22 December 2020

State–Society Relationships during the COVID-19 Crisis

In a co-authored book chapter for Democracy in Times of Pandemic: Different Futures Imagined, Deval Desai, Research Associate at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (AHCD), Christine Lutringer, Senior Researcher and Executive Director of the AHCD, and Shalini Randeria conduct research on special-purpose social welfare funds. These funds allow state law to grapple with the vulnerability of specific social categories like unorganised migrant labour in the construction sector in India and the underdevelopment of some regions in Italy. According to the authors, they also allow social actors, and the state in particular, to define social vulnerability, and more broadly welfare, a trend reinforced by the pandemic. Interview.

Why is it important to study how the pandemic transforms the democratic relationship between state and society?

Deval Desai. In the book chapter, we argue that the redeployment of unspent social welfare funds to tackle the pandemic reveals, first, that the management of “vulnerability” is an important way in which certain democratic states produce and manage state–society relations; and second, that the pandemic entails the renegotiation of the place and meaning of “vulnerability”. That being the case, we argue that a key political question that the pandemic generates is: How does that renegotiation take place? Even though the redeployment of welfare funds may seem mundane, we suggest that it is a significant political act, and should be interrogated as such – for example, by exploring participation in and accountability for that redeployment, as well as for its distributive consequences.
How does this renegotiation take place in the case of social welfare funds designed to tackle the vulnerability of unorganised migrant labour in the Indian construction sector?

Deval Desai. One of the cases in the chapter is the “Building and Other Construction Workers’ Cess Fund” (BOCW), launched in 1996. This fund identifies construction workers as a vulnerable group, whose numbers have risen manifold due to the post-1970s boom in the Indian construction sector, but who remain outside the purview of de jure and de facto labour protection. The BOCW is meant to provide a range of long-term benefits, including medical care, childcare, and pensions, to the largely unorganised labour in the sector. It does so through a 1% tax on the cost of construction, to be paid by the employer at the site to the relevant regional government. 

Overall expenditure is low – by 2019, less than 40% of the collected corpus had been spent on construction workers’ welfare across the country. At the start of the pandemic, BOCW funds across the country held an unspent balance of approximately INR 310 billion (USD 4.21 billion), reflecting a range of challenges including lack of institutional and political pressure to expend, and low levels of registration of workers. The government then pressured the fund’s administrators to disburse that money in the form of direct cash transfers – and claimed these existing funds as part of its initial relief package to the poorest and most vulnerable in Indian society.
And in the case of social welfare funds aimed at underdeveloped regions in Italy, how does the renegotiation unfold?

Christine Lutringer. Social welfare funds – in particular EU structural funds such as the European Social Fund that we explore in this chapter – represent a significant source of funding for social programmes in Europe’s lower-income regions. There is a clear spatial dimension here, as EU programmes are organised and allocated according to regional indicators: the majority of regional funding is concentrated on less-developed regions, where GDP per inhabitant is below 75% of the EU average. In turn, subnational or regional bodies have had an increasing role in managing those funds. This involves a range of administrative capacities that had, however, been oftentimes lacking in the very regions that would most need (and would be eligible to) those funds. In turn, this explains, at least in part, why there are sizeable amounts of funds that remain unspent in Italy. The Italian case also exemplifies the interplays, and to some extent, the tensions between the different levels of governance (supranational, national and regional) involved in the mechanisms for implementing social programmes. In the context of the pandemic, the criteria for (re)-allocating funds have been revised by the EU, which has led to a greater role of national governments vis-à-vis regions to manage those funds but also to the recognition of new dimensions of vulnerabilities that we explore in this chapter.

Will you pursue this line of research?

Christine Lutringer. We intend to study unspent special-purpose welfare funds as a broader phenomenon across countries in the Global North and South, in order to understand the historical, institutional, bureaucratic, and political drivers for their accumulation. We hope that the research will help us develop arguments on three topics: (1) the policy and politics of unspent funds as a mode of producing and governing vulnerable populations, (2) some institutional features of the contemporary administrative state (as revealed through the funds), (3) the process of developing theories or concepts of the state from the Global South and applying them in the Global North. Some of these arguments will be developed as part of an SNSF Sinergia project, “Reversing the Gaze”.

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Full citation of the chapter:
Desai, Deval, Shalini Randeria, and Christine Lutringer. “Redefining Vulnerability and State–Society Relationships during the COVID-19 Crisis: The Politics of Social Welfare Funds in India and Italy.” In Democracy in Times of Pandemic: Different Futures Imagined, edited by Miguel Poiares Maduro and Paul W. Kahn, 182–95. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the chapter from this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Holger Kleine/