In the context of the subsidies regime in India, there is an ongoing debate on the suitability of cash transfers. With the much talked about JAM trinity – the Jan Dhan zero-balance bank accounts, Aadhar and mobile phones, it certainly appears that the state-sponsored welfare system is set to see a significant shift. While this shift may well fall short of being transformative, we could still expect an improvement in how benefits are delivered with reduced leakages to recipients. The use of the JAM model to extend the welfare net and to improve its efficiency implies a decisive move towards cash transfers, and therefore, one may be closer to settling the debate, at least in terms of favoured government policy.
But the argument in favour of cash is not new. I recently came across a 1986 United Nations University WIDER paper by Amartya Sen where he elegantly outlines five arguments in favour of direct distribution of cash in times of food crises. In this paper Food, Economics and Entitlements, Sen tackles this question in the context of a famine. First, Sen demonstrates how even in contexts where aggregate food output is plentiful, the ability of the poor to acquire this food is a whole different matter. Localised food shortages and famine-like situations can arise due to various reasons – at times when the prices of staples rise sharply, or when the prices of products the poor sell fall sharply. However, this isn’t obvious to policymakers as long as they view food sufficiency through the lens of per-capita food production alone.
When famines manifest themselves, there could be multiple policy response options. Sen talks of direct food distribution as the favoured method in those times. Three decades down the line, food relief continues to be popular in times of distress, even as direct cash transfers (as described above) are gaining ground as a favoured instrument of social welfare policy. Policy responses in these times is meant to enhance the ability of those affected, to ‘acquire’ more food. Both market-based solutions that begin with greater availability of cash, and direct distribution are potential paths to this end.