When I decided that I won’t apply for internships and spend the summer travelling to villages in India, my classmates at Columbia University were surprised. At the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, someone pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy like me could easily intern at the UN offices in New York or go to beautiful Geneva and help write policy memos. However, I had been restless the entire semester since I started the website www.yojanawiki.in to help connect the poor to information on welfare programs customized to their needs.India has more than 500million poor for whom the government offers various welfare schemes or ‘yojanas’ like monthly allowances for the disabled, childcare for widows and insurance for buffaloes. When I spent a few days researching these programs online, I was astonished to find out it can take anytime between a month to 2 years for a poor person to actually get these benefits. The reason – elaborate paperwork involving forms that need signatures of multiple government officials, 6-8 supporting documents each needing more forms and signatures and finally the long wait once they were submitted. More astonishment followed. There was no documentation of this process – how many trips needed to be made, whose signature should be placed where on the form, and what happened once they submitted?
Problem / IssueI wanted to bridge this gap, because if the poor can’t access the programs meant for them, then the millions of taxpayer’s dollars going to fund it were clearly being wasted. And what of the many village widows, or old farmers who had no social security and needed the $10 a month that the government gave them as allowance just to subsist? I booked my tickets to India with support from the university and reached Rajasthan – a state where I spoke a few of the native dialects and hence could actually interact freely and get some answers. During this month long journey, the villagers were kind enough to feed me, let me sleep on their porch and share intimate details of their lives.
ActionI decided to track just one case and document the process – right from the day we picked the form to the day the money got transferred to the beneficiary’s bank account. The result was blog.yojanawiki.in where I write about Sitadevi – a poor disabled widow from Kukarkheda village and our struggle to get her 3 young children government benefits. During the process, I got some interesting policy insights – like most people think if the benefit/money is directly deposited in bank accounts than delivered through postal orders at homes, there would be less corruption and more ease. On the contrary, this makes it extremely difficult for the old to access their monthly allowance – one because there is only one bank for close to 50 villages and they need to travel quite a distance to get there. Two, they can’t use ATM machines because they are illiterate leading their children to misuse the card. Of course, policy-makers think if micro-ATMs with biometric identification reach their homes through a banking correspondent, this problem can be solved. Well, what did they think the postman did then?
I want to continue to write more highlighting these insights and helping more Sitadevis, if you think this project is worth investing; I would appreciate if you can extend financial help. I have listed the rewards that I plan to deliver against the amount donated. But the biggest help would be the policy briefs that I plan to write on the process and share with those who can actually implement changes and make the process easier and accessible. Reducing the human interaction of this process is the only way to reduce bribery as well as the humiliation faced by villagers when repeatedly visiting government offices.
And yes, till I achieve that I would blog and continue to be a voice for those who can’t write.
- Hold a camp in a panchayat (group of villages) to find and help beneficiaries of these 3 programs – disability pension, old age pension and widow pension which gets them $10 a month. A typical camp is a month-long exercise where with the help of the sarpanch or village-head, we invite the villagers to come to a common point with their grievances and help them fill forms, give counseling on which documents to attach, and actually submit the forms on their behalf. A panchayat consists of 5 villages, each with at least 50-80 families in it thus impacting 1,500 people overall. The list of beneficiaries and the stages of progress that their forms are under will be send to you on a monthly basis in an excel format.
- Help at least 5 children access the ‘Palanhar’ scheme which gives orphan, abandoned, children or invalid mothers Rs 1,000 a month till the children turn 18 to support their education, food, and other needs. The names and their forms, pictures and details will be mailed to you with updates till the time they start receiving the benefits in their bank accounts.
- Cover any one scheme of your choice – the daily tracker will track miles, money and time spent. It will also help at least 2-3 people access the scheme as during the process of covering it, I help those whose case I write. Covering one scheme takes at least 10 days. The documentation will be sent to you with photographs.
- Sponsor the fee paid for purchasing the form, photographs and trips made to government offices for at least 1 beneficiary and send his/her story with photographs to you. This can be anything from Rs 150 to Rs 1,000 depending on the number of trips made, the cost of making the form online through the village civic centre (Varies upon scheme from Rs 30 – 150)
- Postcard to the village - While I travel, I take a lot of pictures of women and children. Women, because they just look so beautiful with their colorful clothing, and children because they always ask me to and pose well. For the $50 that you donate, I can develop one picture and send it to the respective village of the child/woman and a copy to you. In my experience, this always makes them really happy!