"Universal Basic Income" : The Next 'Jumla'?

IN 2014, Modi had made speeches implying he would ensure Rs 15 lakh in the bank accounts of every poor Indian. Amit Shah later notoriously explained that this was a “mere jumla” (piece of rhetoric).

With the 2019 Parliamentary polls looming ahead, there are speculations about what rabbit Modi might try to pull out of his hat in the last Budget session of this Parliament.

The latest jumla is rumoured to be planning an election-eve launch of a ‘Universal Basic Income’ (UBI) scheme to guarantee a small amount of cash (not Rs 15 lakh) to every non-affluent Indian. However, it may be worth looking the Trojan gift horse closely in the mouth.

Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser to Modi, had mooted a UBI scheme, he made it clear that such a scheme is visualised as a “replacement” of existing welfare schemes of Union and state governments. Whether or not this replacement is done before the 2019 elections, it is clear that the basic conception of UBI is as an alternative to PDS rations and other systems. In the name of curbing “leakage” in these schemes and increasing “targeting”, UBI is being moot as a solution. In fact, Aadhaar and BPL lists are already being used to exclude the poor from welfare in the name of “targeting” and curbing “leakage”, while the government has for very long been proposing to replace food rations with cash transfers.

A piece in the Financial Express by Vipul Prasad speculates that the UBI may be a ‘brahmastra’ for the Modi Government, and offers a back of envelope calculation of how to generate funds for this magic wand move. The writer suggests: “If subsidies on fertilisers and petroleum products are withdrawn, then Rs 100,000 crore can be freed up while cutting the MGNREGA budget by half would add another Rs 25,000 crore to the kitty. The balance Rs 50,000 crore can be raised via additional disinvestment of government stake in PSUs.” So the UBI may well be visualised as a Trojan Horse to eventually replace food rations with cash transfers - a disastrous move for many reasons which right to food activists have explained many times.

But the question also arises - why is a Prime Minister who, in Parliament, mocked MNREGA as a “living monument of the UPA’s failure” now mooting UBI? After all, MNREGA is nothing but a form of UBI. Didn’t Modi claim that instead of “merely filling pockets” his Skill India would impart self-sufficiency? Announcing a UBI scheme now would be an admission of the abject failure of Skill India. It would also be a complete U-Turn in a man who steadily mocked every welfare scheme.

On his birthday in September 2014, PM Modi had said, “Due to our bad luck, the schemes and programmes that run in our country are such that they make poor people dependent on government instead of making them self-dependent and self-confident. If government programmes stop, the poor will die of hunger. We instead want to promote self-reliance, self-respect and self-dependency.” At the end of his five year tenure where he had promised ‘Acche Din’, Modi is desperately contemplating cash handouts to farmers and a UBI scheme that does exactly what he derided when it was done by his predecessors!

Moreover, we must ask if a Government which refuses to pay a minimum wage of even Rs 18000 a month to those who are waged workers, and in fact denies the status of waged workers to so many Government employees, is serious about doling out a UBI to every Indian including non-waged Indians?

The Government should first pay scheme workers a minimum wage and recognise them as Government employees; should ensure a minimum wage of Rs 18000 to all, pay old age pensions to all (pensions too are part of earnings after all, that an aged person has earned throughout their working life), and ensure universal payment of maternity entitlements for every birth, universal rations, and payment of unemployment benefits in exchange for failure to provide MNREGA jobs. Without this, all talk of UBI is hollow and carries zero credibility.

Indians must beware the crumbs tantalisingly thrown to voters towards the absolute fag end of Modi’s tenure in the desperate hope to somehow persuade them to give him another term and another chance to cheat them! Instead they musts ask Modi: why only crumbs, where is the whole chapati we demand? Where are the dignified and secure jobs, the living wages, the food rations?

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