Bringing Government Closer to the Public
Nayana Kirasur | October 2021
Public welfare schemes such as pensions are crucial to support marginalized groups. However, poor information outreach and grievance redressal severely impede service delivery in rural areas and exclude populations the state claims to assist. IT for Change’s Namma Mahiti Kendras are ICT-enabled information centers that aim to break down the barriers to citizens’ right-claiming processes.
Rajni* and Kumari* are sakhis (infomediaries) who run the Namma Mahiti Kendras (Our Information Centres) by gathering public information from government departments, and disseminating it among our operational villages. Kumari, during one of her village visits, learned that many people’s pensions were being withheld. Some people, had recently qualified to receive pensions, had little knowledge about the pension schemes that were available to them.
Providing pensions under National Social Assistance Scheme (NSAS) is a step towards realizing Article 41 of the Constitution which directs the state to provide public assistance to senior citizens, widows, persons with disabilities, and offer a lump sum amount to families who have lost their sole earning member. The poor and marginalized citizens of the society depend on such government interventions for sustenance. In light of the immense financial distress induced by the pandemic, growing unemployment, and inflation, access to pensions has become even more vital.
Barriers to Public Service Delivery
Lack of access to information is one of the major barriers to people asserting their rights. “Many women in the village had no idea that they were eligible for the widow pension and there is confusion regarding the eligibility criteria for old-age pension. My job is to clarify their doubts,” Kumari explained. To make matters worse, applying for pensions schemes is a time-consuming and a resource-intensive process.
People incur high financial costs and often have to forego their daily wages since the process requires multiple visits to the town and block-level offices. Bureaucratic delays, errors in documents such as Aadhar, blocked bank accounts, and lack of efficient grievance redressal add to the challenges in public service delivery.
The NSAS requires government agencies to make information public and conduct camps called Pension Adalat to resolve pension-related issues. However, the information does not always reach the citizens in the villages. “The government should ideally conduct pension Adalat events at the village level. When they are held at the town level, the government should announce the details of the event in all surrounding villages. However, these guidelines are not always followed. Many people don’t receive the information in time. Even if they do, it is often too late for them to arrange required documents”, Rajni elaborated.
Role of the Local Information Centres
Namma Mahiti Kendras attempt to break down the barriers to accessing pension schemes and other such public services by employing two strategies:
1. providing information to the citizens, and
2. interfacing with government departments to push for efficient service delivery.
Our sakhis conducted village surveys to understand the pension needs of the communities and approached the town-level office of the Social Welfare Department. One of the village administrative officers informed them about the Pension Adalat being conducted the following week in a nearby town.
The sakhis shared this information with people from all our operational villages and verified people’s documents beforehand. They collectivized and brought 85 people from 16 of their outreach villages to the Pension Adalat program. At the venue, Kumari and Rajni organized each person’s documents and filled their application forms. People from neighboring villages outside of our operational areas asked for the sakhis’ help. An old woman from a nearby village appreciated their efforts when she said, “Since I can’t read or write, I have to depend on others. To fill any form, people charge 30-100 rupees. Whereas, you both [Rajni and Kumari] are doing it for free. Thank you for helping.”
Seeing the number of people who surrounded Rajni and Kumari asking for their help, the village administrative officer even set up a table and chairs for them to sit comfortably. Rajni and Kumari filed over 100 applications during that Pension Adalat. In their presence, the village administrative officer and the Tahsildar (tax officer) verified each application and promised to process them soon. “We will also let you [sakhis] know when the next Pension Adalat happens”, the village administrative officer promised.
Rajni and Kumari are regularly following up on the pension applications online and are in touch with the applicants over phone calls.“I was overwhelmed by the response. I am happy that so many people will benefit from the Adalat. I hope more and more people become beneficiaries of public welfare schemes”, Rajni shared. Through Namma Mahiti Kendras, people access public information and claim entitlements without foregoing their wages or being taken for a ride by exploitative brokers. Over time, these information centers have become critical and local first points of contact for poor and marginalized women and community members.
* Names of all the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.