ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Right to NYAY

Public institutions that are sensitive to citizens’ rights can ensure efficient income transfer.

 

The Congress party’s electoral promise of minimum income guarantee or the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) for the poorest 20% families in the country deserves some credit. It has brought to the centre stage the moral imperative of pursuing a welfare agenda for guaranteeing the minimum economic agency of the poor. This promise is significant, especially in a context where the ruling government has systematically cherry-picked infrastructure and utilities for its welfare schemes, and let the social safety nets languish.

During the past few days, the debate on the credibility of this promise has shifted accountability on to the “common man” to treat minimum income guarantee as “security” and not as a dole or benefit. A similar concern, however, is also pervading the public mind as such political promises tend to casually use “social security” and “doles” interchangeably. This, in effect, would lead to the dilution of the accountability mechanism that makes any democratically elected government answerable for their failure to ensure citizens’ constitutional rights to dignity of life and justice. But, is this reading of the promise merely a ­reflection of the insensitivity or naivety of the sceptical common mind regarding the political significance of social security and dole? Or is it conditioned by an institutional architecture of ­service delivery that has pervasively undermined the spirit of human life and dignity?

Whether guarantee, support, or dole, there is a sense of (state) paternalism—of varying degrees—associated with these terms. What extent of paternalism is morally acceptable, especially when the services delivered are matters of the fundamental rights to life and livelihoods of the beneficiaries? Research has found that the government’s “guaranteeing” of a subsistence income, by taking off the burden of critical decision-making for subsistence-level survival, can significantly improve the quality of life of the poor. But, when such schemes are delivered through fragmented, top-down institutional architectures, “rights” or obligations are made to appear as “benefits” or discretions of the benefactors, which can be easily tampered with for partisan motives. Our previous experience with targeted safety net schemes has been much the same. Existing evidences show that layers of red tape and associated pilferages can prevent these schemes from outsizing the gains in poverty reduction. With the Congress’s proposed minimum income guarantee being “targeted” and not universal, its efficacy for improving the lives of the poor is hence doubted. Given the chequered history of service delivery, relegation of the safety nets (minimum income guarantee, here) to mere “doles” in the public perception is an inescapable occurrence.

Having said that, one cannot, however, deny that the Congress’s NYAY is a glimmer of optimism during these days of being entrapped by the “Waiting for Godot” syndrome (read achhe din). It is not that ­Godot has or will arrive with this manifesto. But, here is definitely an opportunity to make some informed choices. More than speculating or debating on whether the Congress manifesto of minimum income guarantee is pre-emptive or precursory politics, the pressing need of the hour is to look at it critically in terms of its feasibility and implementation. What forms the basis of the estimates for the target population of five crore families and the proposed level of annual income support of ₹ 72,000 per family? What is the mathematics underlying the assumption that the fiscal deficit can be kept at 3% despite such wide coverage of the scheme? What will be the model of cost sharing bet­ween the centre and the states? Why will states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, which already have their state-specific ­direct cash transfer schemes in place, follow this model? Will there be any institutional reforms to ensure efficient delivery of the scheme? Can this scheme eventually supplant the leaky and distortionary anti-poverty and subsidy programmes?

It is understandable that implementing such an expansive programme will entail much trial and tribulation, and the answers to some of these questions may come through only after implementation. But, it rests with the electorate to ensure that such a lofty manifesto is not merely deemed to be a politics of nomenclature. The party manifesto under reference would have to give a realistic picture of the resources that would make this promise yield some concrete result. It is incumbent upon the political party to demonstrate its political will by ensuring that endurance is not stretched to the extent of procrastination if such a scheme is ever implemented; for, nyay (justice) delayed is nyay denied. Both the cases, however, would require fundamental shifts in mindset at all relevant levels. Both the commoners and the government (whether potential or current) must recognise that, first, justice and dignity are rights and not allowances or benefits, and second, that rights are neither discretionary conferment nor aspirational targets, but only the lawful claims of the beneficiaries.

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2019

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