View: Social security has to be a whole lot more than writing cheques for beneficiaries


The government is preparing a new code on social security, as part of its mammoth overhaul of the country’s labour laws to condense them into four codes. The codes on occupational safety and wages have come to light and are more amalgamation of extant laws than articulation of new principles to suit emerging reality.

The code on social security offers a chance for fresh thinking. Should the code cover only the organised sector workers or those who toil in the unorganised sector, too? If the latter, why not extend the coverage to all of society? In reality, selective coverage will be meaningless. Every citizen should be eligible for social security, for social security to yield meaningful social cohesion and dignity.

No Aping the West
The conventional notion of social security is that the government would make periodic payments to look after people in their old age, ill-health/disability and indigence. This idea should itself change. Social security should conceptually change from writing a cheque for the beneficiary to institutional arrangements to care for beneficiaries, including by enabling them to look after themselves, to alarge extent.


The write-a-cheque model of social security is a legacy from the rich world at the optimal phase of its demographic transition, when the working population was numerous enough and earning enough to generate the taxes to pay for the care of those not working. This model is ill-suited for less well-off India with growing life expectancy, increasing urbanisation and resultant migration, in a context of radical shifts in the nature of production and of work.

Urbanisation radically changes society’s requirements. Housing for all, for example, has different meanings under a static ratio of urban-torural folk and under a progressive shift to urbanisation, with people migrating from village to town.

Someone might have a home in the village, but needs a place to stay in the city where he goes to work. Housing for all will not meet this requirement. What an urbanising society needs is a plentiful supply of affordable rental accommodation.

Similarly, social security under urbanisation will be different from social society in a static society. For example, should the beneficiary unit be the family or the individual? What is considered a family in a traditional society could be spatially distributed in an urbanising society, dependent parents staying back in the village while the earning members work in different cities. Social security would have to target the individual rather than the family.

How to pay for social security for the entire population is a big question. But how much is to be paid for would depend on how social security is conceptualised. Who are the elderly, and what are they capable of ? If anyone who crosses the age of 60 is seen as a doddering dependent incapable of doing anything productive or earning anything, the social security bill would be an order of magnitude larger than if those over 60 are recognised as people capable of contributing to society but on a flexible schedule and at varying levels of intensity of work during their hours of work. Old people’s homes are probably ill-suited for anyone but invalids.

Ideally, elders and younger families should live together in close proximity in a framework of community living. Elders could take care of preschoolers and schoolkids after school hours.

They could tutor them in math and science, recount folklore and myths that constitute tradition and provide emergency response in case of accidents. In return, young members of the community could take care of the seniors in various ways, running errands, as companions and emergency responders.

Tap Seniors’ Capability

Teenagers could accumulate social work points for the voluntary work they do in looking after the elderly who are housebound, and these pointscould count towards college admissions or their own eligibility for volunteer service when they need it. Social security should keep the accounts.

Work is changing, with technology liberating many kinds of work from geographic location, rendering some others redundant and yet others amenable to being divided up into bits to be performed by independent so-called gig workers. Retired schoolteachers in India could help teenagers struggling with their homework in South Africa or North Carolina. A software engineer in Kolkata could collaborate with his former classmate in Salem to deliver a tool outsourced by a Bengaluru-based company.

Social security should include worker retraining, not just unemployment allowance. It should help/mandate gig workers buy insurance and save for old age, perhaps by automatically deducting a fraction of the payments received into their bank accounts into insurance/pension accounts, say, in the National Pension System. Social security should help elders deploy their skills to match the demand anywhere in the world.

Comprehensive healthcare and a quality education system would plug into social security, improving worklife earnings and enhancing the earning capacity of the next generation. It would be useful to rethink social security in holistic, if unconventional, terms.

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