Over the past four decades, successive governments in Kerala established more than 40 welfare schemes as a safety net for vulnerable sections. They now cover about 3.7 million people or about 11 per cent of the population.
The benefits available under these schemes include pension, ex-gratia death benefit, retirement benefits, maternity benefits, marriage assistance, educational assistance and funeral expenses.
The oldest of the schemes, the Kerala Toddy Workers Welfare Fund Scheme, was launched in December 1969. Although about 42,000 persons are eligible for membership, only about 37,000 have joined it. There is also a separate welfare fund for about 2,000 abkari workers.
There was a proliferation of welfare schemes in the next three decades. Those brought under the safety net during this period included widows, the physically and mentally challenged, leprosy and cancer patients, sportsmen, journalists, agricultural workers, tree climbers, fishermen, motor workers, tailors, artisans and ration dealers.
No government has explained how it identified the groups that needed protection. Often the political establishment was guided by electoral considerations.
After the turn of the century, more welfare schemes were instituted. One, established in 2001, provided for a monthly pension of Rs110 to an unmarried woman above 50 years. The amount was raised to Rs120 in 2007 and to Rs200 in 2008.
Other sections covered by welfare funds in recent years include bamboo and pandas leaf workers and dairy farmers.
When the first welfare fund was created, Kerala was one of the poor states of the country, its per capita income being below the national average. Today it is one of the richest, thanks to the steady inflow of remittances from Keralites working abroad since the 1970s and the significant growth of the service sector.
Since the state's social development indices compare favourably with those of the advanced countries of the world, it is time for the government to think of a comprehensive social security system covering the entire population. What stands in the way is the feudal mindset that prevails in the ruling circles, which has turned governance into an exercise in charity.
Another possible reason for the authorities' preference for piecemeal welfare measures is that it provides them the opportunity to exercise patronage. Politicians play a key role in identifying the beneficiaries of the schemes.
The setting up of separate welfare funds to cater to the needs of different categories of people offers scope for creating sinecures for politicians and bureaucrats in the form of chairmen and chief executives.
Official documents indicate that an annual administrative expenditure of Rs335 million is involved in the disbursal of welfare payments of Rs2.10 billion. In some cases, the administrative expenses are inordinately high. For instance, the annual administrative expenditure of the Tailoring Workers Welfare Scheme, which disburses benefits to the tune of Rs35 million, is a whopping Rs10 million.
The Planning Board states in latest Economic Review that the administrative expenditure of some bodies like the lottery workers' welfare fund board and the motor transport workers' welfare board is not available.
The latest and most ambitious of the welfare schemes is the Pravasi Welfare Fund floated last year to take care of the needs of non-resident Keralites. Over two million Keralites working abroad and one million working in different parts of India are entitled to join the scheme.
Although 11 months have passed since the scheme came into force, there is no official word on the number of NRKs who have joined it.
Last week, a committee appointed by the government suggested a reduction in the number of welfare fund boards through a process of mergers. Hopefully, this will lead to a saving in administrative costs.
A national old age pension scheme, instituted by the government of India, has been in force since 1995. Under the scheme, a person aged above 65 years is entitled to a monthly pension of Rs250, with the Centre contributing Rs200 and the state putting in Rs50.
According to the 2001 Census 6.6 per cent of the state's population of more than 31 million was above 65 years. Yet only 156,871 came forward to claim benefits under this scheme in 2008. Apparently the people are looking for genuine social security, not charity.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 4, 2010