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July 17, 2017

Development Strategy|Social Justice

UBI or Social Security

By Nitin Desai


Recently a seminar organized by the Institute for Human Development in Delhi discussed the proposals for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) put forward by Pranab Bardhan, and Vijay Joshi whose presence at the seminar added greatly to a better understanding of their ideas. The seminar also had sessions on the treatment of this topic in this year’s Economic Survey and field level concerns.

The dissatisfaction with the misdirection of subsidies in social welfare schemes and the high-level of ‘demerit’ subsidies that go to better-off sections of the population figured prominently in the discussion. What Vijay Joshi called ‘deep fiscal adjustment’ was sometimes advanced as a reason for replacing the existing subsidies, merited or not merited, with an UBI.  There was some discussion of how, in addition to the gains from the reduction in demerit subsidies, the resources required for an UBI could come from raising the tax/GDP ratio, disinvestment, and rationalization of fiscal sops, which, it was argued, gives fiscal headroom of about 10% of GDP.

The need for exceptions was recognized and this, interestingly included the MGNREGA, the principal vehicle for income subsidy at present.  It was also accepted that spending on public services like education and health must be protected, though one sensed a divide of sorts between those who would give priority to such merit good expenditures and those who preferred to enhance the agency of households/individuals to choose.  (For the latter group are education and health vouchers the next step after UBI?).  An undertone in the discussion was the disquiet about patron-client politics where subsidies are used by parties to preferentially favour their vote-banks.

There was a slightly surreal discussion of implementation issues like individual versus household entitlement, monthly or yearly payments, transfers through bank accounts or mobile wallets as if the implementation of the UBI is imminent.

My concern is that much of the discussion on financing, design and implementation issues deals with matters that should be taken up after we come to the judgement that an UBI is the appropriate way to pursue social security in India. 

The case for an UBI should rest on its impact on household economic security, a point stressed by Pranab Bardhan. In our fractured and fractious society protection against social discrimination must also be considered and from a welfare perspective we should look for

  • A guarantee for a minimum level of consumption of private and public goods
  • Protection from major sources of vulnerability like catastrophic health expenditures, substantial crop failures, loss of employment, natural disasters
  • Resources for advancement for oneself and for one’s children
  • Empowerment and a sense of agency for women, tribals, dalits, minorities
  • An escape route for those trapped in demeaning occupations like manual scavenging

The question that needs to be asked is whether an unconditional cash transfer of a few thousand rupees per head per year would help to achieve these goals.  From the perspective of a poor and vulnerable household would this be an improvement if it replaces all or most of the present welfare system of goods and services provided in kind (e.g. subsidized grains), employment programmes (e.g. MGNREGA), targeted welfare programmes (e.g. for the girl child, pregnant women, the disabled), conditional subsidies (e.g. means tested scholarships),targeted insurance schemes (e.g. for crop failure or health care), affirmative action (e.g. job reservation), anti-discrimination laws and so on? Like every capitalist market economy, India will need a structured social protection system very soon. Is the UBI the answer to this?

At present individuals cope with unemployment, large health expenditures, old age and other emergencies mainly by falling back on traditional support systems – go back to your village home when you lose a job, draw on support from relatives and friends for sudden expenditure demands for health crisis and other emergencies, rely on children for old age support and so on. These traditional systems were often quite demeaning, particularly for old age as one can see in the widows exiled to Varanasi and Vrindavan to live off charity.

The Centre and the States do provide some protection for economic vulnerability. But much more needs to be done. The table alongside shows how limited our efforts are even in comparison with Sub Saharan Africa or the Asia-Pacific region. With urbanization, industrialization and migration people will lose the traditional safety nets of an extended family and we will need a state supported social safety net that rests on entitlement and not bureaucratic discretion.  But entitlements can be conditional on meeting a means test or some social or geographical criteria of vulnerability and need.

Judging by international experience we need to double our social protection expenditure to 5% of GDP as soon as possible and assume that this will rise steadily 10% plus as we become an urbanized industrialized upper middle income country.  The calculations made to show that fiscal headroom can be made available for a UBI suggest that we can afford a universal entitlement based social protection system.

One must also ask how one can get from here to there.  Today’s schemes have beneficiaries who have gotten used to them and political patrons who derive their support from them. A beginning can be made by consolidating existing schemes where possible, shifting to direct cash transfers of cash benefits, rationalizing the delivery mechanism so that the targeted household or individual has one point of contact for establishing entitlement and getting what is due from the plethora of schemes and agencies. 

Taking a cue from the UBI proposals we should work towards a unified social protection programme that will deal with all public services, transfers or in kind subsidies for social protection provided by the Centre and the States. What we need is not an overly simple UBI scheme but a blueprint for universal healthcare, old age pensions, unemployment insurance and social assistance to help the vulnerable as components of a coherent and integrated system. This task is as complex as the GST and perhaps as important for national unity and even more important for deepening our democracy.

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