Are India’s social protection schemes ‘future fit’?

COVID-19 has highlighted the value of India’s social protection schemes for the extreme poor. With some tweaking, these schemes can be true game changers.

Ritu Bharadwaj's picture
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9 October 2020

Ritu Bharadwaj is senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

Man handing a package to another man. They are all wearing face masks.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided evidence for the value of social protection schemes for channelling relief in India (Photo: Trinity Care Foundation via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As with the rest of the world, 2020 will remain etched in India’s memory. We have the world’s second highest COVID-19 cases and what that really means to a poor country like ours, how devastating and far-reaching its impact will be, are yet unknown.

As the virus has raged, the damage from climate change has been alarming. Unseasonal heavy rains and strong winds have brought the worst locust attack in decades, a warming Indian Ocean has led to two deadly cyclones, heatwaves have gripped the nation and flooding has killed hundreds. The calamities are many.

What’s worse, India’s first ever climate change assessment report predicts more disasters to come. By century-end, India’s average temperature is projected to rise by 4.4ºC, heatwaves are expected to increase 3-4 times in frequency, tropical cyclones are set to grow in intensity and sea levels to rise by 30cm.

The cumulative effect of these climate disasters is pushing vast numbers of India’s extreme poor deeper into misery.

The pandemic response has demonstrated the significance of social protection schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for channelling relief.

Safety net

At the time of a crisis, such schemes provide a ‘safety net’ by guaranteeing 100 days of employment to rural households. The government almost doubled the MGNREGS budget from INR 61,000 crores to 101,000 crores in 2020-21 and the scheme has already generated 1.25 billion days’ wages in the first quarter of this year.

But high demand is slow to be met due to weak delivery systems and low capacity. Four key measures would ensure social protection schemes like MGNREGS are fit for dealing with future crises, particularly those relating to climate change.

The Infrastructure for Climate Resilience Growth (ICRG) programme in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha aims to strengthen capacity and technical support for designing natural resource management assets to help communities build climate-resilient water harvesting, land development and soil conservation infrastructure.

While the long-term benefits of the programme will take some time to unfold, a technical evaluation is already showing positive results, including stronger community engagement, better understanding of climate risks and assets that are climate responsive, more durable and easier to use.

Farmers have been able to double their crops and continue irrigation even under drought, helping to increase income and savings, and to repay debts.

The ICRG programme is a product of the collaboration between the UK and the Indian government and is supported by IIED.

Delays in declaring drought

MGNREGS provides an additional 50 days' wage employment when a climate crisis (such as drought or flood) is declared, which can help families cope and recover during the most critical of periods. But recent IIED research found there are four to six months delays in governments officially declaring drought – which delays the additional 50 days being distributed.

If forecasts were used to predict weather and climate hazards, the 50 days’ wages could be provided in advance. With monetary reserves, households are more able to withstand crises and bounce back quickly – they are able to rebuild assets, repay loans and buy insurance. Evidence shows every dollar invested in actions before disaster strikes saves US$4-7 in relief costs.

How can this be done? A forecast-based delivery model with a decision support tool can help the government to sanction anticipatory wage employment. It can use weather forecasts to anticipate climate hazards and define thresholds that would trigger the distribution of additional wage employment days.

The state can help a community at risk to better prepare and cope immediate crisis with assured wage earnings. It can help them plan appropriate soil and moisture conservation and harvesting structures using future climate change forecasts that can disaster-proof their agriculture production.

IIED is working with national and state level meteorological and planning entities to pilot such a model in Madhya Pradesh, under the ICRG programme. In due course it will be looking to scale up the model in other states.

‘Convergence’ is a focus area for MGNREGS, whereby the government encourages MGNREGS to integrate with other development schemes and programmes – making delivery more coherent, leading to better development outcomes and more effective climate risk management.

For example, convergence of farm pond activity from MGNREGS combined with irrigation infrastructure, better seeds and market access from the government’s agriculture and other departments can help farmers increase their income and resilience.

However, ground-level execution of such cross sectoral planning and delivery is missing; more government coordination is needed.

The MGNREGS safety net is only accessible to people living in their native village – if displaced or forced to migrate they are not covered by social protection programmes and often have to work in sub-human conditions to survive, stripped of rights, benefits and entitlements.

Social protection schemes should provide all citizens – migrants or not – with the basic rights to secure work, housing and sanitation. Schemes like MGNREGS need to be redesigned, so that they do not operate just under rural silos and cover facilities that help families cope and survive under climate induced duress.

They should also be inclusive and suitable for all vulnerable and marginalised communities, and pan India access should be allowed to avail entitlements based on the ‘Aadhar/UDAI’ national database.

Such a model has already been tried out successfully by the government by providing subsidised food grain to households under the ‘one nation one ration card’ initiative. It’s time to extend the same approach to other social protection schemes.

This blog was originally posted on the Outlook Poshan India website.

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