1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: New Directions in Social Policy: Alternatives from and for the Global South

NDSP: India

  • Project from: 2013 to 2016

India’s New Welfare Architecture: Genesis, Promises, Risks by Sanjay Ruparelia, John Harriss, Gayarthi Balagopal and M. Vijayabaskar

In 2004, following the election of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress party, India began to introduce a series of ground-breaking national measures to expand the economic security and social opportunities of its citizens. Strikingly, many of these new entitlements were acts of parliament, which explicitly highlighted their legally enforceable rights. The measures included the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005—the largest work guarantee programme in the world—the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009, the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), 2013, and Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (RFCTLARR), 2013. The passage of these acts, in short, signified the emergence of a new "welfare architecture" with a distinct "social contract" in modern Indian democracy.

The introduction of these new civic entitlements was part of a larger ambition to reform the workings of government by renewing the purposes, capacity and accountability of the state. The UPA established the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) in 2005, charged with revamping public administration by reconsidering its organizational structure, administrative capacities and financial management. In 2009, the UPA unveiled the Aadhaar initiative, which aimed to give every resident of the country a Unique Identification Number, ensuring that entitlements reached their intended beneficiaries through direct cash transfers.

After the parliamentary rout of the UPA in the 2014 general elections, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), many commentators speculated about the future of these landmark acts. The BJP had attacked the government for pursuing its welfarist agenda at the cost of growth, allowing industrial stagnation, rising inflation and economic deceleration. The party vowed to pursue greater private investment, infrastructural development and market reforms, championing the slogan, "Minimum government, maximum governance". The first year of the new government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reveals cross-cutting tendencies. On one hand, it has defended the high food subsidies given to farmers to support the NFSB during contentious meetings of the World Trade Organization in the summer of 2014, claiming it was a key foundation of the country’s food security. The Modi government has also accelerated the completion of Aadhaar. On the other, it has sought to revise the RFCTLARR, to expand the list of projects that do not require stakeholders’ consent in land acquisition and reconsider what counts as "necessary" infrastructure, part of a new push to expand industrial production through a "Make in India" campaign. The landmark rights-based welfare acts passed by the UPA, in other words, have become subject to fierce political contention in various public arenas. Nonetheless, they have reshaped the debate over Indian social policy.