India’s mega digital infrastructure can boost social scheme outreach
Taking a cue from the role played by technology in increasing the efficacy of the world’s largest employment programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the Economic Survey 2018-19 has pitched for technology to be used for enhancing the outreach of some other social welfare programmes.
The Survey said that India’s mega digital infrastructure, linking the Aadhaar unique identity number, bank accounts and mobile phones, can “expand the reach of the programmes through provision of micro-insurance, micropensions and micro-credit to people in every corner of the country”. It added that the wide use of technology “can lead to financial and economic inclusion benefitting the vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society”.
As the Narendra Modi government shifted gears in welfare measures and flagship programmes such as MGNREGS, Ujjwala (free cooking gas connections) and the PM Awas Yojna (housing scheme), it relied heavily on technology to identify real beneficiaries and curb leakages. Though Aadhar and Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) were ideas of the previous United Progressive Alliance regime, Modi realised the potential of the programmes and used them to reshape other social welfare efforts.
To drive home the point on technology, the Survey highlighted the case of MGNREGS as an example of how it can streamline the processes, transfer funds to implementing agencies and beneficiaries in a timely manner, plug leakage, and ensure “optimum utilisation of public funds and improve overall performance (outputs/outcomes) of the programmes”.
MGNREGS, which gives work to 117 million villagers annually, is based on the Jan Dhan accounts, Aadhaar and Mobile (JAM) trinity to provide DBTs to the beneficiaries.
Before the roll-out of DBT, wages under MGNREGS went through a complex yet porous process. They were transferred to panchayat bank accounts, and a large number of workers collected wages in cash from gram panchayat offices. This, the Survey pointed out, left a huge scope for pilferage, false accounts, bribes and exploitation. In the initial stages of MGNREGS, the Survey said, there were “structural constraints” since “close to 50% of the country’s population did not have bank accounts”.
The Survey added: “Second, verifying the identity of genuine beneficiaries and transferring wages directly into their bank accounts posed problems.”
But by December 2015, the Aadhaar enrolments exceeded the 1 billion mark, covering a major portion of India’s population. With the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) was launched to provide universal banking, it helped MGNREGS to start an Aadhaar-based bank account system for millions of beneficiaries.
“By expanding the mobile payment options, the Government was able to ease the connectivity issue as people could get access to banking facilities using their mobile phones. So, the JAM trinity enabled the roll-out of DBT by streamlining the validation/verification of beneficiaries as well as the process for release of funds,” the Survey said.
In 2015-16, 36.9% of the MGNREGS workers got payments in time. In the last financial year, 89.8% workers were paid on time, making the scheme more effective in distress management, the Survey noted.
The Survey has also suggested that the wide data network of MGNREGS can also be used for other use. It said that demand for work under MGNREGS may be used to develop a real-time indicator of distress at the granular district/ panchayat level and to further increase the effectiveness of the scheme, the definition of ‘works’ under MGNREGS may be regularly reviewed and amended to include jobs like de-silting of canals and water bodies in the Water Conservation Mission. The Survey has also laid emphasis on skill development of MGNREGS workers as mere manua jobs can’t be sustained in the long term.
“The experience of increasing the effectiveness of MGNREGS by using DBT and ALP lends immense credibility to adoption of this strategy in other programmes. The adoption of DBT in programmes which involve transfer of cash benefits (scholarships or pensions) and price subsidies (such as those given for kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), public distribution system (PDS), fertilisers and other input subsidies needs to be strengthened to minimise exclusion and inclusion errors,” said the Survey.
Former union rural development secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra said, “Right from the beginning, MGNREGS used a good technology platform. But in the past few years, the direct payment from ministry to the beneficiary and the geo-tagging of MGNREGS assets has helped the government curb corruption further. Going from MGNREGS, many other social programmes can also use the same technology to improve service delivery. But the Eco Survey’s proposal to expand the works under MGNREGS is not needed as the MGNREGS already has an expansive list of scheduled works.”