EDITORIAL: Universal Basic Income?

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - It is not insignificant that India's Bharatiya Janata Party has Mr. Arun Jaitley, along with Mr. Rajnath Singh, heading the 20-member ‘sankalp patra’ (manifesto) committee and its publicity wing as the party prepares to approach its somewhat bleaker prospects (compared to the robust one in 2014) at the hustings this year.

After all, it is the finance minister, specifically in charge of publicity, who will present the interim budget on February 1 and while union budgets have long lost their sheen with out-of-the-budget financial maneouverings by all governments, the seemingly inconsequential pre-election interim budget is rich with potential. Many of Mr. Jaitley’s predecessors have exploited what was just a vote-on-account (for approving essential government spending till a full-fledged budget is presented by the new government) to the hilt, packaging the economy in the blithest of colours. The one-man-one-vote Indian elections will, of course, place the farmer back on centrestage, especially since rural India has given vent to its ire over the persistent neglect and even sabotage of the farm economy for apparently inexplicable gains that the government was seeking. One could, therefore, expect much more of the kisan and social spending focus that has been all but throttled for the past four years along with introduction of universal basic income (UBI), whose time may have come in India. The finance minister would do well to revisit the 40-page discussion on UBI in the Economic Survey of India 2016-17. Not a novel thought, UBI took off from a concept originating in the early 16th century and was given concrete shape by the mathematician and philosopher, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, (1743-1794), when in incarceration for his political activism. Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’espirit humain, crystalizing the concept of social insurance to reduce inequality, insecurity and poverty, was published posthumously in 1795.

That the philosopher was jailed and (probably) poisoned to death is an indication of the inherent unfairness in dominant economic thinking over the ages. It was, therefore, interesting that the Economic Survey based its proposition on universality, unconditionality and agency, whereby the UBI could provide every citizen “a basic income to cover their needs”. The key is accessibility of all to a basic income, without any ‘means’ test, which has been the bane of all social welfare schemes in India’s post-Aadhaar age. “Agency”, is about a sleight of language to alter the perception of the poor in the eyes of the administration by treating the impoverished as agents and not subjects, thus liberating them from the “paternalistic and clientelistic relationships with the state”. The crux of the issue is to come up with a mechanism obviating leakage.

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