Universal Basic Income in India: A powerful tool for Social Change photo: Ridham Nagralawala

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Universal basic income (also referred to as basic income guarantee, Citizen's Income, unconditional basic income, UBI, basic Income or universal demogrant) is a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country receive a regular, unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, independent of any other income, social constraint or bias.

The idea has found many supporters in entire gamut of left, right and centre politics. Economists back the idea due to its immense potential for inclusion, lack of any implementation bias, ease of implementation and as a net that would rarely leave any worthy candidates for government’s action. Like direct cash transfers, a universal basic income can provide people with the freedom to spend it in any way they choose and also give them the economic strength to choose the kind of work they would want rather than be forced to take up undesirable jobs for sustainace.

The media paid heed to this idea when Silicon Valley incubator, Y Combinator, propelled an investigation in California where it started paying 100 families a fundamental pay to contemplate the outcomes of such an arrangement. On January 1, 2017, Finland initiated a pilot programme aimed to understand the effects of universal basic income. The government decided that it would pay €560 a month for two years to 2,000 unemployed persons, and continue to provide the income even if they find employment. However, there exists no such example for a country the size of India.

India is one of the largest, among the fastest growing economies in the world. It is home to some of the greatest industrial powerhouses and is the capital of global software services industry. However, a large segment of the society is below poverty line and there is widespread malnutrition. The government faces a huge challenge in implementing its policies because India is a continent in its own right, where languages change every 20 miles and over 1.3 billion people call her their home. A number of social issues exist like Child Labor, population growth, crime against women, domestic violence, corruption along with Open Defecation and lack of access to drinking water. All these require the helping hand of the government and there exist more than 1000 central schemes for the poor. The Government performs a time and labor consuming process to identify the challenges and necessary beneficiaries for the program. However, there are very high chances that some poor souls are left out due to a plethora of reasons. Even after the implementation, corrupt officials profit out of lax administration and the lack of information of the beneficiary’s part.

A UBI has the potential to ensure targeted delivery of government aid to the needful without any losses to corruption or red tape. And it can be the perfect tool to ensure a social change for the better can be implemented across the country. This requires an in-depth understanding of the major social issues and how they can be remediated by linking them to the UBI. Let’s take a look how-

a) Instead of making it individual, make it family based (only for married couples with children upto the age of 18). The income can be transferred into the account of the female head of the family. This will reduce the chances of domestic violence, empower women and reduce spending on liquor & tobacco.

b) By making it linked to family, a number of other social issues can be tackled. For example, a family can be provided with a small increment for having only 2 children with an additional amount being deducted for every extra child. This will not only create awareness for family planning but also provide a monetary compulsion to do so.

c) The Government spends a lot of money to promote girl children education and prevent early marriage. To tackle this challenge using the UBI, the government can start providing incremental cash for educating the family’s girl child and a onetime grant after completing higher secondary and senior secondary schools. The monetary incentive will motivate families to send their children for education.

d) A major challenge before the Indian Health system is that a number of children remain unvaccinated even if the vaccines themselves are free. There is simply no awareness or motivation on the parents to get their children vaccinated. With UBI, the Government can withhold payments if the Family is not allowing or is casual in the process of their child ’s vaccination.

e) Open Defecation is major challenge in India. So much so that the current prime minister had to declare the need for toilets before temples in his campaign, much to the ire of his political backers. After being elected, he has initiated a huge program for construction of toilets in the country. While this is all very good, there is still a lot of friction in the policy’s implementation. One, toilets are not being constructed fast enough as people lack awareness of its value. Moreover, toilets constructed are not being used for primary purpose. The government can link UBI to ODF status of the family and the community and provide a certain incremental value in the UBI. Here, there is a need to involve the community too as people can be motivated by the incremental cash and discourage others too from defecating outside.

f)   Crop failures are driving farmers to the brink of suicides and into the clutches of ruthless money lenders. The UBI can make a huge difference in saving an innocent farmer’s life.

g) The Indian population stares down at obesity, diabetes and heart diseases, courtesy our lifestyle. Call this far-fetched but along with regular health camps where a full body health tests will be carried out, the Government can link this to UBI. People will be provided more money if they lead a healthier lifestyle, evident from the results of their tests.

h) One major challenge before the policy planners is improving the green cover and the air quality in the country. Saplings are frequently planted but there is lack of care and most end up dried or eaten before maturity. Hence, the government can involve the UBI family in the process. Along with saplings, families can be provided incremental cash to care and nurture the trees.

i)   India is home to many cultures, languages and arts. Many arts are being lost as people simply don’t have time to pursue them after struggling to fill the bellies of their families and themselves. UBI can free up those people and hopefully, provide an impetus to the fading arts in this magnificent country.

Many more social changes can be effected using Universal Basic Income provided there is proper implementation. However, the challenges remain regarding funding such an undertaking. Hence, a “Universal” basic income in India is unfeasible, economically. However, a Basic Income targeting a portion of India’s most vulnerable families is possible and can be implemented with current resources. The JAM trinity can go a long way in ensuring that UBI reaches every deserving Indian in this country without any red tape or political hurdle. Hopefully, the Indian Government will consider further action in this regard.

M.Tech. (Petroleum Engineering), Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Rae Bareli.

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