Rights, Accountability and Citizenship: Examining India's Emerging Welfare State

22 October 2014

Public sector service delivery in India is notorious for its low coverage, poor quality and high corruption. This is in striking contrast to the political commitment to inclusive development, and the aspirations of the Indian Constitution. The last decade has seen extensive efforts to change the relationship between citizens and the state, through the granting of substantive rights to social and economic goods and building the foundations of a welfare state in India. The emphasis has been both on expanding provisioning and transforming the every day workings of the state by shifting the dynamics of interaction between state and citizens. This paper seeks to place the emergence of India’s welfare state within a conceptual framework, and evaluate early experiences, focusing especially on implementation. Our assessment undertakes a diagnosis of the specific mechanisms that the rights and accompanying accountability instruments are seeking to influence, through an analysis of how “the state” works. In particular, we focus on understanding how the specific reform instruments promoted through the rights-based approach have been articulated and absorbed into the everyday practices of the state. Such an analysis is important because the ultimate outcomes of this transition will depend, to a great degree, on the interplay between the new transparency and accountability instruments, bureaucratic structures and incentive systems, and local patterns of political and civil society behavior. Our central thesis is that while the rights-based approach and measures to institutional social accountability have brought some gains, these remain limited. In many cases, they have led to distortions in the political and bureaucratic system rather than deeper change. It is suggested that a fundamental shift will require more extensive administrative reforms, and that this will only occur when aligned with political processes.