Hyderabad: One of the key challenges for today’s policy makers is to ensure that the benefits of social welfare schemes trickle down to their intended recipients.
To address this issue and to ensure that the poorest of the poor among the disadvantaged communities receive due benefits, the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andhra Pradesh has come up with an information and communications technology (ICT)—driven initiative called the Unnathi-POP strategy.
Launched in March 2010, the Unnathi–Nirupedala Samagrabhivrudhi, as the project is called in Telugu, seeks to provide support in the form of sustainable livelihood that will ensure an annual income of Rs.60,000 for each poor family for three years—the period SERP estimates is sufficient for a household to come out of poverty.
SERP is an autonomous body under the rural development department of the Andhra Pradesh government. Its mission is to get rid of poverty and improve the quality of life among the rural poor by providing different livelihood opportunities. Unnathi targets the ultra-poor in rural societies of Andhra Pradesh and provides support in the form of livelihoods.
“The bottom 20% of population remains the poorest and the most vulnerable in terms of access to basic entitlements, livelihoods and human development,” said H. Subbaraju, director of the Unnathi project. “More than 80% of them belong to Dalit and tribal communities. Both the communities face huge gaps in development.”
Rural Andhra Pradesh is home to 4.2 million scheduled caste and tribe (SC and ST) households, while another million of these families reside in cities.
The innovation also helps government officials get an accurate picture of people entitled to ration cards, job cards, pensions, government health insurance and housing.
To ensure authenticity of information in its database, critically important in the project’s success, SERP put in place tight validation and control mechanisms. Information from as many as 14 government data bases is collated prior to field visits and cross-checked on the ground by 11,344 community activists, chosen from among poor families.
The project initially covered 620,000 families belonging to SC and ST communities in 3,163 gram panchayats (village councils) from 339 mandals (sub-district) across 22 rural districts of the state. The household surveys verify information ranging from family member details, their health status, assets and liabilities of a family to access to drinking water, toilets, housing, gas connections, banking services, and government schemes and entitlements (ration cards, etc.). The questionnaire has 162 fields spanning 10 pages. Baseline data is gathered in English as well as Telugu.
The data is uploaded to a database using a web application developed by information technology services provider Infosys Ltd. The partnership ended in 2011. What SERP does with the data is interesting.
Software developed by Visakhapatnam-based technology provider Bluefrog Mobile Technologies Pvt. Ltd analyses the data and automatically shortlists the poorest of the poor among the disadvantaged communities on the basis of parameters such as land ownership, livestock ownership, livelihood choices, credit linkages, skill sets, employment status among others.
Relatively better-off households are awarded higher scores while poorer families are assigned lower scores.
Families that earn the least scores are initially shortlisted for the government’s livelihood development programmes. Families considered vulnerable—widowed women, single mothers, illiterate families, primitive tribal groups, bonded labourers, and persons with disabilities or chronic illness—are given negative marks so they feature higher up in the priority list.
To safeguard against machine-made errors, the computerised rankings are sent to the village organisations for a final verification at a public meeting. The transparency is creating confidence among poor households.
Currently in the third phase, SERP expanded Unnathi to cover 1.02 million families across 22,000 gram panchayats in 621 mandals.
So far, the project has identified 180,000 families to be eligible for support, but only 110,000 families opted for the initiative. This, according to M. Senthil Rajan, a consultant with SERP, is because the programme does not disburse direct cash—in an attempt to prevent misuse of money. While SERP disburses the amount to village organizations in the form of grants, poor families have to repay the cost incurred towards the purchase of assets to these organizations. The repaid sum is utilized to help other waitlisted poor families in the village.
As much as 66% of the beneficiaries opt for livelihood support in the form of livestock, while the rest favour setting up small businesses (like shops) or help with farming in the form of seeds, land leases, and fertilizers.
Livelihood assets ensure a source of income that will in turn improve the living standards of poor families, leading to better human development indices among rural populace. “When poor families come up financially, social inequalities will also reduce,” Subbaraju points out.
SERP monitors the utilization of the assets through community activists, who also handhold the households and update their progress for three years or until they come out of poverty.
By efficiently harnessing mobile technologies and web-based software, Unnathi is entirely driven by ICT (information and communication technology). As part of the initiative, SERP also ensures that members of a household receive the benefits of various government schemes they are entitled to.
After its success with poor households, Andhra Pradesh tribal welfare and social welfare departments are collaborating with SERP to help implement their programmes among tribal and scheduled caste POP families. The social welfare and tribal welfare departments are committed to disbursing Rs.120 crore and Rs.50 crore respectively to cover an additional 120,000 households.
The platform is also helping district- and mandal-level officials track fund flow throughout the ecosystem—from fund status to who the final recipients are. The accurate micro-level data is also assisting district administration pinpoint poorly-performing mandals and take remedial measures. The data is currently being integrated with the databases containing information on land details of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, bank linkages, and health and nutrition.
After accomplishing its initial target of assessing a million families, SERP is capturing data of another 3.2 million Dalit and tribal families in rural Andhra Pradesh. About 60% of the work has been completed, says Subbaraju.
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