BIEN Conference 2019: Contributions invited for an anthology of writings, poems and visual art

BIEN Conference 2019: Contributions invited for an anthology of writings, poems and visual art

As students of life, some of us have lived through poverty, through the worried nights of insecurity, the feeling of being powerless and valueless. Some of us have seen the angst of unemployment, the feeling of being unwanted, the restless days of sitting at home while others go to work, and the lull of the nights that is not entirely peace.

 

Some of us are scholars committed to understanding poverty and economic insecurity. We try to find the underlying political and economic causes of inequity and ways of solving them. We see a vision for the future, and try to lay down steps to overcome poverty and build a more equitable society.

 

All of us whose vocabulary has been informed by the lived experience of poverty and unemployment, or those of us who may have an indirect knowledge or experience of it; all are invited. We may be students, artists, researchers, social workers, community organizers, development practitioners, and politicians. We can also be those who have no claim to any such knowledge or experience, and those who fervently dream of a better world.

 

For the 19th BIEN Congress, India Network for Basic Income plans to publish an anthology of different kinds of writing on themes surrounding Basic Income and what it hopes to address – unfreedom, new forms of slavery, poverty, economic insecurity, being debt-ridden, addiction, deprivation, depression – and the sense of shame  that accompanies each of these states of mind. The list can be almost endless. The writings can also be of different kinds:

 

Poems

Short story / parable

Biography / Autobiography / memoir

Personal reflection

Interview / conversation

Cartoon

Painting

Graffiti

 

Please ensure that the writing does not exceed 1000 words.

 

INBI invites contributions to this anthology, as an open call until 15th of June 2019. These shall be sent to Akhilesh Arya at akhilesh.arya@gmail.com.

Farmers’ Distress, Electoral Democracy and Basic Income Discussion in India

Farmers’ Distress, Electoral Democracy and Basic Income Discussion in India

Written by: Sarath Davala [1]

In the last two weeks, there has been much speculation in some sections of media about Prime Minister Narendra Modi seriously considering Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a policy option. This comes on the heels of the electoral debacle Modi’s party faced in the recent elections in four states, and coincidentally just months ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections.

This is the second wave of interest the current government has shown toward the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI). The first wave was in early 2017 when the then Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, Dr. Arvind Subramanian, included a substantial chapter [2] on UBI in his annual Economic Survey (2016-17) which was presented to the Indian Parliament. The chapter explored the concept of UBI and observed that it could be a way forward to address poverty. Subramanian stated that a full-fledged UBI may not be feasible in India immediately, though it was possible to think of a Quasi UBI (QUBI) which would identify specific demographic groups in the population and give them an unconditional basic income. One of his speculations was that a QUBI could be to all women citizens, which would ensure that every household will receive a basic income. The discussion within the government did not proceed beyond this point, apparently as the Prime Minister was not convinced at that time of the political dividends flowing from this policy route.

The immediate trigger for the second wave of interest in basic income is the recent elections in the states of Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. At the time of these elections, the financial crisis affecting farmers became center-stage and the Congress party promised that they would waive farm loans as soon as they came to power. And they did so when they took charge of three states.

In the state of Telangana, the ruling party TRS went a step further by implementing several months before the elections a scheme called Rythu Bandhu, (Farmer Investment Support) which gives to the farmers Rs. 8000 (USD $115)[3] per acre per annum[4]. The cutting edge of the scheme is that it is unconditional, a feature that is considered central to the idea of basic income. Irrespective of whether farmers take up cultivation or not, the investment will be transferred to the farmers. The scheme benefited about 5.8 million farmers who own a total of 14 million acres of cultivable land in Telangana.

In 2017, responding to farmers’ agitation in the state, the Madhya Pradesh government implemented a different kind of scheme for farmers. It was called Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (BBY) which originally intended to pay farmers the net difference between the actual sale price and the Minimum Support Price announced by the government. Subsequently, however, the government introduced the notion of a modal rate which is the average of the sale price of a given crop sold in Madhya Pradesh on any given day, and in markets of two other neighboring states.

Both the schemes ran into controversy, particularly the latter. Regarding the Rythu Bandhu scheme, the criticism was that the scheme does not give any benefit to the tenant farmers who actually cultivate the land. Secondly, the scheme was criticized as regressive since it was paying rich farmers as well. The government then appointed J-PAL, a reputed international group based in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States to monitor and evaluate the scheme. In the initial survey conducted by it after the first round of transfers were made in June 2018 revealed that most cheques were for less than Rs.20,000 (USD $287), and only 0.8% of the farmers received more than Rs.50,000 (USD $718). A follow-up survey by J-PAL revealed that farmers spent the money judiciously with over 77% purchasing crop inputs, and 92% percent saying that they were satisfied with the scheme.

