Bridging the digital gap: Civil society's role in welfare equity - Hindustan Times
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Bridging the digital gap: Civil society's role in welfare equity

Jul 06, 2024 12:09 PM IST

This article is authored by Vijay Sai Pratap, co-founder & CEO, Gram Vaani and Archana Kannan, COO, Indus Action.

With the introduction of the digitised transfer of cash benefits under various schemes through direct benefit transfers (DBT), the government of India has displayed positive intent and efforts to improve the lives of millions of citizens who require social benefits. DBTs streamline welfare delivery by directly depositing funds into the beneficiaries' bank accounts, reducing corruption and leakages. It has digitised transactions to enable better tracking and promptly inform policy decisions. DBTs grant autonomy over benefits, empowering individuals and fostering financial inclusion and trust in government schemes.

Gender Equality(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Gender Equality(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Overall, DBTs enhance efficiency, transparency, and equitable distribution of welfare assistance. However, the missing piece in the narrative are the issues and challenges leading to exclusion. Dvara Research's State of Exclusion Report (2022) critically examines the DBT system, which is aimed at enhancing welfare distribution by removing 'ghost beneficiaries'. While intended to minimise wastage by excluding the ineligible, the report reveals a significant oversight. The report refers to the ‘the unintentional exclusion of legitimate beneficiaries.’ Conducted in partnership with non-profit organisations, the study spans seven states, revealing systemic flaws in the DBT's infrastructure, such as digitisation errors and cumbersome documentation, which hinder access for deserving recipients.

The report highlights the challenges leading to exclusion—a crucial aspect often overlooked in discussions on DBT efficiency. Another significant issue is the one-size-fits-all approach of many welfare schemes. India's diverse socio-cultural landscape calls for more nuanced and localised solutions that address the specific needs of different communities to match the services provided and the actual requirements of the beneficiaries. Technology-enabled scheme delivery does not take full cognisance of the digital divide that exists in a country like India. The government has made concerted efforts to increase digital literacy and adoption, and that has worked in many parts of the country.

However, the digital divide is a pivotal issue to be deliberated in India's social welfare landscape, as there remains a disparity in the opportunities to access technologies, particularly for those in remote and underprivileged urban regions. This disparity gets sharper when it comes to young girls and women, and youth. In a country that is expected to have one billion smartphone users by 2026, only 31% of women own a mobile phone compared to 60% of men. Only 27.5% of its youth aged 15-29 are considered “digitally skilled”. (Source: Reducing The Great Digital Divide 2023 report by Sattva Knowledge Institute). Availability of a computer/laptop in the households is much lower, with only 9% youth aged 14-18 having one at home. 38% of males used smartphones for online services, while only 19% of females did so. (Source: Aser 2023 ‘Beyond Basics’ Report). This renders a large segment of the population unable to navigate online welfare applications and unaware of their entitlements. This also underscores that there is inevitably a lag between enrolment and fulfilment.

Despite the challenges mentioned here, significant contributions are being made in mitigating these challenges by community-based organisations (CBOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs). They have used their ground-level, localised expertise and leveraged tailor-made technology for direct community engagement, ensuring a more inclusive distribution of welfare benefits. CSOs have collaborated with local decision makers to build relevant community support structures, including creating tools for aggregating complaints, tracking redressal processes, and establishing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for resolving different exclusions. Gram Vaani, a social tech company, follows this very approach with Mobile Vaani, a participatory media platform, where people can share their opinions, hear from each other, and build communities. Their user’s testimonials underscore its effectiveness with Neelam, a Mobile Vaani user from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, saying, “For some unidentified reason, my name was removed from the ration card, and I stopped receiving the ration. I reported this grievance on the Ghazipur Mobile Vaani. The Mobile Vaani volunteers coordinated with the food inspector and got not only my name reinstated in the ration card but also that of my three other family members.”

Indus Action, a policy implementation CSO, collaborates with local CSOs and government departments, to build the capacity of local stakeholders with the necessary tools and knowledge, while helping them identify the benefits citizens are entitled to but has been missing out on. Citizen awareness and documentation drives conducted by them illuminate the path for people like Neelam, providing them with the knowledge and paperwork needed to navigate the complex web of welfare schemes. Whenever citizens encounter hurdles, Indus Action’s helplines offer active support and grievance redressal, ensuring no call for help goes unanswered. Collaboration between the State and CSOs is essential for effective social protection, especially for marginalised groups. CSOs are best placed to establishing grievance redressal protocols and empower citizens to address socio-economic issues that strengthens social safety nets and facilitate better access to entitlements and rights.

Harnessing new-age technologies, when designed to meet the needs of the marginalised, holds immense potential for rapid socio-economic development. By involving communities and ensuring diverse representation, innovative digital solutions can be designed to scale up services. These frameworks, guided by data and community input, can enhance accountability and governance in delivering social welfare commitments.

This article is authored by Vijay Sai Pratap, co-founder & CEO, Gram Vaani and Archana Kannan, COO, Indus Action.

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