Working life is hard. Make it safe!

How Single Window Service Centres ensure informal sector workers’ access to social protection in Karnataka

Service Centre staff attending to clients

Even though India has legislated to provide social security for the whole population, there are still large gaps in the actual delivery of benefits, especially for informal sector workers. This is why the government of Karnataka has set up Single Window Service Centres at village level to support these workers in accessing social protection schemes.

In India, various ministries and government agencies are responsible for social security programmes for the informal sector, ranging from child benefits, scholarships and old-age pensions to health and accident insurance. However, many of these benefits do not reach informal sector workers and their families. To change this the government of Karnataka has introduced Single Window Service Centres as integrated public service delivery mechanisms at village level – and this innovative approach is showing an impact.

Unorganized workers struggle to access Karnataka’s fragmented social protection system

With its booming IT sector, Karnataka's economy is one of the fastest growing in India. Yet, according to the 2011 census, about three quarters of the 28 million workers of Karnataka were occupied in the informal sector. Even though social security schemes exist for unorganized workers, a vast majority of them are unable to access these benefits. Reasons for this include insufficient information about the eligibility criteria, complex application procedures, as well as difficulties to obtain the required documentation for enrolment, to complete application forms and to contact the responsible institutions. The low level of literacy among unorganized workers raises the enrolment barriers even further.

A study that GIZ conducted in Karnataka showed that, at the time, 14 departments and government entities implemented over 30 different social security schemes. The delivery system was complex and fragmented, with duplication of administrative structures and inefficient, costly processes. This fragmentation was felt by the potential beneficiaries, too: When they applied for benefits, they needed to produce supporting documents for each of the different schemes and were required to visit different authorities.

A woman from a rural area in Karnataka who had tried to apply for a social protection scheme said: ‘Initially I paid Rs. 500 to a middleman but he wasn’t much of a help. Then I lost quite a bit of money running around, visiting offices. This made me miss some working days and the daily wages I would have earned. On these days we went home without food.’

Single Window Service Centres: Easing access to social security schemes

Women working in the informal sector

To bring social security services closer to the beneficiaries and to ease their access to various schemes, the Government of Karnataka decided to apply an innovative approach of integrated public service delivery at local level, the so-called Single Window Service Centres.

The Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat, Raj H.K. Patil, is convinced of their benefits: “With the single-window system, the beneficiaries do not need to waste time and energy to visit various departments. Moreover, they also do not have to forgo their day’s wages and run from pillar to post to avail the benefits.”

Villagers can now go to one and the same place to obtain information about various schemes and their eligibility criteria, to get help with collecting the necessary documents and with filling in the required registration forms. The staff forwards the completed applications to the responsible authorities and keeps their clients up to date about the status of their application.

According to Namerta Sharma, former Programme Director of GIZ’s Indo-German Social Security Programme in Karnataka, ‘the Centres are building upon already existing and well-functioning government structures and are combining them with new instruments – such as an IT tool to register and track applications and enrolments into social security schemes’. She believes that using existing government structures has ensured ‘that the approach is taken up and accepted by the local government, as well as aligned with their respective policy objectives.’

A phased approach to rolling out Single-Window Service Centres across Karnataka

Starting in 2011, the Government of Karnataka, with German support, tested a prototype of a single-window service model, then called ‘Worker Facilitation Centres’. In 2014, encouraged by its success, it rolled out the approach to approximately 1200 villages in all districts of the state, now under the new label ‘Single Window Service Centres’. Prior to the roll-out, the Department of Labour had made major efforts to adapt and refine the prototype approach.

Next, the stakeholders concluded that awareness had to be raised amongst the Centres’ potential clients. Unorganized sector workers did not yet know about them and many of them were not aware that they might qualify for social security benefits. The Department of Labour developed information and communication materials, such as videos, leaflets, a logo and the jingle: ‘Working life is hard. Make it safe!’ ‘With this, a proper brand for the Centres was born that promoted instant public recognition,’ says Ms. Sharma.

The Centres needed to be staffed by capable personnel: ‘Building up human capacities was absolutely vital to ensure that the Centres are fulfilling their tasks appropriately,’ explains Ms. Sharma. ‘We had to prepare each and every one involved to be able to execute their newly assigned tasks. And due to the decentralized approach, it was necessary to train a broad range of staff at various government levels – from high level officials at state level down to responsible civil servants at village level’.

How the Service Centres improved unorganized workers’ access to social protection schemes

Informal sector workers in a rural area of Karnataka

The pilot and the roll-out of the approach were accompanied by research to measure its impact. The findings show that it succeeded in improving access of unorganised workers to social security schemes already during the pilot phase: In villages with Service Centres, the population’s awareness of government social security schemes was 13% higher and the take-up even 15% higher than in villages without them.

Dr. Erlend Berg, economist at Bristol University and member of the research team, highlights another promising side effect: ‘The assessment showed that the population of the villages with Service Centres was significantly more satisfied with government provision of social protection than the population of villages without them’.

Both the Service Centre staff’s knowledge of social protection schemes and their productivity measured in the number of applications processed and forwarded per month, increased significantly between 2014 and 2017. Informal sector workers’ awareness of social insurance schemes, such as the Construction Worker Welfare Board, has markedly improved since the approach was introduced, and their satisfaction with the Service Centres is high:

‘I had an accident in 1999 and have since been unable to work’, says Muniyappa from Mugabala village. ‘Without any knowledge about government welfare schemes, I struggled to make a living. One day an officer from my village’s Service Centre came to my home and I told him about my situation. He took a look at my condition, saw my fractured leg and assisted me to get a small monthly pension. I recommend to all people like myself to go and get help at the Service Centre in their village.’

While the German support to the Service Centres ended in 2017, its innovative concept lives on and is now used for an even broader range of services: The Government of Karnataka’s newly launched ‘Bapuji Seva Kendra’ initiative provides single-window access to approximately hundred public services, including - but not limited to - social protection schemes.

Martina Bergthaller, January 2018

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