Significance of Universal Social Welfare – Explained, Pointwise


The Covid-19 pandemic struck India in 2020. It brutally impacted the lives of the Indian masses especially the marginalized community. Despite having multiple social welfare schemes, the country failed to provide adequate social welfare services to the marginalized during the pandemic. Thus, Universal Social Welfare is the need of the hour.

This pandemic, along with the failure of services, led India into a series of crises; such as 1) mass inter and intra-migration, 2) food insecurity, and 3)failure of health infrastructure. At the end of the year, the impact started reducing and the economy started improving. However, after a brief respite, the 2nd Covid-19 wave struck India. This wave is impacting even the middle and upper-class citizens.

The given situation has presented an opportunity to focus on Universal Social Welfare (USW). India should take prudent steps in this direction by overcoming the concerning impediments as USW would generate better results than the current scenario.

About Universal Social Welfare/Social Security
  • According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Social Security is a comprehensive approach with an aim: 
    • To prevent deprivation, 
    • To give assurance to the individual of a basic minimum income for himself and his dependents, 
    • Also, to protect the individual from any uncertainty.
  • Social welfare systems provide assistance to individuals and families through programs; such as health care, food stamps, unemployment compensation, housing assistance, etc.
  • Giving such protection to every individual in the country is called Universal Social Welfare.
Schemes and Initiatives for Social Welfare in India
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA): It guarantees 100 days of work a year to every rural household with an aim to enhance the livelihood security of people.
  • National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP): The program extends social assistance to poor households. It covers the aged, widows, disabled, and families where the breadwinner has passed away.
  • Integrated Child Development Services: It is a government program in India that provides food, preschool education, primary healthcare, cash transfers to families, etc. It covers children under 6 years of age and their mothers.
  • Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY): It provides insurance up to Rs 5 lakh per family per year for in-patient secondary and tertiary treatment. It covers over 100 million vulnerable families, which is about 500 million people.
Need of Universal Social Welfare
  • Vulnerability of masses: The pandemic has enhanced the vulnerability of masses as:
    • It has pushed an estimated 75 million people into poverty.
    • The second wave has shown even money is not enough to access health care services. It has brought even the middle and upper-class citizens to their knees.
    • Thus, focus just on the lower section of society is not sufficient. Now, even the middle class is in the need of government assistance.
  • Poor performance of Social Welfare schemes: The country has over 500 direct benefit transfer schemes. However, many schemes weren’t able to get desired benefits during the pandemic.
    • The schemes are fractionalised across various departments and sub-schemes. This causes problems in every stage from data collection to last-mile delivery.
    • Further, Pandemic necessitates a program that can provide assistance at a very fast pace. It should be provided before people start suffering from starvation and hunger.
  • Better results: India’s Pulse Polio Universal Immunisation Program helped it to become polio-free in 2014. This shows the country has the potential to run universal programs and achieve better results.
  • Nature of Indian workforce: More than 90% of the workforce is in the unorganized sector thereby depriving them of job security, labour rights, and post-retirement provisions.
    • Further, with the advancement of big data, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies; experts fear greater job losses in the country.  
  • Avoiding Inclusion/Exclusion errors: Universal system will encompass every individual and household in the country thereby tackling the problem of inclusion/exclusion. 
    • For instance, PDS can be linked to a universal identification card such as the Aadhaar or voter card, in the absence of a ration card. 
    • This would allow anyone who is in need of food grains to access these schemes especially the migrant populations.
  • Improved Living Standard: Access to education, maternity benefits, disability benefits, etc. social benefits would ensure a better standard of living for the people.
Challenges in adopting Universal Social Welfare
  • Financial Burden: Overall public expenditure on social protection (excluding public healthcare) is only approx. 1.5% of the GDP, lower than many middle-income countries across the world. However, huge sums of money would be required to universalize social welfare.
  • One Size Approach: Universal Social Welfare may be built on a unified approach that may deliver sub-optimum results. This would happen as political economy, labor markets, demographic attributes, and risk profiles vary by location.
  • Unequal Degree of Infrastructure across the country: The idea of USW requires each and every village to have decent electricity and optic fibre network for smooth dissemination of data. 
    • However, the Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators April – June 2020 show only 750 million people have an internet connection out of 1.3 billion.
  • Leakages and Corruption in Governance: India has slipped to 86th position in Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perception Index 2020. A high degree of corruption may result in a higher cost for USW and the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries. 
Suggestions to implement Universal Social Welfare
  • Firstly, the government should map the State and Central schemes in a consolidated manner. This would avoid duplication, inclusion, and exclusion errors in delivering welfare services.
    • For instance, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) can become a Universal Social Welfare scheme. 
      • It already consolidates the public distribution system (PDS), the provision of gas cylinders, and wages for the MGNREGA.
    • Similarly, MGNREGA can be extended to urban areas which would reduce the plight of the urban poor.
    • Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) should be converted into a universal healthcare scheme i.e. available to all and at every level of healthcare.
  • Secondly, it must compute the costs of delivering universal social services. Post computation, there is a need for robust steps to arrange the requisite amount.
  • Thirdly, the country can learn from successful global models like Ireland’s Poor Law System.
    • The system was introduced in the 19th century to provide relief to the masses. It was financed by local property taxes. 
    • The system was built keeping in mind the future economic crisis and dignity of the masses.
    • It has now evolved into a four-fold apparatus. It promises social insurance, social assistance, universal schemes, and extra benefits/supplements.
  • Fourthly, there must be a focus on data digitization, data-driven decision-making, and collaboration across government departments. This would improve the implementation potential.
  • Fifthly, universal social protection architecture should give respect to decentralization. Under this, the higher-level government should allow local governments to design, plan and deliver a core basket of benefits within a nationally defined policy framework and budget.

India should provide social welfare services to every citizen as a responsible welfare state. This would be in line with the Directive Principles of State Policies and help in the attainment of the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030.

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