The webinar “Profile of pre-COVID-19 social protection system of India and Pakistan and a snapshot of their COVID-19 responses” took place on 24 September 2020 and was the fifth in the  Social Protection in South Asia webinar series. Jointly organised by the IPC-IG and UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA), this webinar was moderated by Pedro Arruda (IPC-IG) and included Fabianna Ferreira, Yannick Markhof (both from the IPC-IG), Soumen Bagchi and Antara Lahiri (both from UNICEF) as speakers.

The main takeaways from five pre-COVID-19 comparative studies on social protection in South Asia and findings on the social protection responses to the pandemic (all joint publications by the IPC-IG and UNICEF) were discussed in more detail for the Pakistani and Indian national contexts. Beyond to putting forth recommendations for both countries’ social protection systems, the speakers also reflected on universal child benefits as part of the Indian COVID-19 response and further considerations regarding fiscal space and programme designs for social protection responses in the country.

You can view the presentation slides here and the recording here.

Pakistan – An expanding social protection system

Yannick Markhof was the first to contextualise the findings of the comparative studies, starting by outlining Pakistan’s social protection legal framework. He explained that seven out of nine core Human Rights instruments on social protection and children’s rights had been signed by Pakistan and that social protection is enshrined in the country’s constitution as a policy principle rather than an enforceable right. Furthermore,  a constitutional amendment in Pakistan transfers key responsibility for social protection to provincial governments rather than the national level. 

Analysing Pakistan’s social expenditure, Yannick noted that the country shows one of the lowest levels of social spending in South Asia, although it is not clear to what extent subnational spending was considered in the data used for this analysis. Nonetheless, this low social spending seems linked with unsatisfactory outcomes in health and education. He notes that one challenge to expanding spending, namely fiscal sustainability, could be addressed by increasing Pakistan’s low tax-to-GDP ratios.

Yannick then analysed Pakistan’s flagship non-contributory social protection programmes on the national level, as well as most recently implemented programmes as part of the national COVID-19 social protection response. There are both multi-component and more specialised programmes, primarily employing (proxy) means testing or categorical targeting to identify beneficiaries. The poor are the main target group, although child-specific provisions are also sometimes included. Further, the Ehsaas initiative launched last year aims to address pre-pandemic gaps in the social protection system, such as by covering women, day labourers and addressing health outcomes of poor mothers and children, especially new-borns, pregnant and lactating women.

Child-sensitive features of the programmes already implemented focus predominantly on offering cash to facilitate access to education, while there is a gap in nutrition-based interventions. Although some programmes already included gender-sensitive features, the new initiatives implemented under the Ehsaas initiative bring considerably more gender focus to the social protection system.

Out of all flagship programmes analysed in the comparative study, only the BISP underwent a (comprehensive) impact evaluation. The evaluation founddesirable impacts related to income and gender and subdued impacts in education. 

During the COVID-19 response, two major initiatives and multiple smaller ones offered shock-responsive social protection. Ehsaas Emergency Cash provided cash to the missing middle through existing social registry data and on-demand registration, while the SBP Rozgar Scheme was employed as a job retention initiative.

Yannick concludes his presentation recommending that legislation is created to streamline and coordinate social protection efforts between national and subsidiary levels of government and that investments in social protection, health and education are accompanied with long-term budgetary commitments. To make social protection in Pakistan more child- and gender-sensitive, Yannick recommends using flagship programmes to encourage children’s access to education, cover new-borns, pregnant and lactating women, as well as supporting women’s financial inclusion.

India – A comprehensive system with local variations

Fabianna Ferreira opens the first presentation about India by explaining how only one core Human Rights instrument for social protection was not ratified by the country. Similar to Pakistan, social protection in India is enshrined in the constitution as a policy principle rather than an enforceable right and both the national and subsidiary levels of government may take up responsibility for designing and implementing social protection programmes.

India’s social spending is close to the average for South Asia. Spending on education has been increasing but further improvements may be necessary to lower the number of out-of-school children. While the health care system is progressive in terms of primary care, it becomes regressive when it comes to secondary care, with high rates of out-of-pocket payments. India boasts the highest government expenditure on social assistance in South Asia.

Regarding India’s national, non-contributory flagship social protection programmes, Fabianna highlights that many nation-wide programmes include variations between different states, with India’s Targeted Public Distribution System, for example, being a joint effort between national and subsidiary governments. She notes that while castes are not explicitly mentioned as eligibility criteria, most programmes employ targeting mechanisms comparable to proxy means testing to target the poor that recognise certain castes as being automatically within the target group. Commenting further on these programmes’ designs, Fabianna explains that two cash transfer programmes focus on maternal and new-born health (PMMVY and the JSY). Other programmes do however also include at least one – and sometimes several - child- or gender-sensitive design feature. Most flagship programmes analysed in India underwent impact evaluations, with multiple desirable impacts having been identified.

