‘Urban poor need new social protection nets’, says World Bank economist

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
May 16, 2020 08:59 AM IST

World Bank hopes that this funding will help accelerate India’s attempt to support the poor.

The World Bank unveiled a US $1-billion package to introduce a social safety system for the urban poor. In an interview to Zia Haq , Shrayana Bhattacharya, senior economist, World Bank, discusses its nuts and bolts. Edited excerpts:

Shrayana Bhattacharya, senior economist in the World Bank, says the funding will help bolster India’s preparedness for future pandemics as well.(HT Photo)
Shrayana Bhattacharya, senior economist in the World Bank, says the funding will help bolster India’s preparedness for future pandemics as well.(HT Photo)

At a conceptual level, can you tell me what is the $1-bn funding all about?

Given the ongoing pandemic, the government needs to provide cash and in-kind support to the vulnerable. The programme envisages social protection as a bridge that can carry the poor and vulnerable to a phase of recovery. Half of India’s population is between the poverty line and twice the poverty line. Ninety per cent of workforce is informal. Our programme not only helps accelerate Indian govt’s attempt to support the poor, it is also trying to create strategic shifts that can not only help India deal with Covid-19 but also any future shocks or disasters.

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What are the key shifts being envisaged through the Bank’s programme?

There are three critical shifts. First, the programme will help India move from 460-plus fragmented social protection schemes to a fast and more flexible integrated system. Second, it will enable geographic portability of social benefits that can be accessed from anywhere in country, ensuring food, social insurance and cash-support, including for migrants and urban poor; and finally, it will move social protection from a predominantly rural focus to pan-national one that recognises urban poor.

Essentially, the Bank has talked about making social safety nets equally geared for urban poor as they are for rural India. How do you rebalance?

Nearly 70% of social protection beneficiaries are in rural India. But there’s a growing urban economy and also fair amount of mobility between rural to urban India. The needs of a more mobile and urban India haven’t been addressed. For example, for Covid crisis, the government was able to quickly use pre-existing schemes like PM-KISAN, available only in rural India. There is no urban equivalent of a MNREGA or PM-KISAN.

What must we do to design a good safety net for the urban poor then?

You need to be able to provide food in an immediate and a portable way across states. Scaling up One Nation, One Ration is essential and our programme will support that. The second is about creating a cash-delivery system so income transfers can reach urban India and assets exist -- like bank accounts and Aadhaar.

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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