‘Universal Basic Income won’t make people lazy, but afford them more choice’

SDP leader and MP Prem Das Rai speaks to Down To Earth about his party’s plan to role out UBI in Sikkim and how it will help create a productive work culture

By Joyjeet Das
Published: Monday 28 January 2019

Image: Getty ImagesUniversal Basic Income (UBI) has been a talking point, off and on, in India ever since the 2017 Economic Survey batted for its potential to reduce poverty. From time to time, there have been discussions and debates about how existing social welfare schemes can be replaced with direct cash.

This aspect has also led to opposition from several quarters on various grounds. Questions have been raised on whether such a scheme, if and when it is rolled out, will eat into the rights-based approach of the Constitution of India.

The moot point of a UBI is that every citizen, irrespective of their social position, would be entitled to a cash payment — a direct transfer to their account. Supporters say such a scheme can weed out fund leakages and loopholes in existing welfare measures.

Opponents caution that it could not replace schemes like the rural-employment guarantee and public distribution system. The idea of spending on an infrastructure to benefit those who won’t need it has also been questioned.

Nevertheless, with an agrarian crisis across rural India, the call for such a scheme — even a smaller, targeted version — has become sharper. India will also do good to learn from the experience of other countries.

Of late, with the General Elections round the corner, there have been speculations about whether the Narendra Modi-led government would announce a form of UBI. Some sections feel the push towards universal banking via the Jan Dhan Yojana was a precursor. Congress President Rahul Gandhi on January 28, 2019 already ensured minimum income guarantee to every poor in the country if he comes to power.

But before that, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kr Chamling announced that if his Sikkim Democratic Party (SDP) is voted back to power, it would roll out UBI in the next three years.

Down to Earth spoke to SDP leader Prem Das Rai, the lone Lok Sabha member from the state, on his party’s plans regarding UBI. Excerpts:

What did Chamling mean when he said the Sikkim government will dole out a UBI?

It is not a dole. We are serious about this. We feel that we have reached a certain level of development and now it’s time to role out UBI. It has been talked about by Arvind Subramanian (former chief economic advisor) and others and there has been a public debate for some time. We feel now is the right time to usher it in for the people of Sikkim.

For everybody in Sikkim?

That is a political discussion that we will take up later. For the time being let us just say ‘the people of Sikkim’ and leave it at that. Let’s not get into who the people of Sikkim are, etc. Obviously it will require a lot more detailing.

Is it going to be at an individual level or family level?

UBI, in its most pristine form, has been defined by many thinkers. We will follow most of it. Every member of a family will be a recipient. If there are five members in a family, all five will get UBI. Every person in his or her own right will be entitled to receive a certain income. It will not be a grant or a dole.

What about the delivery? Will this set a trend?

We were one of the first to come up with a financial inclusion plan. Everybody is financially included. So the banking system will take care of the delivery. We are not here to set a trend. If others follow it is fine. We are very people-centric. We feel this would help us address some of the equity issues in the society now. This will also help in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Sikkim, we are very mindful of the environment and our people.

There will be a process in place. We have already said it would start from three years after we come to power.

How will UBI help towards SDGs?

You take any goal, say No.13. (Climate action) and if someone wants to move from firewood to electricity, then this will help. Or, food security: A little bit of money will help. Any goal: be it education, health... UBI ties in very well with whatever measures our government takes. SDGs give us a nice framework.

UBI doesn’t differentiate between the rich and the poor. Today you may be rich and have the means, tomorrow you might not. Robotics and others are taking over our jobs. The amount of money in the hands of corporates and others is very high. There is no proper distribution.

This is one way to participate in the distribution of income. The next phase of development of Sikkim is going to be knowledge-driven. That is bound to bring in artificial intelligence. It’s like climate change: It’s not going to be tomorrow but it will. So, this is like future-proofing.

Will UBI roll-in other welfare measures? Will all budgets be assumed into one super budget?

The rights and other welfare measures are based upon certain targeted population.

Everything is not targeted...

Yes, like the rights to education, health, etc. But this can’t be the panacea to drive out all inequality.

We have to be mindful. May be one or two of these will be subsumed. That will have to be thought further downstream. At this particular point it is difficult for me to say because the architecture is still a work in progress.

We will come up with some kind of consultative plan (based on) our own conditions, needs. We are already at 98 per cent literacy. We are taking off for the next stage of development. When you talk of universal basic income, the literate would think ‘we now have a new way of thinking about the future’.

This is a kind of security that will be brought into the lives of the citizens. It is not in exchange of ‘one job per household’. That is an equity measure, this is also a question of access. The poor have no access because of so many disfunctionalities in the system. UBI has nothing to do with it.

There are a lot of misgivings whether UBI will make people lazy. What do you have to say to that?

No. UBI will afford people more choice. We have to, at some point, believe in our people. Today a child may want to go into music, but may not have the means. UBI will allow that.

Number two, we are certainly going to promote a better work culture among our bureaucrats and those who will avail of ‘one job per house’. We are mindful that we have to build a more productive work culture. All these will have to go hand in hand. UBI will not make everything hunky dory.

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