support till November 2020 for around 800 million Indians, as part of his government’s PM Garib Kalyan Yojana. This announcement has been welcomed by many (and rightly so). In a crisis situation like now, large buffer stocks of wheat, rice and other food grains in government warehouses serve no use as reserves if they can’t be urgently utilised for distribution and ensure that not a single Indian starves.

A new reality

It is also interesting to observe how the utilised tools of state support being used now to ensure public provisioning of food security, health security, and livelihood generation (including jobs) are those that have oft been subject to critical scrutiny and political criticism. For example, the Public Distribution System (PDS) functioning in districts and states — responsible for delivery and distribution of food grains by state administrations — seems to be the principal mechanism by which the government is ensuring basic food supplies to the poor and those in distant rural networks. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) also has seen an increased outlay announced from before-in an attempt to ensure more job-security to the rural population.

main_pds_ration-shop_070720103230.jpgPDS seems to be the principal mechanism by which the government is ensuring basic food supplies to the poor and those in distant rural networks. (Photo: Reuters)

Still, each of these social security systems was criticised by the same party, the BJP, on charges of being ‘ineffective’; a ‘monument of Congress incompetence’; for promoting ‘moral hazard’ (an acute dependency amongst the poor on government support for aid), and leading to a higher fiscal footprint offering ‘little social or economic gains’. Ironically, these welfare tools measures are now key in ensuring immediate (social) support for the poor and the marginalised in a public health and economy crisis.

Emerging systems

Moreover, it seems what we are currently witnessing is a metamorphic, amalgamated evolution of the new-and old welfare state. India is facing, what Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2012 book -Why Nations Fail called a critical juncture. There are three key trends being seen that may (re)define India’s new-and old welfare system in a post-pandemic world:

The first trend signals an apathy towards a perennial exacerbation of existing social and economic inequities, whether evaluated from aggregates of class, caste, gender, religion (or ethnicity). These inequities were entrenched in the nation for too long and are now worsening from the social and economic impact of a pandemic. Nothing seems to be done about these concerns.

This likelihood resonates with the Marxian idea of a “tragic business as usual” scenario. And so, governments fail to use structural policy reforms to address social, political and economic concerns. For now, the government seems content in undertaking a laissez-faire approach-to let things be the way they are now. Its insistence on atmanirbharta (self-reliance) echoes this, by doing little for the people and expecting them to become reliant on their own.

The second trend- as part of a global phenomenon, is a rise in authoritarian state-control in most democratic nations with a resonance to “Chinese state-style like characteristics”. In India, this illiberal rise in authoritarianism and the transition towards a Hobbesian state (as envisaged in his Leviathan) was taking root before the pandemic struck, but it is now steadily consolidating its dominant position. Many democratic nations have willingly given more powers to ruling parties to respond to a large scale emergency-much like China- on issues of privacy, surveillance, or in safeguarding civic agency. In India, in context to the imposition of a curfew-style lockdown, one saw how less democratic decision-making may go hand-in-hand with a less effective, and more arbitrary executive control in many areas of our lives.

The third trend is an increasing dominance and global adoption of technology resulting in what Acemoglu (aptly) calls “digital serfdom”. Whether it is to do contact tracing or to track citizens for Covid-19 like symptoms in open spaces, greater adoption of tech-based surveillance and monitoring is (re)imagining a new state-citizen contract. Major corporations may be part of this age of “digital serfdom”.

Larger concerns

A more worrying aspect of a less transparent state-private partnership was echoed earlier by Pratap Bhanu Mehta: “..the more curious aspect of the current wave of techno-nationalism is the association of private companies with a techno-nationalist imaginary. States have often aligned to promote the interests of national companies… In the new ‘techno-nationalist imagination’, the focus is on creating what people believe to be the carriers of national power in the form of large companies..”

With these emerging trends, the (new) Indian welfare state, may still have (old) distributive systems to guarantee increased health, food security, but that may do little in addressing core social, economic and political concerns, and may lead to a state that disregards civic-agency, public accountability and human rights.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How India can truly become Aatmanirbhar Bharat

Writer

Deepanshu Mohan Deepanshu Mohan @prats1810

Assistant Professor of Economics, OP Jindal University; Director, Centre for New Economics Studies; Visiting Professor, Department of Economics, Carleton University

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