Across successive governments, India has emerged as a pioneer in building digital tools to improve program governance at the state and national level. Has all this technology helped? Robust evidence is mixed and limited.
Leveraging technology platforms for effective program delivery poses unique challenges. For citizens, the use of new tech-savvy tools can be alienating and intimidating. Using technology requires learning new ways to make demands and withdraw benefits, and new norms and modes of local behavior. Techo-optimists suggest that problems faced by local governments and citizens in using technology which manifest in reports of delays and exclusion due to poor infrastructure and connectivity are teething pains –side-effects of the transition to digital ways of interacting with government. Others fear that the side-effect could become the outcome, seeing the rapid deployment of new technologies as attacks on past improvements in delivery and giving rise to new forms of corruption. Should the state curb its enthusiasm for tech? Three design principles are key if technology is to truly and effectively help transform India’s social protection systems.
First,. Solutions such as Aadhaar and DBT are often touted as gamechangers for Indian social protection. Are they? Depends –what problem are they solving? If the problem is payment leakages emerging from “ghosts” or fake beneficiaries siphoning of monies, then as some early studies indicate, Aadhaar and DBT can make some difference. However, evaluated from the perspective of inclusion and citizen satisfaction, the evidence paints a different picture. In particular, the role of Aadhaar in delivering benefit transfers has come under significant academic, legal and civil society scrutiny for privacy concerns, delayed payments and triggering exclusion through authentication failures. Recent process assessments from Union Territories where governments are transferring food subsidies through electronic cash payments highlight the significant challenges posed by limited financial literacy and banking networks, even in urbanized environments.
Importantly what Aadhaar enabled digital payments cannot do is ensure that benefits reach the neediest citizen. The 2019 budget announced the widely debated PM-KSN scheme for farmers. But, how will administrators identify and prioritize the small and marginalized farmers for whom the schemes are intended? Reviews of various programs highlight how exclusion continues to plague cash transfer programs such as social pensions in India. Identification of the poor who the social protection system seeks to prioritize has historically been problematic in India due to the poor design and execution of the BPL system. While biometrically authenticated Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) can verify if a certain person received a certain amount with maximum accuracy and minimum leakage, these tools cannot tell us if the person receiving the benefit is most in need of it. Aadhaar is proof of identity, not eligibility or priority. DBT can only provide a secure pipeline to transfer payments. Neither solves questions on who should be given greater priority for transfers. The problem of eligibility determination requires a very different set of interventions such as social registries. Without clearly identifying the problem, we can’t analyze performance of technology tools –as these are simply enablers, parts of a larger solution.
Second, . In social protection, a core motivation underpinning many tech-based reforms is the idea of removing human-interface from the delivery landscape by making processes as automated as possible. This idea is rooted in how Indian policy making often casts ‘last-mile’ cadres as apathetic – powerful corrupt entities who barely show up to work, are indifferent to the needs of citizens, dispense patronage and use power for personal gain. Yet the experience with various IT innovations suggests that the skill sets, capabilities and size of the local bureaucracy is critical to ensuring benefit transfer systems are inclusive, timely and citizen-friendly.