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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Universal Basic Income - Transformative Idea or an Ignis Fatuus?

The Economic Survey released today by the Finance Minister has endorsed the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) - a form of direct cash transfer scheme which will replace the existing 'dolenomics' based welfare schemes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Mid-Day Meal Scheme as well as subsidies on food, fuel, fertilizers etc. One of the main reasons for introducing the UBI is the fact that it eliminates the leakages associated with traditional welfare schemes and hence is more efficient in its reach to the intended beneficiary and that it also gives a boost to the usage of the JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile) platform necessary for the realization of Digital India. 

What's wrong with traditional welfare schemes?

Traditional welfare schemes and subsidies such as those listed above are inefficient due to the human intermediaries involved - which means that while leakages can be reduced, they can never be completely eliminated, thus reducing the efficiency of these schemes. 

Another drawback of dolenomics is that it chains the poor and reduces her social mobility in a rapidly changing economic scenario. With a global trend towards urbanization indicating a shift of populations from rural areas to the cities, traditional welfare schemes which are largely intended for the rural poor, do not provide a social security net for those willing to climb up the social ladder and change their occupations or migrate to cities in search of work. 

Finally, there is a need to reduce the burden on the agricultural sector in order to make it profitable for those still willing to be engaged in it. This would require that the poor be given an option of spending their welfare amount in a way through which they can explore the opportunities available for them outside the rural environment.

How does a Universal Basic Income help?

A UBI unchains the concept of 'sustenance' from that of a 'job' allowing the beneficiary greater freedom to explore her area of interest. This is important to promote entrepreneurship in an age where jobless growth is the norm and increasing automation is leading to the reduction in the number of existing jobs. 

A direct cash transfer also eliminates any leakages associated with traditional welfare schemes, thus increasing the efficiency and reaching the intended beneficiary. It does this with the help of the government's JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile) platform, giving a further boost to the dream of Digital India and cashless transactions. 

Further, with the availability of money instead of hand-outs, the beneficiary has an opportunity to adjust her needs in accordance with changing variables of the economy, instead of standing in long queues or depending on the benevolence of the intermediary for her promised hand-out.

What are the implementation hurdles?

The current burden on the economy due to the existing welfare schemes is around 5.5% of the GDP. A Universal Basic Income based on the Tendulkar Committee's Poverty Line of Rs 33/day translates to about 11-12% of the GDP, which is unsustainable. A more feasible UBI would be around Rs 450 per person per month which would still translate to about 5.5% of the GDP.

Critics point out that instead of removing the current set of welfare schemes, the government should instead enforce the minimum wage law, release timely funds in case of MGNREGS, plug the loopholes in Mid Day Meal schemes and other subsidies rather than scrapping these schemes altogether to put in place a direct cash transfer scheme which would essentially come at the cost of the same fiscal burden on the GDP. What's more, if a UBI is to be implemented at all, they say, it must complement these welfare schemes instead of replacing them. That would increase the bargaining power of the poor.

However, as has already been pointed out, the continuance of traditional dole-out schemes is unsustainable in the longer run due to the changing nature of the economy and adding a UBI on top of these traditional welfare schemes as has been suggested by some critics is a recipe for fiscal disaster. The real hurdle lies in the scrapping of subsidies, which account for about 2% of the GDP at present, and whose removal is bound to snowball into a huge political controversy. 

What are the drawbacks of the UBI?

As with any public policy, Universal Basic Income too has its own set of drawbacks. India does not have a natural resource like the Oil Producing economies or an exceptionally well performing sector which can sustain the fiscal burden imposed by the UBI at times of economic downturn. Furthermore, fixing a particular amount as the UBI is counter-productive due to the fluctuating rates of inflation which means that at times of low inflation, the UBI may seem sufficient, and at times of high inflation, the same UBI may seem to be grossly insufficient. 

Countries like Switzerland, which conducted a referendum on the same, have seen the measure been voted down because the people there do not think it is a good idea. There is no data to support the contention that UBI will work wonders as it has not been implemented anywhere in the world so far.

Conclusion - The Way Forward

With 70 million people living below the poverty line, and 57 billionaires controlling close to 60% of the country's wealth - representing the twin challenges of poverty and inequality, coupled with jobless growth and growing social interest in the form of demand for reservation of jobs in public sector for socially advanced communities, India is facing multiple challenges which need transformative ideas in order to arrive at a solution. A Universal Basic Income is one such idea which deserves implementation because its merits outweigh its demerits at the moment. 

The government will have to find out ways in order to keep the fiscal burden generated by a UBI within 5.5% of the GDP in order to meet its own target of fiscal deficit of around 6-6.5% of the GDP. A flat tax rate under the Goods and Services Tax (GST), as proposed by the Subramanian Committee and removal of corporate tax concessions, which together will help save some 3% of the GDP, are some of the ideas which can help generate enough revenue to sustain a modest UBI.