Imarti Devi is an 84-year-old widow in Magalsi village in Faizabad district, Uttar Pradesh, and receives an old age pension under the National Social Assistance Program (NSAP) each month-end. She has no idea of the actual date when she is supposed to receive her pension payment, but the Sarpanch (village head) usually (but not always) pays her pension in cash some time at the end of each month. If she does not receive the payment in any particular month, she receives the cumulative amount for 2-3 months the following month or the month after. She does not know why the payment is irregular. Imarti Devi does not count the cash she is given but goes back home satisfied when she receives money. She does not complain about anything.
Ever since Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) was launched, an emphasis has been on operational issues such as bank account opening and linking the government department’s database and the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. The lack of “last mile transaction points” (typically the cash in/out agents) is discussed only sporadically. But the real situation is far from satisfactory, as is evident from recent studies undertaken by MicroSave about the status of CSPs and the state of agent readiness in selected districts.
The finer aspects of implementation have taken a backseat. One of these is communication. Surprisingly, “communication” has never become a center stage issue. No one seems to have considered that lack of communication could be one of the major reasons behind inconvenience caused to beneficiaries.
Not that it was completely ignored –Above The Line (ATL) communication media were used by some of the implementing agencies and intermediaries, but (at best) these were disjointed efforts. Atop down approach of communication was adopted with an assumption that once the implementation was in progress, information would automatically reach beneficiaries. Evidence shows that this led to a lot of misinformation amongst beneficiaries. In their hurry to get things done, agencies paid scant attention to ensuring the right messages were reaching the beneficiaries. Consequently, beneficiaries received different pieces of information from various sources. This left them confused and apprehensive of new schemes and processes.
This might be understandable for communities living in remote locations, or for illiterate segments, or those not having regular access to information media. However, the communication challenge is evident even in urban programmes, including, for example, Dilli Annashree Yojna. This scheme was launched in Delhi and covered population that is definitely more mobile, aware and media savvy than most parts of India. But, beneficiaries still faced issues due to lack of clear and comprehensive information about the scheme.
Sunita is a beneficiary for Aadhaar-based Dilli Annshree Yojana(DAY) under which she receives cash subsidy for food every month directly into her bank account. She is only aware of the amount of benefit she should receive every month. She opened a new account as directed by the bank and other government/ quasi-government agencies. She knows only as much as she was told by the staff and officials of these entities. She is hardly aware of:
- the eligibility for receiving such benefits,
- why she was supposed to open a new bank account,
- why was she asked to link her Aadhaar number to this account,
- whether she could have used her existing account to receive the benefits, and
- many other similar queries that she would like to know (or should have been told in the first place).
She is not aware because the ad-hoc communication never contained this information, and gave no option for her to ask questions. She did not try to seek more information, perhaps due to her reluctance to go to banks or government departments implementing such schemes. Or maybe it was lack of time.
The absence of proper communication has led to a lot of apprehension and myths in the mind of Sunita and many other beneficiaries like her. According to a study conducted by MicroSave, DAY beneficiaries used to withdraw all money from their account (opened for DBT under DAY) and never saved any money in these accounts. Many beneficiaries confirmed that they were asked (by banks/ government agencies) not to leave any balance in these accounts. The logic given was that the government might take the money back on the basis that if they could leave money in their accounts, they are not poor enough to warrant benefits. After withdrawing the money from the benefit account, if the beneficiary wanted to save some portion of it, she had to save it in a separate account sometimes with the same bank, but in most cases with some other bank … or (more likely) secreted at home. Hardly the optimal recipe for financial inclusion!
At the same time during a similar study in rural hinterlands of Jharkhand, we discovered that all DBT beneficiaries did not withdraw the full amount, but invariably left some funds in their accounts. This was quite contrary to our initial assumption that city dwellers were more aware, better informed and therefore would use the DBT/saving account to save. When we dug deep we discovered that it was once again because “they were told to do so”. Beneficiaries in Jharkhand had been informed that if they did not keep funds, it would become inactive and thus they would no longer receive benefits.
Results of this study prove that DBT beneficiaries are doing whatever they think they should be doing in order to continue receiving funds – they do what they are “told”. Do beneficiaries really deserve such scant attention? Are they not supposed to be at the center of the delivery mechanism? What could have been done differently in order to make entire DBT experience more convenient and useful to beneficiaries? We believe the answer lies in effective and standard communication. This is discussed in the next blog.