Universal Basic Income the only way to provide security to India’s poor

For India, in 2019, the implementation of Universal Basic Income must be the major agenda for the combined Opposition led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi

Universal Basic Income the only way to provide security to India’s poor
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Nitya Chakraborty/IPA

What should be the primary agenda of 2019, the last year of the second decade of the 21st century? The outgoing year was marked by farmers distress, job losses and the talk about widespread insecurity among both farmers and workers in terms of their livelihood. Forget talking about improving the lot, the immediate issue in 2018 was the constant battle of the common masses to maintain their existing level of financial viability. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s acche din was forgotten, it was bure din for the vulnerable sections of the society.

In the last few months, much discussions have taken place about raising the income of the farmers. The Prime Minister has assured doubling farm income by 2022. Nobody believes it is possible. The three Congress state governments, after being elected in December 2018, have implemented the loan waiver scheme for distressed farmers. The crucial Lok Sabha elections are due in April/May 2019 and so this competition between parties on announcing palliatives is expected to further peak.

Nobody says that loan waivers are the real solution to the farmers distress. But still, the loan waivers announced by the Congress governments last week and the measures taken by the Telangana government have come to the relief of the hassled farmers. The immediate impact of these measures should not be overlooked. But, on a sustained basis, the income level of the poor including marginal farmers have to be raised and in that direction, the proposal for a minimum universal basic income (UBI) can be discussed and implemented in India. The proposal’s merits and demerits are being discussed globally. Eminent economist Pranab Bardhan has just mentioned this in his article in a national daily and he is one of the proponents of this proposal as an important step in poverty reduction and in improving the standard of living of the vulnerable sections of the population.

In California, Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton has been able to implement a universal basic income in his city, with a plan to be piloted on a small scale beginning in 2019. What motivated him was precisely the socialist imagination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

According to Bardhan, the highly defective loan waiver programme, if applied to all states of India, will easily cost Rs 4 lakh crore and the farm income support plan for all of India will come to more than half that amount. UBI, that way is a sure shot way to improve the living standard and by taking measures to reduce expenditure through cut in subsidies, and increasing tax to GDP ratio, 2.5 per cent of the GDP can be mobilised to take care of the UBI funds. Though he has not mentioned the amount in the latest piece, but in earlier discussions, a basic income of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per month has been mentioned. It can be given to the people below the poverty line. That will transform the lives of these people leading to the removal of nagging economic insecurity.

The UBI issue has generated a big debate in the West, especially the US where the issue of inequality has come to the fore in a big way. Both Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have been talking about the economies being run in the interests of one per cent and promising to change the system to favour 99 per cent when they come to power. Even the capitalists of new generation like Marc Zuckerburg and Chris Hughes, co-founders of Facebook, have argued for UBI as not necessarily a comprehensive solution but as at least a moderating analgesic for the severity of income inequality and poverty in countries including America.

In the US, there is a fierce debate among the Left about the suitability of UBI but the overwhelming opinion is that this can be a starting point and it is already beginning to shift the people’s consciousness in directions that lead to socialism. The programme is bringing the issues of class and inequality more into focus and making them part of a national conversation. Professor Tim Libretti argues in the People’s World that UBI is certainly not any ultimate panacea, but it is one way of strengthening vulnerable members of society in their struggle against capitalism. Interestingly Zuckerburg, while supporting UBI, in his address at Harvard, mentioned how growing up with financial security allowed him the freedom to pursue his inventions, explaining “If I had to support my family, instead of having time to code, if I did not know I would be fine if Facebook did not work out, I would not be standing here today.”

That way, economic security is the most important component which encourages the spirit of innovation. In California, Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton has been able to implement a universal basic income in his city, with a plan to be piloted on a small scale beginning in 2019. What motivated him was precisely the socialist imagination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

For India, in 2019, the implementation of the UBI must be the major agenda for the combined Opposition led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The Prime Minister might announce some programme for raising farm income on a sustained basis but UBI is certainly a much better sustainable alternative to improve the lot of all poor people.

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