Social Safety Nets as Safeguards against Poverty: Voices from India

  Udayan Rathore, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research



As articulated by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, social safety nets are paramount to ‘protect and promote’ the standards of living in a society. A growing body of literature supports this premise. In this article, we present community accounts of these programmes from Odisha and Bihar in India that were recorded in the summer of 2016 as part of the ‘Women’s Empowerment in Nutrition Index (WENI)‘ project.

The WENI project aims to uncover the pathways between women’s empowerment, agriculture and nutrition. Although the states in focus are not considered to be stellar performers in the delivery of social services in India, certain schemes featured prominently in the testimonies we heard. These were the Mid Day Meal (MDM), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mamata Scheme in Odisha, the Public Distribution System (PDS), and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA or the Employment Guarantee Act).

The testimonies reveal the role of such programmes to be threefold:

  1. Protection against hunger and malnutrition
  2. Dissemination of knowledge, which facilitates a favourable environment for demand-driven challenges to norms that compromise well-being, particularly for women
  3. Unintended, indirect  effects that undermine extractive relationships within the community, for example, caste based discrimination that causes social and economic exclusion of certain groups

The Mid Day Meal and the Integrated Child Development schemes are playing a pivotal role in providing nutritional support to children and women, who bear a disproportionate burden of poor access to healthcare in the region. Young mothers from Baliguda and Rohibanka, Odisha, expressed satisfaction with the quality of the Mid Day Meal scheme and were appreciative of children being provided eggs twice a week. Under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, Aanganwadi centres in Rohibanka were providing supplementary nutrition in the form of two kilos of toasted gram flour and eight eggs per month to mothers for six months post-delivery.

In Odisha, these provisions were combined with the Mamata scheme to promote institutionalised childbirth and provide better nutrition for pregnant and lactating women. The two schemes have been well supported by the Public Distribution System which covers calorific requirements for the household and also frees up income for a diverse diet.

Decline in access to common property resources in the region highlights the importance of the Public Distribution System and its linkages with food security. Under the Scheme, the entitlement of households (16 kilos of rice and four kilos of wheat) was found to be similar across regions and respondents were largely satisfied with the programme. Also, given that seasonal hunger peaks in the lean agricultural season, the Employment Guarantee Act was perceived to be a key intervention against seasonal shock to income and central to livelihood protection. For example, for the lean season in Bhikaripalli and Baliguda, it provided three months of employment for canal work and road construction, respectively.

Knowledge and information dissemination from these programmes has assisted women in challenging norms around food consumption. A young mother from Rohibanka remarked: ‘Earlier, eating bananas were not allowed post-delivery in my community. However, with doctor’s advice provided under the Mamata scheme, young mothers and their families have now started including these into their diets.’

The importance of the Public Distribution System may be gauged from the fact that people in certain regions have organised to demand reasonable quality of grains. A young woman from Rohibanka village council in Nayagarh reported: ‘If quality (of grain) is poor, no one in the village will accept it.’  Although the Employment Guarantee Act stipulates equal pay for men and women, a gender difference was observed in most regions. However, there was awareness among the women about their entitlement. A member of a women’s group in Araria asked: ‘Do men work with two hands and women with one? Why should we be paid less?’

In addition to the direct effects, these programmes have favourable indirect effects. For example, the Employment Guarantee Act has helped socially disadvantaged, landless and marginalised farmers organise themselves and bargain for better working conditions.

A woman participant in Aamgachi recalled: ‘Before the scheme, wage rates would sometimes be as low as 20% of the current (nominal) wage for women, particularly in the off season. We now get a better wage and this has weakened the grip of exploitative landlords, who would earlier pay peanuts for work that was physically hard.’

Better organisation has in turn facilitated active political participation from the disadvantaged communities and led to social churning. A member from one such community, who was formerly elected as the village head of Aamgachi, recalled that when he filed his candidature, a landlord from an upper caste remarked: ‘Those who used to lick our shoes yesterday are today becoming politicians.’

Despite these positives, there are concerns regarding the implementation of these programmes in certain regions. A young mother from Sukhsena complained about the quality of meals under the Mid Day Meal, saying: ‘Ingredients are usually stale and meals poorly cooked.’ In the Bhikaripalli village council in Ganjam district, a woman reported the quality of grain in the Public Distribution System to be inferior with losses amounting to 20% to 60% of the rice quota. For the Employment Guarantee Act, a widow in Aamgachi reported wage discrimination across gender and delays in wage disbursement.

Although quality of service delivery remains a concern in some regions, these voices are unequivocally suggestive of the potential for welfare programmes to provide basic dignity that many in India are lacking. Moreover, given that women often find themselves at the forefront against the misfortunes falling on a household, social safety nets are paramount for a holistic developmental policy.

This anecdotal evidence from Odisha and Bihar has sharpened our understanding of the constituent elements of WENI. This has further facilitated the design of our questionnaire that we intend to administer at the beginning of 2018. 

Contributed by Udayan Rathore, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research. This work was completed as part of the IMMANA-funded project ‘Women’s Empowerment in Nutrition Index (WENI): Measuring nutritional empowerment to better link agriculture to nutrition’

photo credits: Ankita Mondal




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