DBT schemes need a digital grievance redressal system
DBT schemes are meant to ride on digital rails to facilitate smooth direct cash transfers. However, transfers are not always smooth.
World over, social protection systems are being digitised. Over the last 15 years, India has led this change with its numerous investments in public digital infrastructure. The promise of digitisation is that citizens, who once could not access the benefits they were entitled to, now can, because digitisation is said to reduce inefficiency and minimise corruption by adding transparency to the delivery chain. Yet, the real story departs from this narrative. Many eligible beneficiaries are being excluded from these digitised systems, and due to a lack of grievance redressal mechanisms, continue to be left out.
In the last two years, Dvara Research has worked with several partners to document instances of “exclusion” among a variety of direct benefit transfer (DBT) schemes in multiple states. DBT schemes are meant to ride on digital rails to facilitate smooth direct cash transfers. However, transfers are not always smooth. Further, the delivery chain is not entirely digital, with a need for human intervention along the chain. And worryingly, the rhetoric of “end-to-end digital delivery” masks these human interventions from the conscience of policymakers.
Consider the following:
One, a recently married woman in Tamil Nadu is unable to update the address on her Aadhaar card to her new (husband’s) address, because the Aadhaar portal has rejected her application, without giving her a reason for the rejection. This is exclusion at the first stage of delivery, since an inability to obtain proper documents precludes her from applying for several schemes that she is eligible for.
Two, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has enrolled in the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana. Due to an error, possibly clerical, during the enrolment process, someone else’s bank account has been linked to his record. Consequently, he has not received any benefits. Repeated requests to the local government have produced little movement on correcting the error. This is exclusion at the second stage of delivery, since even though identification was possible, the beneficiary has not been successfully registered.
Three, a daily wage labourer in UP has successfully enrolled in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). She provides a copy of her Aadhaar card to the local government functionary, but at the block development office, a shortage of staff means that there is no operator available to link her Aadhaar card to her job card. Consequently, she does not get paid for weeks. This is exclusion at the third stage of delivery, due to deficiencies in the back-end processing of benefits.
Finally, a MGNREGS worker in Madhya Pradesh travels some distance from his village to a banking kiosk to withdraw his wages from his newly opened account. The agent at the kiosk withdraws the correct amount from the worker’s account, but underpays the worker, pocketing the difference and claiming that the worker’s account has insufficient funds. This is exclusion at the fourth stage of delivery, where beneficiaries new to banking are defrauded.
In each of these cases, grievance redressal was unavailable at the last mile. Such cases are not exceptions. They are happening across schemes and states, as our research (which looks at six DBT schemes across seven states) finds. The mission’s responsibility cannot end with ensuring that payments are generated and sent to the bank. It should ensure that every beneficiary is receiving their benefits, and that all steps in the delivery chain are functioning effectively.
The creation of a common grievance redressal cell for all DBT schemes across states, districts, and block tiers is, therefore, essential. It can collate and track all complaints generated at the sub-tiers and assign the duty of grievance redress resolution to the relevant level of administration. It can mandate a monthly assembly of a Panchayat session in every village to hear grievances related to DBT payments. Its activities can be periodically audited, and its achievements, as well as its areas for improvement, can be published in the public domain.
Some states that are in the vanguard of digitising the state apparatus for social protection delivery have well-designed grievance redress management systems (Rajasthan’s Sampark, for example). It is still unclear if these systems are effective, but their designs appear to be in accordance with the principles of inclusivity and accountability. The DBT mission can learn from them and upgrade its delivery. Only then can the promise of digitisation be fully realised.
Indradeep Ghosh is the executive director, Dvara Research
The views expressed are personal