The Madhya Pradesh scheme was criticized because it brought in the notion of a modal rate which was far above the actual sale price. Ordinary farmers, who were unaware of the critical distinction between the actual sale price and the modal price, were in for a shock. Assuming the government would compensate them the difference between MSP and Sale Price, many of them also made distress sale of their produce and then realized that they would get much less compensation. Disappointed with this conditionality, many farmers were unwilling to sign up for the subsequent crop.  This was not the only conditional aspect of this policy. The sale must take place during a prescribed window of three months. There was a cap on the volume that a farmer can get compensated per hectare. There was also a proposal that if a farmer sells his produce for less than 50% of the MSP, he becomes ineligible since it is the poor quality of his produce that is the reason for the low sale price, and that government should not compensate the farmer for producing low quality produce. And lastly, the scheme was applicable to only seven specific crops.

It appears that these two schemes and the farm loan waivers are the three primary options that the central government is discussing in order to find an effective response to the distress farmers all over the country are experiencing. Let us consider each one of them.

First, the loan waivers. All the three new Congress governments have announced loan waivers within days after assuming power. Even as these announcements have been taking place, experts from different locations have criticized loan waivers as harmful to the economy. Following these announcements by the new Congress governments, the former RBI Governor Dr. Raghuram Rajan released a document entitled An Economic Strategy for India which he co-authored with 12 other well-known economists including the IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath and Sajjid Chinoy of JP Morgan, among others. The report advises the government to “… eschew loan waivers that divert resources from needed investment.” Arvind Subramanian in a recent interview severely criticized farm loan waivers as “an inefficient, retrograde and even perverse method of addressing farmers’ distress”.  He further added that nearly 50% of the small and marginal farmers cannot and do not borrow from formal banks and they are completely left out of this mode of addressing farmers’ issues. Dr. Urjit Patel who had recently resigned as the RBI governor criticized farm loan waivers as corrupting the credit culture in the country.  Addressing his party workers in Karnataka, PM Modi himself called Karnataka government’s farm loan waivers as a “cruel joke on farmers”, and that it benefits only a handful of farmers.

It is clear the farm loan waiver is not likely to be part of PM Modi’s new grand electoral narrative. This now brings us to the other two options. Between the two, the Rythu Bandhu seems to be a clear winner not just because of the electoral gains that the TRS party reaped from its introduction. It is because of certain essential features it has that are unique and demonstrate a clear transformation in the very grammar of welfare policymaking in India.

Firstly, it is an entitlement without having numerous conditionalities. The only conditionality is that the recipient must have a clear title. The curse of various welfare schemes in India is that each one comes with innumerable conditionalities thereby giving extraordinary discretion to inspectors who administer it. Rythu Bandhu makes a departure from this welfare practice. This is based on the assumption that any support given by the government must be given only to the deserving and that we need to ensure that it is spent only for the purpose it is given. Who deserves and who does not is decided by the government. And so is the purpose. Secondly, Rythu Bandhu is a proactive policy and not relief after the calamity has occurred. In fact, some economists such as Ashok Gulati, Arvind Subramanian, Bimal Jalan, etc., have said that it could be a potential agricultural policy for the entire country. The main point is that it is defined as an investment rather than welfare. Thirdly, because it is unconditional and a cash transfer, it is very easy to deliver. The record of delivery of Rythu Bandhu has been very impressive. Except in those cases where the land ownership is in dispute, the majority of farmers in the state have received cash in their bank accounts.

In addition to these innovative features, the TRS government has also added an additional scheme to all farmers called Rythu Bima, a life insurance scheme which provides coverage of Rs. 500,000 (USD $7,179). The annual premium of Rs.2272 (USD $33) per farmer is to be paid entirely by the state government.

This is this grand electoral moment that PM Modi is facing. What is he likely to do? Given that farmers have become quite vocal and that there is hardly any time before the Model Code of Conduct would come into operation around March 2019, he must respond in some form in the interim budget. Most likely, he will implement some version of Rythu Bandhu in combination with an insurance scheme for farmers. While this cannot be called a true UBI, it does carry the spirit of the idea of basic income because of its unconditionality. Normally we would be inclined to dismiss this is an electoral gimmick. We should not forget that in an electoral democracy, change comes in a clumsy way. We must be clear when we are positively moving forward and when we are not. In this case, the Indian political parties are embracing the spirit of basic income. This shift in India’s policy grammar should be seen as a welcome move in our journey to build a better society.

 

[1] Sarath Davala is the Vice-Chair of BIEN and Coordinator of India Network for Basic Income (INBI).

[2] Universal basic Income: A Conversation with and within the Mahatma

[3] To make sense of these amounts, it is useful to know that the rural poverty line in India is defined on the basic of per capita expenditure, which is half a dollar a day.

