Poverty & Inequality

Introduction to e-Symposium: The idea of a universal basic income in the Indian context

  • Blog Post Date 26 September, 2016
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Parikshit Ghosh

Editor-in-Chief, I4I; Delhi School of Economics


The idea of an unconditional basic income given to all citizens by the State, has caught on in the developed world. Does it make sense for India? To examine the issue, Parikshit Ghosh (Member of the I4I Editorial Board) is hosting an e-Symposium on the idea of a universal basic income in the Indian context. Over the next week, economists Pranab Bardhan (University of California, Berkeley), Abhijit Banerjee (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Maitreesh Ghatak (London School of Economics), Debraj Ray (New York University), Kalle Moene (University of Oslo), T.N. Srinivasan (Yale University) and Vijay Joshi (University of Oxford) will contribute to the e-Symposium.

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It sounds like a crazy idea. The State is to pay every citizen a universal basic income (UBI) – enough money to live on even if you don’t earn another penny. You don’t have to be poor, unemployed, disabled, sick or retired. It is universal. You don’t have to demonstrate good behaviour, like sending your child to school or looking for work or buying food instead of booze. It is unconditional. If deficits are ballooning from just paying salaries and repairing potholes, who will pay for this naani State – government as granny who bakes cookies for everyone?

Yet, the idea has caught on in the developed world, beset by decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality, closing factories and job-killing automation. There are pilot programmes or ballot proposals in Finland, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands. Even the Economist magazine, not ordinarily enamoured of fiscal adventurism, has contemplated it in all seriousness. It has listed a motley crew of advocates and enthusiasts – union leaders, science fiction writers, eighteenth century French mathematicians, Silicon Valley, Paul Krugman and the Cato Institute. Vive la différence!

But surely such munificence can only be dreamt of by societies that can send a man to the moon or splurge on programmes designed to bring home dozens of Olympic gold medals? Can rickety, cash-strapped governments such as ours contemplate handing out enough cash to bring all citizens at least up to the official poverty line? Read the contributions to the e-symposium that we will serialise through this week. Some of our finest economists examine the idea of a universal basic income in the Indian context..

Can we raise the money by scrapping regressive subsidies and tax breaks for the rich? Should targeted welfare schemes like MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and the food subsidy be converted to unconditional cash transfers? Even if it is economically affordable, is it politically feasible? Will a policy proposal like UBI forge new solidarities and converge our interests towards a shared prosperity? Or will it open up new political cleavages, say between a rising middle class and the working poor? What is the guarantee that opportunistic governments will not let the value of cash entitlements wither away in the face of inflation? 

The history of economic policy is replete with examples where yesterday’s crackpot idea becomes today’s conventional wisdom. Leaving the gold standard, adopting the welfare State, Keynesianism, anti-Keynesianism, free trade – all belong to that list. There are also plenty of white elephant projects, which seemed sensible at the time, such as Montreal’s Big Owe. Where does UBI belong?

Pranab Bardhan, Abhijit Banerjee, Maitreesh Ghatak, Debraj Ray, Karl Moene, T.N. Srinivasan and Vijay Joshi,  will discuss these issues, in that order. Stay tuned.

Univeral basic income for India - Vijay Ramachandra Joshi (University of Oxford)

Minimum standard of living for all Indians - T. N. Srinivasan (Yale University)

The universal basic share and social incentives - Karl Moene (University of Oslo) & Debraj Ray (New York University)

The universal basic share - Debraj Ray (New York University)

Is India ready for a universal basic income scheme? - Maitreesh Ghatak (London School of Economics)

Universal basic income: The best way to welfare - Abhijit Banerjee (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Basic income in a poor country - Pranab Bardhan (University of California, Berkeley)

Enhancing nutrition among the poor: UBI vs. welfare programmes - Ranjan Ray (Monash University), Kompal Sinha (Macquarie University).

Can India make a basic universal income work? - Saksham Khosla (Carnegie India)

A universal basic income to step up economic reform - Nimai Mehta (American University)

Decoding universal basic income for India - Jean Drèze (Ranchi University; Delhi School of Economics)

The tale and maths of universal basic income - Jean Drèze (Ranchi University; Delhi School of Economics)

Disintermediating the State: Would a universal basic income reduce poverty more than targeted programmes? - Justin Sandefur (Center for Global Development)

A proposal for universal basic services - Himanshu (Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Straw men in the debate on basic income versus targeting - Martin Ravallion (Georgetown University)

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