R Srinivasan

Right solution, wrong problem

R Srinivasan | Updated on August 04, 2021

Tech thrust The Modi government has placed huge faith in digital solutions of India’s development issues   -  Bloomberg

Actual service delivery to the poor is the real problem, not leakage. A major overhaul of how the government works is needed

Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh has been the subject of much social media scrutiny after he claimed that Prime Minister had a remarkable scientific temper (Singh also claimed in the same speech that Mahatma Gandhi practiced biological warfare, but I would like to stick to the ‘scientific temper’ bit here).

The Minister offered as proof the PM’s remark, when he had landed in bright sunshine at Katra Railway Station to inaugurate it, that they should have a solar plant there because they had so much sunshine, which led to Katra eventually becoming India’s first solar-powered railway station.

I don’t know about science but the Prime Minister certainly has a technological bent of mind, particularly digital technology. He is clearly convinced that harnessing the powers of information technology is the best way to solve the many challenges facing the nation.

Digital drive

If you look at the many initiatives that he has launched, both in his first and second terms in office, almost all of them have relied on IT to drive scale and reach. Whether it was Aadhaar, a UPA idea which he actualised, or the drive towards inclusive banking using the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan accounts, Aadhaar and Mobile), another UPA idea he executed at scale, they have all relied on using IT and disintermediating the cumbersome government machinery from delivery.

In fact, even the sole clear success in the otherwise largely mixed story of his government’s fumbling and often botched handling of the Covid crisis is a digital one — the CoWIN application. Unlike the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, which had to be quickly scaled back given our own crisis, it is the one thing that India can offer to the rest of the world in the pandemic fight without worrying about the fallout back home.

Which is why the launch of e-RUPI — the electronic rupees unified payments interface, to give its full form — marks another step forward in Modi’s efforts to find a digital and technology-driven solution to India’s developmental challenges. It is also in sync with Modi’s other obsession — that of converting all of the government’s welfare schemes into the ‘Direct Benefit Transfer’ (DBT) mode, convinced as he is that a corrupt and leaky system will otherwise eat away most of the benefits.

It also fits in neatly with the PM’s other obsession — of a ‘cash-mukt Bharat’ (cash free India), which got such a brutal inauguration with the great demonetisation experiment. The National Payments Corporation of India, which developed the government’s answer to the cash conundrum — the admittedly successful Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform and the BHIM App which runs on it, has also developed this electronic voucher-based digital payment system, which will also use the UPI platform at the back end.

The product, despite sounding deceptively like a form of digital fiat currency, is really just a a pre-paid voucher which can be used to avail specified government services. It is a QR code or SMS string-based e-voucher, which is delivered to the mobile phone of the intended beneficiary. Since it is generated both as an SMS and a QR code, it can be used even by those with only a basic feature phone, which overcomes one of the biggest stumbling blocks facing other forms of cashless digital payments like UPI — the need for an Internet-enabled smartphone.

To start with, e-RUPI will be used for Mother and Child welfare schemes, TB eradication programmes, Ayushman Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, etc. A beneficiary can now exchange the e-RUPI voucher for medicines or other support offered under the relevant scheme and the supplier can cash in the voucher for real money. The government’s pitch is that being cashless and fully trackable, the e-RUPI is a big improvement on human interface-based benefit delivery, and being a pre-paid instrument, ensures service delivery before payment.

This is undoubtedly true. India has been spending a significant part of its Budget since the Indira Gandhi era to fight poverty. But the returns are by no means commensurate with the money spent. In fact, India’s considerable success in lifting large numbers out of poverty has largely come about because of growth and not the many poverty alleviation schemes run at the Central and State levels.

So yes, corruption and leakages are a problem and have dogged all our pro-poor schemes. But are they the biggest problem?

The delivery problem

No. By far the bigger problem has been the delivery of the service itself. Our healthcare delivery has not been impacted because beneficiaries don’t have health cards to avail the benefits. It has been impacted because we have hugely underspent on healthcare, which means that we don’t have enough health centres and hospitals, and where they exist we don’t have enough doctors and nurses and where both exist, we don’t have enough medicines.

The e-RUPI is not going to solve these issues. It is only a digital token. So, an e-RUPI voucher for getting a vaccine shot, for example, will be pointless if there’s no vaccine. The real problem which needs to fixed is ensuring that actual services are delivered, not a promise of service, to be fulfilled by someone else. This, for instance, is the inherent problem in putting one’s eggs into an insurance system for healthcare for the poor, without creating the healthcare infrastructure in the first place.

The problem with all government services is identical: inefficiency, corruption, indifference and a tendency to view a beneficiary as a supplicant being doled out personal largesse. That is why our various ‘Right’-based initiatives like Right to Food and Right to Education have failed. The system is inherently designed to be anti- poor. Officials and other ‘insiders’ like elected representatives basically take advantage of the information asymmetry between providers and targets to secure rent and wield patronage power.

What we really need is a complete overhaul of the way the machinery of government functions. We also need a change of attitude, so that the belief that those in government — laughably called public servants — are doing everybody else a favour by simply doing the job they are paid to do is done away with. Otherwise, the e-RUPI will remain exactly what it is — a mere digital token.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on August 04, 2021

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