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Could India support a basic income?

After a successful pilot project in Madhya Pradesh the India Network for Basic Income is setting its sights higher.

Woodblock printing in Madhya Pradesh. Arian Zwegers/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Neil Howard (oD): What is India Network for Basic Income (INBI) and what do you do?

Sarath: India Network for Basic Income is a nation-wide community of researchers, scholars, journalists, and concerned citizens who are keen to understand, research, and advocate the idea of basic income in the Indian context. It was established in 2015 by a small group of researchers who participated in the Madhya Pradesh Basic Income Pilot Study that was conducted between 2011 and 2014. The results of this study were very positive and demonstrated that basic income, if designed and implemented well, can have a strong transformative and emancipatory effect on the lives of the poor. It is this conviction that propelled this small group to begin to talk to more people about this big idea, and that’s how INBI was formed.

To start with the feasibility issue is to put the cart before the horse.

Neil (oD): Sarath, you'll see that we've recently published some interviews with high-profile Indian social justice and labour rights activists, some of whom have major reservations about UBI. How do you understand their major critiques? What do trade unions in India think of basic income? Is your network in any way trying to collaborate with them?

Sarath: Let us get the facts right about trade unions in India. We have three streams of trade unions, broadly speaking. One, the major recognised trade unions that are affiliated to the political parties. Two, enterprise-level independent unions. And the third stream comprises those trade unions, national or local, that are organising workers in the unorganised sector. The first two categories are predominantly in the organised sector, though the party-affiliated trade unions have membership in the unorganised sector as well. The irony in the Indian situation is that the organised sector accounts for barely 4-5 % of the total working population in the country. Added to this, the organised sector trade unions – be they party-affiliated or independent unions – have historically speaking been extremely myopic and have restricted their vision only to their membership in the organised sector. As INBI we do feel that it is important to bring all the trade unions on board; I think we need to make efforts in that direction.

Among the national trade unions that are recognised by the Government of India within the tripartite structure of consultation, there is one more national union which works exclusively in the unorganised sector. That is SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association. The Madhya Pradesh Basic Income Pilot was in fact initiated and conducted by SEWA Bharat, the national federation of SEWA unions across the country.

Coming to the question of feasibility, I think we need to first of all agree, in principle, whether a basic income is a good idea. Whether it fits into the world-view that we are espousing – be it a trade union, or a network, or any people’s organisation. Then comes the question whether it is feasible or not. To start with the feasibility issue is to put the cart before the horse. Secondly, we often see this knee-jerk reaction from people about Universal Basic Income – to do a back of the envelope calculation, that is 1.3 billion people multiplied by the proposed amount of individual basic income per month. I feel we need to be a bit more invested in this issue.

The Government of India has put forth its ideas on the issue in the latest Economic Survey (2016-17). Several economists – Pranab Bardhan, Vijay Joshi, Abhijit Bannerjee, Sudipto Mundle – have made concrete proposals on where to start and how to go about tweaking the idea of universal basic income to the Indian context. Some politicians like Haseeb Drabu and Baijayant Panda are already doing their calculations and believe that this may be the route we should take. We have just begun to apply our minds to the idea in the Indian context. We all need to put in a lot more work.

We need to shift away from a worker-centric social thinking to a more citizen-centric social thinking.

Neil (oD): What is INBI’s vision about it and how do you want to interpret the concept of UBI to the Indian context? Why are you in favour of UBI?

Sarath: In your last interview you discussed collective bargaining. Let me start with that. Collective bargaining, the way it is formally understood, is relevant to just a handful of workers in India. As I said, the factory-based or government-employed permanent worker – with all the accompanying welfare benefits – is an endangered species in India. As a matter of fact, this is the case across the globe. So, we need to shift away from a worker-centric social thinking to a more citizen-centric social thinking. We are living through the fourth industrial revolution (the digital), which is threatening us with an apocalyptic possibility of “jobless growth” or “people-less growth”. In India, we are going to have, in the next 10-15 years if not sooner, large sections of working population with extremely precarious employment and livelihood possibilities.

First, let us take the crisis that our agriculture is going through. Nearly 50% of our workforce is employed in agriculture. There are also small and marginal farmers, and if we add them the total percentage goes up further. For these people agriculture is gradually ceasing to be a viable livelihood option. There is going to be a major flight of workers from agriculture sector. The numbers are heart-breaking.

