There is a need to unclothe cash transfer programmes!

    GovernanceE-governanceThere is a need to unclothe cash transfer programmes!
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    There is a need to unclothe cash transfer programmes!

    It is pertinent to ask if a cash transfer allocation is good even if the scheme gets apportioned from the allocations required otherwise for developing and sustaining publicly funded infrastructure for education, health, livelihood and social development.

    By Pradeep Narayanan

    A decade ago, we used a participatory mobility mapping tool to understand the challenges that Sana, a child with physical disability, faced while accessing disability pension from the local administration. To receive the pension of a couple of hundred, she had to travel with a family member on a working day; incurring expenses on travel as well as on opportunity wage cost of the daily-wage family member. Of course, there were expenses on chai-pani for the official, who is processing the pension. Our request to the administration, then, was to be at the doorsteps and deliver the pension to Sana.

    Today, Sana gets the pension through an online transfer of the amount into her bank account. Sana, owing to this pension, has a monthly amount at her disposal to fulfil her needs. She can choose and prioritize her needs. Her self-esteem is raised, among her family members, and even in her neighbourhood. There is no doubt that this cash transfer programme, in this case, has ensured efficiency, choice and dignity to the beneficiary. The key attribute of the disability pension is the fact that the cash is payable to a person with disability, in the context of deprivation and discrimination that the person faces owing to the disability.

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    History of exclusivity

    Cash transfer is an age-old phenomenon. In the year 1758, the Peshwa administration had a cash transfer fellowship, called Dakshina fellowship, exclusively reserved to promote higher education among Brahmin communities. About 60,000 persons from the community used to receive such transfers every year from the public exchequer. This continued even during the British rule; and as late in the year 1936-37, an advertisement for the fellowship would read like this: “the selection would be made in the following order; (i) Maharashtra Brahmin community; (ii) Any other Brahmin Community; (iii) Hindu community, including depressed class; (iv) any other community”. Has the cash transfer, in this case, not cemented a dominance of the higher caste?

    Even now, in Telangana, the state government has a funded cash transfer programme, in the form of Vivekananda Overseas Education scholarship. In 2020, the government board approved Rs 20 lakhs each to 57 students exclusively from Brahmin communities.

    Similarly, the Karnataka government funded Brahmin Welfare Board, in the words of its chairman, offers a cash transfer of Rs 25,000 for Brahmin brides and assures a bond of Rs 3 lakh to Brahmin women who marry (Brahmin) priests in the state. The conditions are: “not only should the bride be from the Brahmin community, it should be her first marriage,” and “the married couple will also have to give an undertaking that they would remain married for a specified period of time”. This conditional cash transfer clearly promotes caste endogamy and patriarchy.

    Dravidian example

    On the other hand, in the country’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, with a history of Dravidian movement, there is a cash scheme for the opposite – that is, to promote inter-caste marriage. A couple is provided a cash transfer of Rs 25,000 and a 4 gram 22 carat gold coin. In Tamil Nadu, there is also a cash transfer of Rs 18,000 for pregnant women, which is linked to nutrition plans to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates. By themselves, cash transfer programmes need not be good or bad; the purpose of the cash transfer, and the relations of power that it challenges would determine the significance of these cash transfer programmes.

    The crucial challenge would be to understand what cash transfer programmes are replacing. There is little doubt about the efficiency argument in terms of delivering. For example, the current form of digital transfer has surely made the scheme more efficient for a person like Sana. Her dependency on her family members is vastly reduced; and so would be her ability to beat the rent-seeking administration.

    An instrument or an ideology

    However, against universal approach, the targeted approach burdens the documentation requirement on the individuals. A good section of the population does not necessarily have identity documents. They might get excluded. Further, often hidden behind the cash transfer programmes is the long-term agenda of dismantling the public service provision infrastructure in favour of privatisation.

    For example, the cash transfer discourse would encourage the education vouchers system, as against the need to build strong, efficient, equity conscious government-run schools. The cash transfer is, thus, no longer just an instrument; it now represents an ideology. There is often a cherry picking of a few cash transfer schemes to say how they are useful in providing individuals the option to choose which need to be fulfilled; and even empowering the individual. These kinds of narratives would not only attract the intelligent right, but also the gullible left. For example, a number of activists may support the universal basic minimum income, which is not an insignificant programme.

    However, it is pertinent to ask if a cash transfer allocation is good, knowing that the scheme gets apportioned from the allocations required otherwise for developing and sustaining publicly funded infrastructure for education, health, livelihood and social development.

    Leave no-one behind

    Cash transfer can take any form: on one hand as Brahmadeya (land grant to Brahmins) or Dakshina fellowship grants or on the other hand as incentives to promote inter-caste marriage. It will be a challenge to unclothe this cash transfer mechanism to reveal whether it actually promotes the privatisation of development administration. Sana’s disability pension is an entitlement that was an outcome of decades of struggle by the disability movement. It is deeply political; and it did not replace the government’s commitment to provide an inclusive education or affirmative action in every workplace.

    The debates around cash transfer, therefore, need to be centred around what development paradigm it is advocating. We need to affirm that if cash transfer programme has to reach the leave no-one behind communities, they need to align with the principles of socialism, democracy and secularism and are to be grounded in anti-caste, anti-race feminist framework. If in the garb of promoting a mechanism that otherwise appears as a neutral one, it is perpetuating status quo, let us be wary about it.


    Image: ICRW

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