The Time for Universal Basic Income Has Arrived
It is time to accept that the global mayhem currently
playing out has not all been created by the Coronavirus- it is a catalyst which
has exposed the many problems that already existed- chief among them being
rampant (and increasing) inequality, pathetic health care systems, lack of
social safety nets and environmental degradation.
COVID 19 is not just a public health issue- it will begin as one, but its real
impact in times to come shall be on livelihoods, social structures, economic
models and our ways of life.
Limiting myself to India, it is clear that if we don't reform our governance
immediately, we will be even more vulnerable to COVID 22 or 23 when it comes
around again, as it inevitably shall. There is only so much dependence that can
be placed on Ayurveda, Pranayam, Yoga, lock downs and lighting of candles.
Take the economic model that reigns supreme these days, and has since the
1990s- the neo liberal capitalist theory. Its false Gods are GDP and the
creation of wealth, never mind that the top 1% of Indians own 51.3% of the
national wealth, leaving only 4.8% for the bottom 60%; putting it another way,
12 million Indians own four times the wealth held by 953 million Indians (
OXFAM report, Davos 2020).
The coronavirus is just a temporary nuisance for the former, but a life and
death issue for the latter, as the misery and mass suffering of millions of
migrants and abandoned labourers in Mumbai, Anand Vihar, Surat, Hyderabad, etc
testify to. It is expected that perhaps as many as 200 million additional
Indians shall be pushed below the poverty line this year, adding to the 250
million already there. Many will not even be able to access the PDS rations
because they are either migrants or do not have ration cards; the collapsed
economy will render tens of millions unemployed for a long time.
COVID has exposed the inequity and hollowness of the economic model we have
been following and it is time to throw out the billionaire with the bath water.
It is public values, and not private values, which should shape our economic
planning; the distribution of wealth is as vital as the creation of wealth, and
the wretched must be given their rightful place at the high table, they should
have first claim to the nation's resources.
Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and linguist in an interview to DIEM TV
( which all of us must watch) does not mince his words. He ascribes the
devastating economic impact of COVID 19 to a " neo-liberal plague", a
" savage neo-liberalism" the script of which has been dictated to
governments by their " corporate masters". In an alarming aside he
further warns that "authoritarian states are quite compatible with
We have seen enough evidence of this in India too, particularly over the last
six years. Corona is telling us that this mould has to be broken, the
"Daridranarayan" of Mahatma Gandhi, not the billionaire of Davos,
must now become the focal point of all economic planning. A country with more
than a third of its population below the poverty line, and with a current
unemployment rate of 24% ( rising every day), cannot even think of any other
The time for Universal Basic Income( UBI) has arrived. What India's 800 million
poor/ migrant/ landless population desperately needs now is a safety net, not
just an uncertain 10 kgs of rice, which in any case is not available to the 139
million migrant workers ( Census 2011) who lack a ration card or even a BPL
card. Leading economists and Nobel prize winners have been imploring the
central government to dispense with these requirements at a time like this when
starvation is just over the horizon, but the response would put a four toed
sloth to shame.
UBI is already being tested on a pilot basis in some countries, but the time
for clinical trials is over and it must be implemented in the next few months.
Vijay Joshi, an eminent Oxford economist, has estimated in a study that giving
Rs. 17500 to each household in India every year would cost 3.5% of GDP or about
Rupees seven lakh crores. A lot of this, however, can be recouped by doing away
with many non-merit subsidies which currently total up to 7.5% of our GDP.
Moreover, UBI does not have to be universal: it can be restricted to only the
BPL and the migrant workers, in which form its financial implication would be
significantly less. We already have the required digital and banking architecture
to implement this- the famed JAM trilogy of Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobiles; using
it for welfare is much better than employing it for surveillance. Combined with
a more inclusive PDS, while the UBI cannot prevent the poor from falling, it
can at least ensure that they will rise again some day when the jobs return.
Exiled by force from their jobs and the cities, almost the entire labour force
has now reverse- migrated to their villages, presenting a problematic irony:
now that parts of the economy are re-opening there are no workers to turn the
wheels of commerce and industry. There is no labour for agricultural
operations, 85% of truck drivers have simply abandoned their vehicles ( and
freight) on the roads and fled, most construction labour have gone. They are
not likely to return soon after their horrific experiences, their fear of
further indignities and uncertainties outstrips their fear of the virus.
Even if the inevitable prospect of starvation in the villages forces them to
return, the same script will be repeated when the next Corona strikes. To
prevent a recurrence of the humanitarian tragedy now playing out, it is
imperative that they be assured of a minimum income. Not ad -hoc, temporary
doles but a permanent, assured income which will enable them to weather any
future storms, stay put, and resume working when the clouds have gone.
Lack of financial resources can no longer be an alibi for the government to
deny them a UBI. A country which aspires to be a five trillion dollar economy
cannot allow almost half its population to wallow in poverty and live a life of
Our economic model can no longer be dictated by corporates who have siphoned
off ten lakh crore rupees under the guise of NPAs- sufficient, if recovered, to
fund UBI for the next five years. This is not just an economic crisis, as Dalal
Street would have us believe, but a civilisational crisis for the country as a
Worse, it is an existential crisis for our poor: Ms Sitharaman may not admit
it, but it takes more than five hundred rupees a month, ten kilos of rice and a
police lathi to keep body and soul together. Ask that weeping young worker we
all saw on TV at Anand Vihar the other day, without any money, job or food; he
just wanted to walk back home in UP two hundred miles away but was not even
being allowed to do that.
He has probably gone now but ask yourself- Why in hell should he want to come
back? And if he doesn't, then how in hell do we become a five trillion dollar