Why We Need to Abandon Target-Driven Welfare

Based on a militarised notion of ‘targeting’, such welfare policies deny citizens the right to basic services.

Homeless children eat food at a slum area on the outskirts of Agartala, capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura June 22, 2007. Credit: Reuters/Jayanta Dey

In an incisive analysis on anti-poverty and other social security programmes, Professor Amartya Sen astutely asks why the notion of targeting, which is essentially a military concept, is so routinely invoked in analytical discourses on basic welfare rights for the people as well as in policy framing in this respect. Indeed, why would an idiom of combat be deemed apt to conceptualise a social commitment to actualise basic human capabilities? Also, and more importantly, why would a society, committed to its constitutional goal of guaranteeing equal dignity for all, not be keen to make basic welfare rights and services near-universal, instead of partial and targeted? The military model of targeting, therefore, clearly appears problematic, when what is at stake is to ensure basic freedoms for all. But is the military idea of targeting itself undergoing a sea-change at a time when people at large are being attacked indiscriminately, by rogue states, rogue organisations and rogue individual combatants?

We are indeed living through strange times when targeting has practically lost its meaning in the parlance and practice of combat and violence, but has gained new vigour in arguments put forth against ‘wasteful’ public expenditures on basic social support schemes, to finally turn out to be redundant as far as capital power is concerned. The latter is indeed carefully kept off-target, off the radar of democratic oversight. It is this inversion of the idea of targeting that needs to be probed deeper, in the interest of publicly debating its freedom-inhibiting consequences as well as for organising democratic counter-movement.

People are no longer just a collateral damage, caught helplessly in the middle of targeted fights; they are the multitude at whom guns and weapons are pointed. Be it the over-militarised state, the ‘terrorist’ organisation, or the ‘lone wolf’ carrying weapons of mass destruction, it is a war against people. It is combat massified, and hence indiscriminately encompassing ‘all’ in an unconventional model of target-free violence. Admittedly, in our graded society, unofficial, extra-legal, vigilante groups selectively perpetrate violence on members of certain social groups and communities, and more so in recent times, but in such instances too the aim is to let loose a ‘reign of fear’ for all. It is the same logic and similar strategy that inform and animate the design and use of instruments of mass surveillance. The entire populace of a democracy are put under the ‘panopticon’ gaze of official and unofficial surveillance agencies so that they can be observed at all times. By coercively subjecting the entire mass of citizens under its close watch, the surveilling state thus renders redundant the idea of targeting. More precisely, the idea that the right bestowed on a democratically accountable government to ‘use force’ needs to be exercised in a legitimate and limited manner gets eclipsed. This is a case of inversion: the negative effect of coercion that is supposed to be reined in has been given a free rein.

Also read: No Good Will Come From Linking Aadhaar to Mid-Day Meals

Welfare targeted

In a stark contrast to the growing incidence of unhinged and totalising violence and violation against people, what is increasingly in short supply are inclusive public welfare and rights and, correlatively, social and governmental support that is vital to actualise such rights. In the name of reducing the so-called ‘inclusion error’ in distributing various social security benefits to the seemingly ‘undeserving’ sections of the population, the scope of many such programmes in our country is being curbed and rationed, excluding in the process many deserving citizens. In many countries, not just in the Global North but also in the Global South, basic welfare provisioning for the citizens has been made near-universal, precisely to reduce such ‘exclusion errors’ that targeting inheres. Yet, critical programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Services and the Midday Meal Scheme that are inclusive and universal by design have been hit by substantial cuts in the Central Budget in 2015-16.

What is more, the new modus operandi to make welfare schemes targeted is that of compulsion. For example, a government notification issued in the recent past made Aadhaar compulsory for midday meals in government schools. Although the notification has been claimed to have been retracted since then, it is highly unclear what message will be teased out of such powerful signal in the everyday working of a school and whether some children without Aadhaar enrolment will indeed be denied the school meal, by either mistake or  intention, in  some pockets of the country. These policy moves clearly reflect dwindling levels of public commitment to the well-being of children in our country. There also seems to be a parallel decay in the public spirit to set up collective and inclusive arrangement to guarantee human flourishing for all. This is another instance of inversion: the promises and possibilities of social opportunities that are supposed to be universally accessible are increasingly being made exclusive and exclusionary.

The free midday meal offered in government schools is meant to encourage parents to send their children to study Credit: swissinfo.ch

Children eating midday meals in a government school. Credit: swissinfo.ch

Capital power off-target

And finally, there is under way a quiet, even stealthy, process of de-targeting of another sort, whereby democratic mechanisms of transparency and accountability are short-circuited, in the interest of protecting private profit over public welfare. Indeed, in our country, as in many other parts of the globe, corporate companies specialising in finance capital are seen to be establishing various networks of negotiations in multiple extra-legal spaces, shrouded in secrecy. No doubt, these zones, corridors, and enclaves are created under the aegis of state actors. Yet, in most of these low-tax zones, standard tax laws, labour laws and environmental laws do not operate. Also, these spaces are off the radar of regulatory authorities, the media, the trade unions and the public at large.

Intriguingly, although our democratically elected state power is vital to the establishment of such enclaves, these are ‘spaces of exception’, to use the pithy phrase of Keller Easterling; the operations and decisions that take place in these spaces have huge public consequences, and yet these are immune to public scrutiny. Capital power that reigns supreme in such spaces enjoys a climate of what is described as a ‘relaxed form of extra-statecraft’. The third case of inversion, therefore, is essentially an absence – an absence of democracy: capital power that takes huge advantage of public resources and conducts activities of enormous public significance enjoys immunity from public accountability, whereas the democratically elected government stands powerless or in complicity vis-a-vis such unanswerable power.

It is our citizenly and democratic obligation to dwell on and counter such freedom-invading acts of inversion.

Manabi Majumdar is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Pratichi Institute, Kolkata.