From risks to resilience for informal workers – part two: ‘universal’ access to benefits?

Our guest bloggers examine the barriers informal workers in Indore, India, must overcome to tap into the government’s various social support programmes to supplement their meagre incomes – and access health care or subsidised food.

Siddharth Agarwal's picture Kanupriya Kothiwal's picture
Siddharth Agarwal is director; and Kanupriya Kothiwal research associate at the Urban Health Resource Centre
22 February 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
People queue in front of a desk

Workers queuing up at district magistrate’s office to apply for social benefits (Photo: copyright Urban Health Resource Centre)

Government support programmes in India are meant to have universal coverage, but interviews and discussions with informal workers showed many of them did not benefit from these programmes – or only did so after long (and costly) negotiations.

The personal experiences that follow illustrate the dire challenges faced by informal workers in accessing social benefits. In our study, we learnt that nearly a quarter of interviewees did not have the universal identification document known as the Aadhaar card. And nearly half did not have an active informal labour card, an eShram card (formerly Mazdoor card), so could not apply for labour benefits (such as a pension).

Many either did not have the right basic documents to get these or did not know the procedures needed to apply for them.

Identification issues

Shanta, 33, a domestic worker in Indore struggles to access subsidised grains through her domestic worker diary – which should enable her to do so. However, whenever she went to the PDS (public distribution system) shop, she would be denied grains because her domestic worker diary bearing a food subsidy slip was not updated.

Shanta later learnt that in her Samagra ID (another form of identification bearing details of every family member), her name was missing. She went to the zonal office, updated her Samagra ID and her domestic worker diary. Shanta then re-applied for an updated food subsidy slip.

It has been over six months since the application but Shanta has still not received her food subsidy slip. A dejected Shanta says: “The authorities say that it is still in process. How often can I go to Zonal Office for follow-ups? I cannot miss work and lose wages.”

Several respondents said they did not possess ration cards to access subsidised grains. Some who were applying for a ration card reported that they could not get a proof of address that was acceptable to the ration card-issuing body. Many families are not receiving their full food grain entitlement as some family members are not named on the card.

Lack of basic documents and sluggish bureaucracy

Changes in application procedures, administrative delays, applications rejected for minor irregularities (such as a spelling mismatch) and problems with biometric or mobile phone text message authentication contributed to inequitable access.

A lapsed phone number renders a bank account dysfunctional, since authentication is via a single-use password to the mobile phone. The old-age pension application process requires biometric authentication (fingerprints) which poses challenges since fingerprints fade with age. Elderly people are required to attend in person – often difficult owing to reduced mobility. 

Many workers did not have the basic documents needed, such as a birth certificate. Difficulties getting ID and proof-of-address documentation caused problems opening a bank account – which was needed to be able to receive many benefits.

Workers reported going from one office to another, only to be told they had followed the wrong process. Some had been told that only online applications were permitted. This has deterred many who lacked the confidence and technical familiarity needed.

Ways of negotiating

To avoid going through bureaucratic challenges many preferred to pay an agent to apply for social benefits on their behalf. Informal workers reported that the costs of using an agent were balanced by savings on transport costs, led to fewer lost earnings and gave them confidence that their applications would be successful.

Urban Health Resource Centre (URHC) social facilitators and incentive-based volunteers, through outreach efforts in informal settlements, mentor informal workers assisting them in their applications for social benefits.

One instance is Parvati Bai, 51, who was able to access her widow’s pension through UHRC’s guidance. A domestic worker, Parvati's husband died over 15 years ago. She tried applying for a widow’s pension, without success.

“I made many rounds of the ward office, the collectorate and the municipal corporation – for many years. Everywhere, they would look at my papers and tell me "it will start soon", but it never did. I would lose wages as I needed to take leave to visit offices. I spent money making photocopies and on transportation costs. I soon gave up.

“In October 2021, a UHRC team member shared information on the documents required and helped me re-apply for my widow’s pension. I visited the office with them and submitted the documents. I received the first instalment of my pension of 600 rupees in January 2022.”

eShram card confusion

The eShram card, formerly known as Mazdoor card (labour card) is designed to enable access to educational scholarships, maternity benefits and subsidised electricity.

However, interviews revealed that most workers were confused by the name change and unaware of the online process involved in applying for an eShram card. UHRC's social facilitators facilitated online applications of 739 eShram cards, of which 736 cards were issued. But benefits are yet to ensue.

What lessons have we learnt?

Renaming a benefit scheme, or modifying the application procedures, leads applicants to make several visits when applying, and excludes many from receiving timely social support. We noted above how many pay an agent to manage the application.

Civil society organisations are crucial to strengthen outreach to aid urban poor in accessing social benefits. Communicating the process, including information on required documents, how to apply and where to submit applications can enable vulnerable families to access the support due to them.

The next blog describes how the research team interacted with workers and residents to help get access to the social programmes to which they are entitled. It raises the vital issue that having such an engagement enhances the value of the research and also helps research participants gain knowledge – and social benefits.

  • Download the report that contains detailed coverage of the various risks and coping mechanisms adopted by workers.

With thanks to David Satterthwaite for his valuable input.