Patralekha Chatterjee | Basic services a citizen’s ‘right’ or ‘gift’ from govt?

The Asian Age.  | Patralekha Chatterjee

Opinion, Columnists

The questions are not new. Nor is the debate around the “citizen versus labharthi” template.

What distinguishes a citizen from a beneficiary? (PTI File Image)

Should access to basic amenities be framed as the “rights” of citizens or as part of the largesse from a benevolent leader? Do terms matter if people benefit? Or does being a beneficiary inherently imply a relational weakness to the benefactor? What distinguishes a citizen from a beneficiary?

The questions are not new. Nor is the debate around the “citizen versus labharthi” template.

It just got a new lease of life, and goes to the heart of the Narendra Modi government’s welfare agenda, widely seen as a key factor behind the BJP’s electoral success and its recent thumping victories in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The term “labharthi” (beneficiary) is now part of the country’s political vocabulary and a talking point of the ruling BJP. In February this year, the BJP’s Mahila Morcha launched its “One Crore Selfies” campaign to draw attention to how the Narendra Modi government’s various welfare schemes have helped “women beneficiaries”. It was labelled the “biggest beneficiary outreach programme ever”.

Many public policy experts like Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research, and Himanshu, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, have written extensively about India’s emerging welfare state and the “citizen versus labharthi” template.

 A December 2020 commentary piece by Abhishek Anand, Vikas Dimble and Arvind Subramanian had noted that: “The New Welfarism of the Narendra Modi government represents a very distinctive approach to redistribution and inclusion. It does not prioritise the supply of public goods such as basic health and primary education as governments have done around the world historically…”  Instead, “it has entailed the subsidised public provision of essential goods and services, normally provided by the private sector, such as bank accounts, cooking gas, toilets, electricity, housing, and more recently water and plain cash.”

Millions of women now have bank accounts, access to electricity and cooking gas. Toilets have been built across the country, and the Union Cabinet recently approved extension of the free foodgrains scheme -- Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) -- for the next five years.

It is also no secret that Brand Modi is the most important element of the BJP’s politics and electoral strategy, and that, in part, this branding pivots around the portrayal of the Prime Minister as the provider of the slew of welfare benefits. This will definitely remain central to the BJP’s strategy till the general election in 2024. Along with Hindutva.

The Modi government’s welfare agenda has provided many tangible essentials to millions of poor Indians. Questions, however, are being raised about what it means for citizens to see these tangible essentials as goodies from an individual leader, and not necessarily as part of a legal framework, in the long term. Interestingly, the Opposition parties too have tried to follow the template of the citizen as “labharthi” (group of beneficiaries).

India has a history of handouts. It also has a history of mass movements, judicial activism which gave citizens legal cover and the power to demand accountability. Remember that the current free foodgrain scheme stems from a legal framework and is a part of an entitlement under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013.

Suhas Palshikar, an eminent academic and social and political scientist, sees this trend as part of the attempt by Narendra Modi and the BJP to shape a paternalistic model of governance and welfare, which is distinct from rights or demand. In that context, tangible essentials become a “gift or prasad”, as Palshikar puts it. That idea, he argues, fits into the Hindutva narrative that allows a top-down style of exercising power.

We all like gifts and typically accept them with gratitude, but we are not entitled to gifts. In contrast, if we frame healthcare, nutrition, electricity, financial inclusion, sanitation etc as basic rights, we would be entitled to ask questions.

Clearly, the paternalistic governance model works politically in large chunks of the country when combined with other factors. In Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP won decisively, one key factor is said to have been Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s “Ladli Behna Yojana”. Unmarried women above 21 years of age are described in relational terms, as “ladli behna” (beloved sister) and get monetary assistance. It worked.

But the fact remains that in spite of all the high-decibel rhetoric about daughters and sisters in recent years, very few Indian women have sources of income of their own. The Periodic Labour Force Survey Report 2022-23 released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation in October shows the Female Labour Force Participation Rate in the country has improved but it is still only 37 per cent.

“After falling or being stagnant since 2004, female employment rates have risen since 2019 due to a distress-led increase in self-employment. Before Covid-19, 50 per cent of women were self-employed. After Covid this rose to 60 per cent. As a result, earnings from self-employment declined in real terms over this period. Even two years after the 2020 lockdown, self-employment earnings were only 85 per cent of what they were in the April-June 2019 quarter,” says a report “State of Working 2023” by Azim Premji University.

As we inch closer to 2024 and a general election, we must ask ourselves if the focus on the political success of welfare programmes -- new and repackaged ones -- is not muting necessary conversations on other key issues, like jobs, education, etc. Why do we need so many welfare schemes if economic growth is trickling down to those at the bottom? We talk about schools built, rise in enrolment but why not on learning outcomes critical to boosting a country’s foundational strength? We talk about the huge number of schools in the country, but a school building is not necessarily a marker of significant progress in education just as mass construction of toilets does not automatically guarantee a high score in sanitation. On the ground, India has a shortage of more than one million teachers. Add to this the stark reality of inequitable distribution of available teachers and high school dropout rates at the secondary level.

Today, anyone raising such issues risks being accused of spreading “negativity”.

As a country with a median age of 28, and that aspires to be a developed nation, we cannot dodge questions pivoting around the disappointing educational transformation, inadequate job creation, and lack of gender parity. The official buzz around success stories must be supplemented by serious discussions about gaps that remain.

Talking about essential duties of the State and citizens’ rights is not spreading negativity. It is providing a reality check.