The new government will also need to prepare the welfare state to address new challenges—ensuring that the right to education provides quality education, which necessitate a strong administration equipped to learn and empowered to innovate. Photo: Hindustan Times
The new government will also need to prepare the welfare state to address new challenges—ensuring that the right to education provides quality education, which necessitate a strong administration equipped to learn and empowered to innovate. Photo: Hindustan Times

Rights-based welfare state: What went wrong and what can be made right

The challenge for the next government will be to implement Congress party's rights-based welfare laws in a better way

From the Right to Information and the Right to Work to the Right to Education and the Right to Food, the Congress-led government’s 10 years in power are bound to find a place in history books for planting the seeds of a rights-based welfare state. If Parliamentary conduct is any indicator, this welfare state is here to stay. The few occasions the party was able to build a consensus in Parliament in the last 10 years was in passing these rights laws. But even as the Congress successfully scripted the path to a welfare state through its rights laws, it floundered in implementation. The challenge for the new government is in making good the wrongs of these “rights" by ensuring their effective implementation.

So what went wrong and how can this be fixed? In their intent, rights-based laws mark an important shift in the governance trajectory. They signalled a commitment by the state to ensure the provision of basic entitlements. The language also signalled the state’s intent to address entrenched, patronage-driven power dynamics between citizens and the state. The Right to Information and social audits are expressions of this intent. For a country where state patronage runs deep, this is a critical structural change for the better.

But the problem is that the laws simply did not go far enough. Despite the formal rhetoric of devolution and accountability, they relied on the old model of centralized schemes that are not designed to respond to the complexities of service delivery. This limited ownership by states, and provided a convenient discourse for explaining failure with the centre and states passing the buck. Take any Congress speech in an opposition state this election and you’ll hear the party praising itself for bringing in these laws and blaming the state government for poor implementation. And here’s the irony. Much of the recent innovation in delivery systems from the Public Distribution System in Chhattisgarh to education in Bihar has been driven by state governments. By relying on top-down central schemes, rights laws have served to curb rather than facilitate state-led innovation.

Where genuine devolution was attempted, its implementation was half-baked, encouraging distortions rather than transformative change. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is a classic example. By design, the Act took an important step by mandating that 50% of funds be spent by the gram panchayats (village councils). But this was not accompanied by a complementary devolution of roles and responsibilities for implementation. Consequently, panchayats have become post officers for large funds with little authority and responsibility. And so, as the CAG’s 2013 audit highlights, panchayats don’t even perform the most basic of functions like making annual plans and labour budgets. This has de-linked MGNREGA’s performance from panchayat electoral outcomes and unsurprisingly, MGNREGA is now an important source of rents for local politicians. And when accountability is so diffused and electoral consequences of poor performance are few, even far-reaching provisions like social audits will have limited impact.

The first challenge of a new government, if it is serious about deepening the welfare state project, will be to break out of the centralized delivery model and build a financial transfer system that enables states to innovate and design their own implementation architecture. This needs to be accompanied by genuine devolution of finances and decision-making powers to panchayats. Only then will steps to ensure transparency and accountability be effective.

Second, the greatest limitation of the rights laws is that they have failed to tackle the issue of administrative capability. With each new law, the government expended significant energy and political capital on budgetary requirements. Completely absent was any effort to identify the human resource and administrative changes needed to ensure effective spending. To the extent that administrative reforms have been part of the agenda, this has involved penalties for the frontline and use of technology to improve monitoring. But this only entrenched bureaucratic hierarchies and rules rather than tackling the systemic questions of bureaucratic motivation, organizational structure and decision making systems. It also overemphasizes bureaucratic failings at the frontline.

The fate of the rights-based welfare state will depend on the new government’s willingness to undertake radical administrative reform. This entails moving beyond punitive action to building a system that privileges problem-solving over hierarchies and rules. The good news is that the new government doesn’t need to look far. There are innovative experiments underway across India that offer lessons. In Bihar, for instance, a district collector partnered with a non-governmental organization to implement an effort that empowered rather than penalized frontline education officers to work with schools on pedagogical experimentation. This had the stunning consequence of both mobilizing demotivated officers and dramatically improving learning outcomes in the schools. Bihar is now attempting to scale up this experiment across the state. Effective administrative reforms should build on these experiments by fostering a more local approach to planning and decision-making.

The Congress party’s rights-based welfare laws were ambitious in their aspiration of building an accountable welfare state. This now needs better implementation. The new government faces a major challenge of solving this, with serious progress only likely if it places its political weight behind a project of administrative renewal. The new government will also need to prepare the welfare state to address new challenges—ensuring that the right to education provides quality education; that employment guarantee doesn’t become a substitute for skills and jobs; that urban poverty is part of the debate, all of which necessitate a strong administration equipped to learn and empowered to innovate. Perhaps citizens should really be voting for a right to effective implementation in this election season!

Yamini Aiyar is a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Michael Walton is a lecturer in international development at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and a senior visiting fellow at CPR.

Close