Mekhala Krishnamurthy

Indian sociologist and anthropologist

Mekhala Krishnamurthy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University.


  • The current welfare system cannot deal with the Covid-19 crisis. [...] During a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, the need of the hour (and by now the days, weeks, and months) is to move to a demand-based system of relief and welfare, where those in need of food and cash, whether or not they are currently listed as beneficiaries, are able to reach out, ask for and access it. But this is in fact the complete antithesis of the current welfare system, which has been constructed by successive Indian governments. It also goes against some fundamental and longstanding assumptions. One, that we don’t have the fiscal capacity. Two, that we don’t have the implementation capacity. And therefore, three, that we have no choice but to limit the beneficiaries in any given scheme through processes of enumeration, identification and authentication. The problem is that in the absence of strong, decentralised and responsive administrative capacity, these very processes of identification and verification exclude many intended beneficiaries at any given time. So, in practice, infrequently revised quotas mean that even those identified as legitimate beneficiaries must routinely be kept pending until others drop out or are bumped off the list.
  • To understand why this welfare system persists, we need to acknowledge that at its root, targeting and its attendant exclusions are ultimately also justified and sustained by a sense of suspicion that implicates both the public and the state’s own functionaries. So, delivery is designed on the assumption that dominant local elites and intermediaries — who will otherwise use every opportunity to exploit the poor and while diverting and extracting entitlements and benefits — must be, at least in theory, excluded and bypassed. The poor themselves, even if materially deprived, are often cast as morally undeserving, susceptible to manipulation, expedient, and irresponsible (one only had to witness the discourse around Monday’s nationwide run on liquor stores for proof). And finally, that corrupt and rent-seeking bureaucrats and public functionaries who only work the system rather than keep it working must have their discretion clipped. The result is a welfare architecture that is so invested in minimising errors of inclusion that it continuously chooses fiscal, bureaucratic and technological ‘solutions’ that systematically enable ‘errors of exclusion’ to multiply.
  • The lockdown and its humanitarian consequences have begun to fundamentally challenge the mind-set and modalities of India's welfare architecture. We can no longer afford to live with or simply look away from the exclusion 'errors' of the past. Many of the most painful and humiliating effects of the lockdown are likely to remain simply unacknowledged, let alone adequately accounted for or compensated. But, ensuring that people have enough food and cash to survive the crisis should remain non-negotiable. [...] The lesson we are learning now is that for India to actually release the grain to citizens, she requires the entire system to go against the grain of deeply entrenched state beliefs and practices. After decades of distrust, it’s time to cultivate some moral fibre.