Is this Social Innovation?

In the debate on cash transfers versus subsidies, the jury still seems to be out for the most part, and the debate rages on despite the central government’s decision to begin targeted cash transfers in January next year. While some claim that this is ‘social innovation,’ others oppose it vehemently, and others still consider it just another fad of the international development industry.

Ambrish Dongre of the Accountability Initiative, discussing the opposing sides of the debate, writes:

Cash transfers, whether conditional or unconditional, are getting a lot of attention in India these days. The success of cash transfers program in the some parts of the world, especially Latin America, and not so much of success of India’s own schemes and welfare programmes, have led many to think about cash transfers more seriously.

Unfortunately, there is not much empirical evidence on the success of cash transfer programs in the Indian context. One simple reason is that there aren’t many in the first place. There are a few cash transfer programs at the central and the state level but the lack of concrete data and rigorous evaluation of these programs has meant that we can’t really say much about the effect of these cash transfer schemes, in general. We know a lot about the problems in say, distributing food through public distribution system but that does not necessarily mean that the cash transfer programs will work.

Is this another case like the BRT, where we’ve adopted a program that doesn’t really have any history or success rate in India, but has succeeded in other parts of the world? Or does this new social benefit program hold promise to better deliver services and finances to those who need it most?

The biggest question, it seems to me, is whether or not this system will result in less corruption and fewer leakages than the earlier paradigm of subsidizing food, fuel and so on. But even if it does mean less corruption, what about the reach of the services to those who need it most? A recent article in Forbes takes the case of a lady, Rukhsana, who opposes cash transfers, explaining that the system to receive these transfers is complicated, full of gaps in information, and entirely dependent on the UID scheme, which itself has several lacks and gaps. The author writes:

There are many reasons why one could consider direct cash subsidy as the idea whose time has come. Barring a few states, Public Distribution System is in shambles in the country for long enough for policy makers to feel that it is time to abandon it in favour of direct cash transfers. The chief benefit is the cut down in the administrative aspect. Beneficiaries will not be required to deal with so many “babus” who rob them of their quota of foodgrains.

Essentially, it is technical solution to the longstanding inability of the government to deliver subsidized foodgrains. But it is also reflective of India’s society – after all many of us are involved in looting the poorest of their due. The question then is – how far can a technocratic solution address a social problem?

This is the crux of the debate on all social innovation in India – is a top-down technocratic solution the only means to address longstanding social problems? Can we not imagine other, more sociocentric and truly innovative solutions to the problems we face?

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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