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Challenges for a Minimum Social Democracy

While the discussion on social
democracy in western countries
often puts the emphasis on its
high costs and issues of incentives
for work and enterprise, in India
high inequality, massive poverty
and a vast informal sector make
the challenge of implementing
social democracy extremely
daunting as much as it is
highly imperative.

More than six decades after the
establishment of the Indian Republic
(which is constitutionally
declared as “socialist”), even the barest
minimum social protection remains unavailable
for its masses of people. In this
article we shall discuss some of the special
challenges that India faces and the different
approaches to tackling them that have
been mooted in the public arena.

Even in western social democracies the
large social protection programmes for
workers are suffering from stresses and
strains, particularly from the point of view
of fi scal stringency, anxieties of global
competitiveness and shifts in political
attitudes towards immigrant recipients of
benefi ts. In India where inequality and
mass poverty are large, there are doubts
about the fi scal feasibility of even the
barest minimum programmes and about
the large-scale wastes and thefts such programmes
often involve. In addition the
vast informal sector (larger than in most
major developing countries : even outside
agriculture more than 80% of Indian
workers work informally) implies special
diffi culties and costs of
such programmes.

Rights-Based Approach

In the Indian discussion there have been
different approaches to the question of
how to tackle social protection. A very
popular approach these days is to couch it
in terms of “rights” (to food, education, information,
jobs, etc), and there is a great
deal of commendable activism on this
front, and already some achievements to
show, particularly in the landmark legislations
on the right to information and to
work on public works projects (though
their implementation in many states are
as yet rather slow and feeble, and facing a
great deal of resistance from bureaucrats,
contractors, etc). This approach can, at the
minimum, serve to raise consciousness
among the poor and vulnerable about their
entitlements, a sense that they are not
mere supplicants to the politicians or bureaucrats,
that if the latter fail there is access to
courts to enforce these rights, and publicinterest
litigation and court injunctions on
these matters have attracted a great deal
of attention.

But at the same time one should recognise
some limits to this rights-based approach.
If the delivery structure for implementing
some of these rights remains as
weak and corrupt as it is now, mere promulgation
of rights will remain hollow and
will, after a point, generate a great deal of
cynicism. The Indian public arena is
already littered with hundreds of unenforced
or spasmodically enforced court injunctions,
and there is some danger of the
proliferating judicial activism in stret ching
the interpretation of the constitutional
“right to life” ending up, for all its good
intentions, in undermining the credi bility
and legitimacy of the judiciary itself.

For example, if the right to food is
exerted with no consideration of the effi -
ciency and cost-effectiveness of the ways
of implementing it (like the current public
distribution system (PDS) which in many
states is an enormous project of theft and
wastage – a rough estimate is that less
than a quarter of the subsidised foodgrains
reaches the poor), it is an unwarranted
and unfair burden on taxpayers who fund
the galloping costs. In any case the programme
as currently administered is
weakest in the poorest regions that need it
most. Food stamps that have been advocated
from time to time will reduce some
of the wastage and theft in the storage and
distribution by public agencies, but will
not eliminate the problems of (a) fraud
rampant in non-universal means-tested
targeting like that to below-poverty-line
(BPL) people, and (b) the development of
secondary markets where merchants buy
up the stamps in exchange of some (smaller)
cash – in which case you might as well
directly give people cash rather than
stamps. The recent Right to Education Act
does very little for the poor quality – and
quantity – of education services actually
provided in government schools (that drive children to private schools even though
teachers there are by and large less qualifi
ed and less well-paid) or about the negligence
with which the new poor students
foisted on the private schools are likely to
be treated without a proper qua lity evaluation
of schools in place, or the remedial
education that the poor- performing children
(at private or government schools)
and the school dropouts desperately need.

The current National Rural Employment
Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the
largest of its kind anywhere in the world,
for all its fl aws (which would have been
far less if a regular and institutionalised
system of independent social audits were
in place – only Andhra Pradesh government
has institutionalised them), provides
a possible fallback option for many ablebodied
rural adults for working on mostly
construction projects for a period of 100
days every year (though this limit of 100
days and timely payment of wages have so
far been reached only in very few areas).
This may have already exerted some positive
indirect effects on the rural wage
earned by the poorest people.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.