[4] This amount will be disbursed twice in a year, one just before Rabi crop season and one before the Kharif crop season.

Basic Income in India Conference to be held amid National Interest in UBI

Basic Income in India Conference to be held amid National Interest in UBI

India Network for Basic Income jointly with SEWA Bharat is organising a National Conference on “Basic Income in India” in New Delhi on March 29 and 30, 2017.

This National Conference comes against the backdrop of dramatic new developments in India with respect to Universal Basic Income. As you are all aware, on the 31st of January 2017, a day before the Federal Budget was announced, India’s Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, presented the Economic Survey in the Parliament. This document is a perspective document presented every year by the Ministry of Finance, as it sees how the economy has fared the previous year, and also what the prospects are the coming year. This year, this document had a full chapter on Universal Basic Income, authored by Arvind Subramanian, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India.

It is a 40-page document which painstakingly goes into a very balanced analysis of how the concept of UBI is relevant to the Indian context. It also lays out the challenges and dilemmas one faces when one applies it to a country as massive as India. The chapter hardly sounds like a government document. The author writes with a certain conviction that Universal Basic Income is a good idea, and that it should be seriously considered.

It is our common experience that when a proposal comes from the government it kicks off a much wider debate than when a citizen’s group like us raises it. And so much better when it is articulated so eloquently, unlike normal government documents. The media was abuzz with all sorts of voices.

Without going much into the contents of the innumerable articles that were written on this proposal, I would like to highlight one important aspect of this debate. Most of the commentators – economists, politicians, citizens’ groups – agree that, in principle, this is a good idea. Their disagreement them come after this point.

Here are some voices of those who oppose:

“It is in principle, a good idea, but…”

“India is not ready for it.”

“India cannot afford it.”

“UBI is a Trojan Horse to dismantle the existing welfare system.”

“This government is going to wash its hands off all its welfare responsibilities.”

At a time, when a lot of effort is going into reforming the welfare delivery, and there is evidence of improvements across the country, introducing UBI would be ‘disruptive’.”

The arguments of the opponents are not very different from those that are being putforth elsewhere in the world. . Interestingly, these voices have not been very strong in India. Interestingly, all over the world UBI has support from both the Left and the Right. In the same breath, it also has opponents from both the camps. India is no exception.

In any case, the point is, within a short period, the idea has been gaining a great deal of traction in the country. As INBI Coordinator, increasingly I feel that there is now an urgent need for UBI literacy in the country. To tell people what it is about. What it implies for the citizen and for the government.

Given the mind-boggling numbers and fiscal implications, one thread of the UBI argument in India is: In order to make UBI meaningful, should we start with specific demographic groups rather than all citizens? And incrementally move towards “Universal”? If yes, then what should those vulnerable groups be? The tribal population (104 million and about 9% of the population)? Or all women(about 500 million about 48%of the population)? Or the elderly (about 100 million)? Or the Scheduled Caste population(about 200 million)? UBI purists might consider this a dilution of the concept of UBI and a sell out. Be that as it may, that is where the debate is now. 

On International Women’s Day (2017) two associations, who otherwise make strange bedfellows, endorsed and appealed for ‘UBI for Women’. Self Employed Women’s association in Madhya Pradesh, and the oldest Industry body in India, The Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM). 

 

Soon after the UBI proposal was presented in the Parliament, the Finance Minster of the northern-most state Jammu and Kashmir, Mr Haseeb Drabu, announced that the state is ready to implement a UBI. However, this readiness, he clarified, is contingent upon the federal government giving him a ‘go ahead’ because the federal grants form the substantial part of the state’s welfare budget. 

It is a matter of time before more state chief ministers begin to see the economic, political and the moral dividends of the policy of Universal Basic Income. In India, the electoral heat and dust never settles. Between any two general elections, we have innumerable state elections or by-elections. People’s verdict is something that continually happens in India. UBI has not yet entered the electoral discourse. The first of its kind came during the recent Uttar Pradesh elections. Varun Gandhi,a two-time BJP Member of Parliament and the first cousin of Rahul Gandhi, wrote an elaborate article offering UBI as a solution to extreme poverty in the state.

Again, it is a matter of time before other politicians catch up.

Well, it is against this backdrop that our National Conference on Basic Income comes at the end of this month. We have tried to get as many voices as possible that endorse and affirm the idea. Along with the major political personalities who have come out in favour of UBI, we are also going to have economists who are engaged in serious calculations and trying to grapple with fiscal and political implications of UBI.

The challenge before INBI thus far has been to talk about the idea of UBI and foreground the evidence from the pilot study that UBI has positive and transformative effect on people’s lives. The challenge now is to work with all the groups and also with different state governments and the federal government to find ways of operationalising the idea. This is not an easy task. But then, that is the task before us now.