THE federal structure of the Indian polity drew a great deal of attention in the past and continues to do so. During the days of the drafting of the Constitution and immediately thereafter, the focus was on its legal and administrative aspects. The economic and financial aspects, too, have received a lot of attention. With the launch of the “reforms” in the early 1990s, the emphasis shifted specifically to the administrative aspects of their implementation for which the initiative came from the Central government. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA-I), which came to power in 2004, initiated a number of “rights-based” reforms—the Right to Information, the Right to Employment (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, subsequently renamed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA), the Right to Food Act, the Right to Education Act, and so on. The implementation of these reform measures, of course, became the responsibility of the State governments which, in turn, had to function through their administrative units, the districts and the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Meanwhile, the States were themselves going through the implementation of the Mandal reforms of the late 1980s, which had released the new Other Backward Classes (OBC) power, leading to identity politics gaining prominence. The coalition government at the Centre and the political parties in power in various States added complexity to politics and governance.
Empirical studies, which form the basis of the chapters in the volume under review, were undertaken in the context of such major changes. The introductory chapter says: “This volume examines the politics of welfare across Indian States in the context of rapid economic growth, and against the backdrop of new social legislation introduced by India’s Central and State governments led by many different political parties since the mid-2000s.” The States, thus, became the scene of the interplay of legislation, administration and implementation of reforms in the formulation of which they seldom had any direct role. Empirical studies were specially commissioned to “investigate the relationship between political environments and social policies across Indian States within its multilevel federal system” which “deepens knowledge of India’s multiple emergent welfare regimes”.
It maybe recalled that the keenly contested general election of 2004 saw a direct confrontation between the “India Shining” slogan and the masses who had legitimate complaints against being left out of what was claimed to be rapidly increasing “growth”. It is a fact that the 1990s concentrated on “liberalisation” per se to the contraction of expenditure on welfare measures such as food subsidies.
The broad-based UPA, which had the powerful backing of civil society activists and, in the initial stages, the support of the Left parties as well, interpreted the electoral victory in such a way as to initiate “rights-based” reforms. Many States had in place active social welfare schemes in areas such as food distribution, health care and education. The case studies reported in the present volume offer a variety of patterns of interaction between the state, markets and society in an increasingly globalising context.MGNREGS through PRIs
Two of the case studies reported in the volume relate to schemes under the Act (MGNREGS), but in two distinctly different contexts. The first is a comparison of the scheme under implementation in Meghalaya and Jharkhand, two of what may be described as “tribal”-dominated States.
As is generally known, the MGNREGA was claimed to be the manifestation of the concept of the right to work, which conferred on the poor “the right to demand, the right to know and the right to dignity,” as some of its enthusiasts claimed. Anybody in the rural areas, men and women alike, could demand 100 days of work, and if work could not be found within a fortnight, compensation had to be paid.
Computerisation of information relating to the implementation of the scheme enabled its participants to be aware of the procedures. But according to the Act, the scheme was to be implemented through the PRIs, and this is where the tribal States faced a problem as PRIs had not been put in place there. However, the States had the right (and obligation) to bring in suitable “conformity legislations”.
Meghalaya created a new set of “hybrid” councils named “Employment Councils”, blending the role and authority of the traditional unelected customary chiefs with new structures of development governance. These included an Area Employment Council and a Block Employment Council. While these were not the kind of democratic bodies that the original Act had envisaged, they nevertheless initiated a new participatory sphere beyond the exclusively enclosed traditional practices. Where it was mandatory to have elected executives, traditional chiefs were formally elected to such positions.
The author of the study sums up: “As a result, these new spaces have also become sites of a new contestation between citizens, bureaucrats, state officials, and the now empowered customary actors.”
In Jharkhand, too, initially there were no PRIs and so the implementation of the MGNREGA was essentially a bureaucratic responsibility. However, gram sabhas and their pradhans were incorporated into the scheme through official circulars, which largely diluted the authority of the traditional bodies. While the MGNREGS was to be locally decided, it is well-known that the much publicised “wells project” was announced by the Chief Secretary of the State. Thus, the MGNREGS in the State remained largely part of the target-driven delivery schemes, the favourite of well-intentioned bureaucrats.Politics and welfare
The implementation of the MGNREGS in two big States, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, shows a distinctively different pattern and brings out more clearly the role of politics in welfare schemes. The authors of the study use the term “politics” in its broadest sense as shaping “how resources are deployed, withheld, or stolen, the extent to which rules and norms are observed, and who gains, who loses, and who governs”.
And though the MGNREGS was a programme sponsored by the UPA, these two States, then ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), found it to their advantage to implement them. Politics in the limited sense consisted in dressing up the programme as one administrated by the States and thus influence the voters because, when implemented well, it empowered the rural poor to stand up against the traditional landlords, and show that the local-level bureaucracy has to listen to them and that even higher officials can be approached.
In Rajasthan, frequent droughts favoured introduction and steady implementation of the MGNREGS. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), including kisan organisations, actively participated in drought relief programmes. The real constraint was the limited supply of civil servants at lower levels who had the capacity to manage an administratively complex programme with the active participation of the beneficiaries. Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, was one of the earliest States to go in for democratic decentralisation.
It also had CSOs with experience in partnering with both senior officials and local councils. Consequently, civil servants were persuaded to agree that almost 90 per cent of the funds meant for the MGNREGS should pass through local councils. The authors of the studies of these two States are positive in their overall evaluation of the programme. According to them, the scheme certainly succeeded in reaching the poorest sections in the two States making a perceptible difference to their material conditions. Improvement in material conditions, in turn, enhanced the political capacity of the poor people, in building political awareness, confidence, skills and connections. Women, in particular, benefited considerably thanks to the implementation of the MGNREGS.Health care
Another chapter is on how Kerala and Tamil Nadu were ahead of most of the other States in many ways in terms of social welfare and development and made use of publicly funded health insurance schemes to improve health care in general. An important thrust of the UPA was to increase health insurance coverage from around 75 million people in 2007 to over 300 million by 2010. Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala introduced modifications to the insurance schemes to facilitate the flow of insurance funds to their public sector hospitals. This led to the entry of many private sector agencies into the field. However, the two States lead the rest of the country in terms of public expenditure on health care and medical training. Irrespective of the complexion of the ruling parties in the two States, they have found the public expenditure on health care a satisfying social policy, not insignificant in terms of electoral dividends either.
The chapter comparing the social security measures for women and domestic workers adopted by Maharashtra and West Bengal is rather weak, not for want of scholarship but because the governments in these two States have only a marginal role in these areas; whatever is being done is largely done by voluntary agencies.
The concluding chapter is a comparative study of the monitoring of the educational policies in the Union Territories of Chandigarh and Delhi, which have much in common. The main point that is dealt with is the multiplicity of agencies dealing with education in these two adjacent cities and the consequent difficulties in making any robust appraisal of the implementation of the Right to Education Act. There are multiple agencies, public and private, for collecting data and a number of monitoring institutions (MI) as well. The study concludes: “While these two cities share some similarities, the question of scale becomes extremely important. Delhi, being a much larger city and a national political and economic capital, involves complexities that are not seen in Chandigarh…[T]he MI in Chandigarh finds it relatively easy to communicate and share information with the officer in charge of education. In Delhi, the MI mentioned that some reports were not promptly shared with relevant agencies.”
The volume of essays in which Indian and foreign scholars have collaborated to deal with a relatively neglected aspect of the implementation of social legislation—enacted by the Central government but turned to their own political advantage by the State governments—deserves attention for its own merit. The essays will also be helpful for research scholars as models of field studies, carefully designed and conducted and reported with professional thoroughness.