Where will they go? Why do you think so many farmers are committing suicide, across the country? We are not paying attention to this major crisis exploding right under our nose. Second, the service sector has grown, but what kind of jobs has it generated? I do not have the space here to go into the details, but the short answer is low-end subsistence jobs! Already you have two major reservoirs of the ‘emerging precariat’. We have no answers how we are going to deal with this new emerging societal crisis. As Guy Standing says, this could be that ‘dangerous class’.

We have no choice but develop a vision of a new social order, and in that new order basic income has a very important role to play. We ought decouple, at least partially, work and livelihood, and work and employment. Paid work may not provide enough to survive, it seems. Not getting work is not an individual failure. Nor is it a moral failure. Whatever label you may want to give the emerging economic system, one thing is sure. My forecast is that it is not going to provide jobs to all those willing to do paid work.

Two things about basic income. One, the moment we say basic income in India, we are not assuming a BI to 1.3 billion. ‘Universal’ is the ideal. We can incrementally move towards it. Brazil took that path. When President Lula da Silva signed the Bolsa Familia law in 2004, the law clearly stated that it was ‘the President’s responsibility to implement a Universal Basic Income gradually’. It was mentioned in the law itself that this was the first step towards a full UBI. In India we need to see if we should start with the bottom 40%? The Chief Economic Advisor in the Economic Survey has wondered if we should give a basic income to all women and children. Or, should we start with the 100 million-strong tribal population (about 9% of the total population). Only when you believe that this is a good idea will you get into this incremental implementation.

Two, for heaven’s sake, let us remember that Basic Income is not a replacement for work. The amount by definition is not going to be enough to survive on. That is not the idea at all. It is a foundation on which individuals and households would build their lives and livelihood system. This is a measure to ensure that nobody starts from zero. Is this not a mark of civilisation? Should we not aspire for it? What are the markers of a civilised society? It is INBI’s position that Unconditional Basic Income is a foundation of a better society, a more civilised society. A socially more evolved society. If you say, India is not ready for it, I’d say – ‘then get ready for a societal collapse’.  

Unconditional Basic Income is a foundation of a better society, a more civilised society.

Neil (oD: How can we ensure that UBI isn't a Trojan horse for the neoliberal right to dismantle existing welfare provisions?

Sarath: I wish the existing neoliberal right across the world would embrace the idea of UBI and implement it. It is not so excited about it. I can’t think of a single instance anywhere in the world.

Having said that, let me say that the so-called left in India just wants a status quo of our welfare landscape. Give people grain, give people guaranteed employment, give them free health care and free education. We have three laws guaranteeing right to food, right to guaranteed employment of 100 days per family, and right to free education. Despite that fact that these are legal guarantees, they are not automatically translated into effective delivery. There are some sections particularly from the left of centre saying that ‘don’t disrupt them’. They think that the very idea of unconditional basic income is disrupting this existing system. My best description of this conglomeration of different shades of the so-called left forces is that they are a lazy left. Why should we accept something that is evidently so inefficient as something that is good for people?

India’s largest welfare spending is on food security. It is the largest food programme in the world. Don’t you think we need to review a $20 billion per annum programme where the transmission losses are allegedly close to 40%? Don’t you think we need to interrogate a welfare regime that is spending three dollars to deliver one dollar? If we don’t do this we fail as responsible citizens.

Neil, you have been working on the definition of poverty, and your critique of the received wisdom on this issue is remarkable. I am coming from there. Would you agree that poverty only means ‘open, hungry mouths’, which need to be fed? Are they human beings, or animals in the zoo?

Of course, governments and neoliberal gurus are coming to UBI from the governance and efficiency route, as you may have already guessed. That is what even the Government of India’s document shows. They see it as a win-win situation. We need to be aware of where they are coming from, even as we participate in a dialogue with them. But, the point is that if we want efficient welfare delivery to the people, then why erect this sacred cow and say nobody should disturb this inefficient system!

And lastly, the big question of the replacement. Let me make INBI’s position very clear. We are not saying that we should replace all welfare schemes and give a basic income. No. We say that providing universal free education and health care is government’s responsibility. We need to strengthen delivery in those two domains. Whether government should deliver grain to people, I have my doubts about it. Bureaucracies love in-kind transfers. Not just grain. In India, governments distribute blankets, bicycles, sarees, laptops, etc., etc. The list is very long. You may guess why. My question is: is that the most efficient way to deliver welfare? My answer is: it is not. We fail as citizens if we don’t bring this to scrutiny.

About the author

Sarath Davala is a sociologist based in Hyderabad, India. He is the co-founder and coordinator of India Network for Basic Income (INBI). With Guy Standing and the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), he was the architect behind the Madhya Pradesh Basic Income Pilot.


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