Unpacking Exclusion, Grievance Redress, and the Relevance of Citizen-Assistance Mechanisms
Final Report submitted under Azim Premji University COVID-19 Research Funding Programme 2020
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has had far-reaching socio-economic implications in the form of national lockdowns, consequent suspension of economic activity, and reversal of internal migration, to name a few. The lockdown particularly led to significant distress among citizens due to employment loss, wage cuts, transportation and food supply disruption, and other issues that increased the dependency of people on social protection schemes. Relief packages by governments included ex-gratia food and cash entitlements delivered using the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and the Public Distribution System (PDS) infrastructure.[i] We also saw many returning migrant workers from cities turn towards the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) programme to seek temporary work.[ii] The pandemic has underscored the necessity of building safety nets. However, it has also brought to surface the various gaps that have continued to impede the delivery of many welfare interventions. A plethora of challenges is faced by both prospective and existing beneficiaries attempting to access their entitlements. These challenges have proven to be difficult to resolve in the absence of robust grievance redress mechanisms, causing widespread exclusion. Volunteers from civil society organisations such as Gram Vaani have attempted to intermediate in many of these instances, assisting citizens in navigating a complex system that is marked by inadequate transparency and weak accountability structures.
This report is a compilation of our research efforts over the last year. It encompasses an analysis of the typology of challenges faced by citizens in accessing their entitlements and the resolution pathways that were used by volunteers to assist such citizens. We cover welfare beneficiaries across seven DBT schemes, MGNREGA, PDS, and Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Lastly, in addition to broad policy recommendations, we also propose a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that can be a ready reference for community-based institutions, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), or government-run help centres, engaged in citizen assistance in the field of social welfare and accountability.
Understanding Exclusionary Factors in Social Protection
Exclusion may occur in various forms across the many stages of scheme design and implementation. Using data from Gram Vaani’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform and deep-dive interviews of beneficiaries selected through critical case sampling, we documented the various scheme-related challenges citizens faced during March-November 2020. We analysed a total of 1017 citizen complaints across the aforesaid schemes: DBT (261), MGNREGA (96), PDS (542), and EPF (118). To understand the typology of challenges citizens faced in accessing welfare benefits (including those announced in the wake of the outbreak), we developed a framework that maps exclusionary factors under four key stages of welfare interventions, viz., targeting, enrolment, back-end processing of benefit, and lastly, disbursement. The key insights that have emerged from processing the IVR data using this exclusion framework as a guiding tool have expanded our understanding of welfare access and the existing gaps therein. We summarise them below:
- The highest incidence of exclusion in DBT schemes occurs during the back-end processing stage. A variety of reasons (Aadhaar linkage, spelling error, blocked accounts) can lead to unsuccessful crediting of beneficiary accounts. About 55% of the total DBT-related complaints from March-June 2020 (the stipulated period for transfers of PMGKY DBT entitlements) belonged to this category of issues. The prevalence of this exclusion category in the overall sample indicates the extent of opacity involved in the back-end processing of all welfare transfers.
- In the context of MGNREGA, we found that 66% of all complaints pertained to either problems with work allocation or wage payment processing. About 77% of all complaints falling in the ‘Work Allocation’ category are instances of complete exclusion, i.e. people not having been allotted any work at all. The scale of the issue has underscored that the efficacy of the scheme is seriously compromised, even while there is substantial demand for it. A similar percentage of those calling to report wage issues stated either not having been paid at all or not having received the full wage due to them.
- Analysis of PDS complaints highlighted that many citizens who needed government support were excluded from in-kind transfers under PMGKY simply by virtue of not having a ration card, given the relief package’s eligibility criteria. Secondly, another interesting aspect that emerged from our analysis is the prevalence of discretionary denial and quantity fraudby fair price shop officers, wherein people are denied their ration or sent away empty-handed or with less ration than the entitled quota, with no clear or documented reasons for the shortfall.
- Most EPF complaints pertained to problems people faced in withdrawing their PF contributions due to incomplete employee records or inconsistencies in the spelling of names, date of birth, dates of employment, etc. Lack of cooperation and timely assistance by employers was found to be a key reason for these issues.
These findings provided us with a worm’s eye view of the welfare ecosystem, helping us document challenges self-reported by citizens attempting to access their entitlements. Following this was the next step in our research, which involved understanding how volunteers have assisted citizens in resolving some of these challenges across schemes in all the four states.
