Strengthening resilience in Bihar: A multidimensional roundtable discussion on safety nets and shock response mechanisms

Mahua R. Choudhary (right) questions Dr. Charity Moore (far left) after her Building Resilience through Effective Safety Nets presentation.

Inclusion Economics India Centre (IEIC) at IFMR, in collaboration with JEEViKA, a rural livelihoods initiative of the Government of Bihar, held a roundtable discussion in Patna on "Building Resilience Using Effective Safety Nets" on May 9, 2023. The roundtable was an opportunity to share evidence with and promote discussion between, policymakers, academics, and stakeholders working to expand economic opportunity in Bihar. The event was attended by 42 participants, representing 17 organizations.

The presentation revolved around several key questions.

What are shocks, and how can we promote community resilience?

Charity Troyer Moore, Scientific Director, Inclusion Economics at Yale University, spoke about the many compounding shocks that Bihar has faced in recent years, including Covid-19 and the return of migrants from major cities across the country and floods. Numerous shocks have left many of India’s states, like Bihar, in vulnerable positions. 

Many of India’s policy investments made before Covid-19 have helped India support its vulnerable citizens through has become a global leader in shock response, having invested deeply in social protection infrastructure. For example, direct benefit transfers to the Aadhar-linked accounts of 98 crore households, opened under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, and the MGNREGA absorbed increases in employment demand, illustrate the magnitude of India’s social protection programming. Bihar has designed a variety of initiatives that support the vulnerable to prepare for, and respond to, shocks – including the Jal -Jeevan-Hariyali Abhiyan, which provides rural work through plantations; construction of pucca households; and establishment of Self Help Groups, where crores of women make their voices heard. 

As Bihar continues to experience economic growth and expand its social protection programs, how can we design safety nets that can offset future economic and social shocks?

Based on IEIC’s research studies in Bihar and other states across India, Moore presented four insights into the design and implementation of inclusive safety nets that could aid in preparing for future shocks:

  1. Inequities in social protection access need to be addressed prior to the crisis:
    Evidence shows that directing women’s MGNREGA wages to their own bank accounts, complemented with basic financial literacy training, increases workforce participation and earnings. This held true for the most vulnerable women, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Vulnerable people need to be recognized and considered while designing policy:
    The "Invisible Vulnerable" are those individuals whose vulnerability is not seen in available data, which is often documented only at the household level. There is a need to understand who the "invisibly vulnerable" actually are in order to develop targeted and intentional programming.
  3. Real-time data can inform decision-making during crises:
    In 2020, IEIC collected data to understand returned migrants’ demand for MGNREGA work; it led officers to increase MGNREGA work in locations where officers had just been transferred. 
  4. "Optimal" data best supports government officials:
    IEIC’s work with a mobile application that automates wage payments in Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand has shown significant improvements in payment delays, increased the number of person-days worked, and reduced rejected payments.

How did the audience engage with these insights?

The audience showed a keen interest in bridging existing information asymmetries between the heads of the Panchayati Raj Institutions and the communities they serve, leveraging data from studies done by IEIC and other research organizations. Throughout this discussion, several key themes emerged:

"Participants at the Bihar Roundtable"
Participant Bipin Sihari (center) responds to insights presented at the Bihar Roundtable

Understanding the pathways to MGNREGA participation is key

Attitudes towards MGNREGA vary across communities, with some households reluctant to take up manual work and some others eligible for MGNREGA work, but employed with the private sector. Ensuring that IEIC’s data captures this information will help to shape policy responses.

Need for gender-disaggregated and individual-level data across key indicators

To gain better visibility into individual vulnerabilities, intra-household poverty needs to be better captured in surveys. Re-evaluating the level at which we ask questions, ensuring that data is gender-disaggregated, and capturing other lines along which vulnerabilities are formed – such as disability – will produce more informative data for addressing inequity in social protection programming. 

Need to include adaptation to weather events in portfolio

A key function of safety nets is to protect against shocks, and there is strong demand to expand programming and evidence generation into other types of climate shocks. While IEIC currently has focused on flood alerts, policymakers felt that including drought alerts could also be an important extension benefiting many citizens, especially farmers. There was a demand to study post-disaster government assistance and its effect on marginalized communities. 

Urmi Bhattacharya, Research Lead at Inclusion Economics India Centre, discusses how building relationships with South Asian governments enhances inclusive, policy-focused governance.

Reducing opaqueness of data

Policymakers mentioned that while data was supposed to lead to transparency and aid prioritization for government officials, who often juggle implementation of multiple programs, it has somehow made the system more opaque. There is a need to strengthen the bridge between academic research and policymaking, to transfer high-level insights into actionable policy recommendations with fewer and targeted indicators to support decision making across departments. This may help develop an overall ecosystem fluent in data, so that all levels across government could be proficient in using data in their work.

Inter-sectoral coordination is key to build effective safety nets

Officials pointed out that there are multiple government departments involved in building safety nets at a household level. While households might associate safety nets with ‘the government’, it was observed that coordination across a variety of stakeholders and convergence on priorities is critical for effective and widespread service delivery.

Prioritizing and consolidating insights to aid decision making

In programs with complex programs and a wide variety of indicators – like MGNREGS, which has approximately 150 indicators – systematically organizing insights and degree of potential impact will allow for policymakers and program administrators to effectively prioritize their decisions.

The goal of bringing voices from across levels of Government administration and civil society was to drive a culture of evidence to equip both policymakers and administrators in Bihar. Continuous dialogue and strategic communication of insights with various Government departments will continue to be a central part of IEIC’s work in building an ecosystem of resilience and strength and advancing inclusive governance in the state.

Photos by S Prema Swarupa.