That two former economic advisers to the Government of India appointed by governments with totally different ideologies, Kaushik Basu and Arvind Subramanian, have seriously considered the idea of a universal basic income for India suggests that there is good reason not to dismiss it just because the Congress has proposed it in the run-up to the ballot. In the West, the idea merits respect because technology-driven job losses have dispossessed many. It should merit similar consideration in India that has failed to provide paying work for some down the ages and made a particular hash of it in the recent past. The equity of the UBI proposition lies in placing every dispossessed Indian at par though there is little doubt that the farming class has suffered the worst economic afflictions in recent times because of warped policies. The others have suffered a fate just as pathetic for no particular reason save for the abhorrent neglect by New Delhi, leading to increasing precarization. Even as New Delhi flounders over measures to help the truly indigent, several states have worthwhile schemes that are now being tried out with satisfactory results and must be explored to see whether they help prepare a template for a workable structure for transfer of income on a universal basis. Andhra Pradesh Rythu Bandhu is a case in point, even though restricted to farmers.
According to published estimates, a poverty line-equivalent universal basic income, worked out at Rs 1,180 per month for each beneficiary (2017-18 prices), would present a bill of around Rs 19 trillion, which would account for about 11.4 per cent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Whether or not the Indian budget can support this is for the next finance minister to figure out, but there are other estimates in public domain that may also be examined vis-à-vis feasibility. Globally, there are other innovative thoughts that have informed this issue, especially around calculating the actual cost. Philosopher-economist Karl Widerquist worked out how a UBI of $ 12,000 per adult and $ 6,000 per child every year for the USA would need an additional annual $ 539 billion, even while maintaining other spending, costing under three per cent of the country’s GDP. Other ideas are being thrown up even in India, including one that suggests a professional expansion of the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) that has been around since 1991, under which the Centre gives pensions to the elderly, widows and disabled. It may be argued that scaling this up to address pan-Indian needs would be hard to pull off but certainly it is possible to put every poorly-targeted subsidy scheme in one basket and create a corpus to start with. The question is will India look at out-of-the-box solutions to find a humane solution or choose to be put off by insensitive comments about the dangers of free money? The poor remain in poverty not because they do not work but because the work does not pay or is of the manual scavenger kind.