Finally, India’s social protection response to COVID-19 included the expansion of existing programmes as well as implementation of new social protection initiatives. Benefit delivery was also adapted to be more suitable to social distancing. Nonetheless, the social protection response was criticised regarding the treatment of migrant workers.

Fabianna concludes her presentation by recommending that India establishes legal frameworks for its programmes that adhere to the human rights-based approach to social protection. She also recommends raising quantity and quality of health and education spending, harmonizing social protection programmes between states, and shifting to cash plus rather than only providing cash transfers.

Further reflections on social protection and fiscal space in India

Antara Lahiri opens this section of the webinar by pointing out that while vulnerability and poverty have increased in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, social protection programmes in India must strengthen their targeting and benefit delivery mechanisms, with variations between different states being an additional issue. Further, she confirms Fabianna’s recommendation in stating that assessments have determined a need for India to move from cash to ‘cash plus (cash+)’ transfers. She adds that such transfers are being initiated on the state government level.

Further, Antara highlights the need for portability of social protection in India, as most programmes are based on household domiciles. This is especially detrimental for migrant workers who do not live in the same states of their domiciles, as this leads to their exclusion from social protection coverage, having impacted their access to social protection during the pandemic.  

Antara also emphasised that with the increase in vulnerability and poverty, increases in child labour and marriage have been observed in India, calling for a more child-sensitive social protection response to prevent this from occurring. She recommends universal child benefits to address this issue, as such benefits have been found to have positive impacts on education and health outcomes. Given fiscal constraints, she suggests that such benefits are implemented gradually, starting with smaller more vulnerable target groups and  rolled out to reach larger coverage.

Finally, Soumen Bagchi complemented these reflections by elaborating on fiscal constraints on social protection in India. While the pandemic has negatively impacted India’s fiscal situation, the country had already been witnessing issues with its fiscal space due to reforms that had been implemented a few years prior to COVID-19. He pointed out that a major obstacle for social protection in India is that while states have considerable responsibility for financing social protection, the funds allocated to them by the central government have not been enough since before the pandemic. Especially since 2014/15, state governments have had to bear increasing costs for social protection, while central government funds would either stagnate or grow in a slower pace and with little capacity to raise their own state-based revenue. As such, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, India’s states were already facing difficulties funding routine social protection.


Arruda, P., Y. Markhof, I. Franciscon, W. Silva and C. Bilo. 2020. Overview of non-contributory social protection programmes in South Asia from a child and equity perspective. Research Report No. 46. Brasília and Kathmandu: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, Accessible:

Bloch, C. 2020. Social spending in South Asia: an overview of government expenditure on health, education and social assistance. Research Report No. 44. Brasília and Katmandu: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, Accessible:

Evidence linking social protection programmes in South Asia with child poverty, economic growth and improvement in human development. Publication forthcoming, but its findings were presented during webinar 3 of this series.

International Labour Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘COVID-19 and Child Labour: A time of crisis, a time to act’, ILO and UNICEF, New York, 2020, Accessible:

ODI/UNICEF (2020) Universal child benefits: policy issues and options. London: Overseas Development Institute and New York: UNICEF, Accessible:

Social protection legislative frameworks in South Asia from a child-rights perspective. Publication forthcoming, but its findings were presented during webinar 3 of this series.

IPC-IG and UNICEF ROSA. 2020. Socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, policy responses and the missing middle in South Asia. Research Report No. 47. Brasília and Kathmandu: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia. Brasília: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, Accessible:

Tebaldi, R. and C. Bilo. 2019. Gender and social protection in South Asia: an assessment of the design of non-contributory programmes. Brasília and Kathmandu: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and UNICEF Regional Office South Asia, Accessible:

UNICEF. 2020. UNICEF Social Protection Response to COVID-19. Technical note, Accessible:

United Nations. 2020. The Impact of COVID-19 on children. Policy Brief. United Nations Sustainable Development Group, Accessible:


This was the fifth webinar of the Series ''Social Protection in South Asia – the landscape before the Covid-19, and a snapshot into responses to the crisis and the paths ahead'', jointly organised by the IPC-IG, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA), and Country Offices.

Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • Gender
  • Human rights
  • Poverty reduction
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • South Asia
The views presented here are the author's and not's