Resolving Grievances in Social Protection
In the second stage of our research project, we studied the various modalities through which Gram Vaani volunteers assist citizens. Through a detailed qualitative analysis of IVR recordings and volunteer interviews (to document the actions taken by volunteers), we were able to create an Impact Framework (analogous to the aforementioned Exclusion Framework) that categorised volunteer actions under three broad heads (see Glossary of Action Pathways for more detail): Information Provision to Citizen, Issue Escalation to Higher Officials, and Direct Assistance by Volunteer. The last action pathway can be further broken down into two sub-categories, Resolution on Citizen Behalf (in which volunteers fill forms/file complaints on citizen’s behalf) and Interaction with Access Point (in which volunteers informally negotiate with local access points to help citizens). It must be noted that the action pathways used by volunteers differ from one stage of exclusion to another for each scheme. Further, they may not always be successful, resulting in volunteers using a trial and error method to resolve grievances. A detailed analysis of this has been provided in Chapter 3. Below we only summarise some of the broad insights:
- Issue Escalation to officials at the block or district level is the most prominent action pathway used by volunteers across schemes for a variety of citizen grievances. This is done by forwarding the voice recording of the grievance directly through the IVR to the appropriate officials, or via WhatsApp or Facebook to their official account. Our analysis shows that this action pathway is primarily used by volunteers when any one or more of the following contexts characterises citizen complaints:
- The delivery mechanism of the scheme follows a top-down structure in which most crucial functions are not in the jurisdiction of local-level officials (such as those at the Panchayat-level), who, if not more effective, are usually more accessible to ordinary citizens. This necessitates that the complaint is escalated to officials at higher tiers who have the official capacity to address grievances.
- In schemes which may follow a more decentralized implementation mechanism (such as the PDS) but there is prevalence of petty corruption or lack of cooperation on part of local-level officials.
- There are inadequate or cumbersome official grievance redress mechanisms in place, that make issue escalation more efficient, or a necessary mechanism to gain more information.
- All other action pathways have proven to be unsuccessful.
- Local advocacy by writing letters to the administration is also used as an Issue Escalation pathway for problems that are faced by many citizens in a community. Broad-based evidence is collected by the Gram Vaani team by running IVR surveys and documenting the voice reports received on their platforms. Rather than taking an approach of addressing individual grievances, this method often helped initiate system-wide steps by the administration to address the problems.
- Resolution on Citizen Behalf as an action pathway has been prominent for schemes (and certain stages within the scheme) that have some front-end mechanisms in place for complaint filing, application tracking, data correction, etc., which citizens themselves are not able to navigate. This occurs in cases where the processes are complex, or resolution requires access to online portals which citizens are not able to use.
- Interaction with Access Point as an action pathway has been prominent for those cases in which there is lack of cooperation/non-compliant behaviour on the part of local-level officials, individual banking agents, or operators of Fair Price Shops. Such interaction may sometimes also entail warnings given by volunteers, citing the possibility of issue escalation if the said local functionary does not comply/address the grievance.
This extensive use of mechanisms outside the formal grievance redress mechanisms put up by the government highlights the gaps that citizens face in grievance redressal. We discuss evidence in this report indicating that citizens hardly use formal grievance redress mechanisms because of accessibility barriers, complexity, low trust, or just not feeling empowered enough. They prefer resorting to CSOs such as Gram Vaani, or other social workers or panchayat representatives, who are more approachable and aware to deal with the complex citizen-state interface on welfare schemes. This leads us to make some key recommendations as below.
Key Recommendations The key observations that emerge from our research is that ensuring access to social entitlements is impeded by many last-mile problems that citizens are not able to navigate on their own. They need assistance from CSOs and social workers who are well-versed with the procedures for various government schemes and can guide them or act on their behalf for smoother citizen-state interactions. This could take the form of escalating issues to appropriate government officials who have the authority to solve problems, or report to senior officials about violations by lower-ranking officials, or assist the citizens in filling out appropriate forms, or in some cases even provide actionable information to the citizens. However, what is clear is that the citizen-state interface for access to social protection is not seamless by any means, and by-and-large it cannot be managed by the citizens alone. The introduction of technology is not a solution, and in fact the centralization of processes that it typically initiates often makes it harder for citizens to deal with the system, disempowering the very stakeholder that it was meant to support. The resounding conclusion from our research is that the state-citizen interfaces in welfare schemes need to be redesigned to become more citizen-centric, and state-run help centres or community based institutions or CSOs and social workers should be integrated in the welfare access and grievance redressal processes to make them more accessible to citizens. Therefore, in addition to recommending a set of systemic improvements that need to be set in motion using policy levers, we also provide a detailed set of standard operating procedures that can be used a ready reference by community based institutions and CSOs involved in resolving citizen grievances in welfare. We also note that given the hyper-local expertise of such organisations, government departments may choose to embed them as part of their official grievance redress system, while also adopting simple technological innovations to ensure more accessible and transparent welfare access and grievance redress systems.
 For the purpose of this study, the set of DBT schemes includes the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN), Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), Pensions, Jan Dhan Yojana, cash transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Welfare Board schemes (specific to Tamil Nadu), and some other state-specific transfers. Please note that although MGNREGA wages are transferred through the DBT system, we have created a separate framework for the scheme given some of its unique features, including raising work demand and work allocation.
 Please note that these do not include MGNREGA and PDS.
[i] Ministry of Finance. (2020). Finance Minister announces Rs 1.70 Lakh Crore relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the poor to help them fight the battle against Corona Virus. Retrieved from https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1608345
[ii] MGNREGA in need. (2020). Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/mgnrega-demand-rural-labours-migrant-workers-coronavirus-6441371/