An outsider’s view of the Basic Income Congress

An outsider’s view of the Basic Income Congress

I was privileged to attend the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) 2019 Congress just now where I drew attention to the role of complementary currencies and attempted to dispel any fantasies about the role of blockchain in transferring wealth.

I’ve always supported Basic Income (BI) in principle. It is probably the most direct possible strategy to address the perennial problems of poverty and inequality. It works by giving enough money to live to everyone, effectively putting a floor on poverty, and taking away the fear and want that drives people to underprice their labour. It is unconditionality makes it cheaper to administer than a normal social security system.

This week I learned that there have been plenty of trials, and they consistently demonstrate the above benefits in addition to others like empowering women (at least in India) and helping people to invest in their own livelihoods.

After a week of conversation as an outsider to the movement, I want to record here some other thoughts, which I hope may be of value.

1. The term:
It must have taken years of debate to settle on ‘Basic Income’ so maybe my thoughts on the matter are nothing new and too tardy. The term Basic Income does not express (to me) the intention that it should be enough to live on. Because the term ‘basic’ does not at all imply ‘sufficiency for living’ there is nothing to stop politicians issuing any paltry sum and calling it ‘Basic Income’. On the surface, it would be a victory but it could lead to conflict in the movement and bad public relations, especially if results were disappointing. I am reminded of what happened in microfinance, which was a fabulous idea for charitable lending to the poor which became something entirely different and less effective as it scaled and had to become commercially viable. Also instead of ‘income’ I much prefer ‘dividend’, because it implies the entitlement that the rich, (who most need convincing about these ideas) understand so well. Dividend also dovetails with the commons discourse, in which so much of the world is enclosed commons which in truth belong to everyone. So language like a social dividend, or a living income, would seem much stronger.
2. BIEN Identity & purpose:
In my time as a complementary currency activist, I have visited several other movements, most of whom are hardly referencing each other. This silo-ing is an easy trap to fall into, especially when the movement is funded to focus on its core issue, and especially when the arguments are technical or complex. Basic income should not build a tribe of fans and advocates for a single universal policy, but about building expertise and disseminating it throughout the social movements as a strategic option for them. BIEN should be a hub of expertise not a force in its own right. I was glad to see some politicians in the congress, and I wasn’t the only complementary currency practitioner, but I would have liked to have seen more people around from the trades union, think tanks, monetary reform, commons, and especially from the movements du jour, Gillets Jaune, Extinction Rebellion and Friday’s for Future. BIEN is conspicuously absent from this list of grassroots movements meeting in Iceland next week.
3. More focus on economics:
It seems to me that more formal economists should be involved in costing BI and anticipating the economic (and social) benefits. Economics is needed to justify (though not to determine, I am cynical to say) almost all political decisions today. I would have liked to learn more about the economic effects of increased spending by the poor, like GDP and sales taxes, about how the richest would pay most of their BI straight back into a progressive tax system, and about the longitudinal social benefits when the poor eat better, sleep better and live less stressfully. This is sometimes quantified as ‘social value’ – another expression I did not hear this week. I heard some discussion about how BI is funded, but nothing about modern monetary theory (MMT). Bernie Sanders just announced at $17trn Green New Deal (GND) manifesto pledge which would be funded I think by MMT. Are any basic income advocates advocating MMT?
4. Climate change:
I did not attend all the sessions, but I saw almost no mention made of climate change. The last 18 months have seen an upsurge of concern about the rapidity and the magnitude of climate change and with it much attention to the psychological and social consequences.
5. The big picture:
My largest concern is that BI could be widely implemented in a relatively short time, but because the economy itself is constantly changing and/or because the economy will change in response to BI, it could soon stop working as intended. I read one article on this a while ago, saying that if everyone’s income increased, rents (land rents) would increase commensurately, canceling out the benefit. Upon examination, this turns out to be a whole slew of arguments showing how naive it could be to think we can change the economy with a single intervention. To prevent rent-inflation, they could, of course, be capped, but inflation could also occur in other sectors like utilities, or food, and preventing all that would cause the neoliberals in charge will balk at the idea of such a heavily planned economy.

In some ways, the BI is not very radical, which is part of its appeal of course. Some would argue that it is just a tweak to capitalism, similar to the welfare state, and that capitalism has fundamental problems and must be replaced. The focus on basic income as the solution could leave little room for more radical ideas or different approaches. What if, for example, governments were prevailed upon to ensure that no one in their borders needed to be malnourished or cold or ill alone. This is much more concrete than BI and would deliver similar benefits. it could be achieved using BI or other strategies in keeping with the prevailing ideology.

BI is a strategy, not the goal, a means not an end. It may not be the best means for every country. I still support BI but it seems it is a single strategy amongst many, and that implementing it will not be the end of the struggle between capital and labour, just a step in the right direction.

Written by: Matthew Slater

India: The stars were not aligned in 2019, for basic income in the Indian continent

India: The stars were not aligned in 2019, for basic income in the Indian continent

Night view from Coorg valley, India


It seems the promise of a solid financial ground for all poor citizens in India was not enough to win the Congress Party a leading position on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. The country just counted its votes on the past 23rd of May, and the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was reappointed to power by a landslide, winning more seats than all the other parties combined (56% of all votes). The Congress Party, the second most voted party, got less than one fifth of the BJP won constituencies. Although there has been some contention on the voting procedure, BJP election seems indisputable.


The BJP party had also spoken about a cash transfer, unconditional in principle, to poor farmers, but that was clearly on an electoral spell, and only because the Congress Party had already gone public with its plan to roll out a basic income-type of policy if elected. In any case, the amount proposed by the BJP was many times lower than the former, and limited to poor farmers, so that shouldn’t have been the motive for the Congress defeat on these elections.


Congress Party had announced and defended the implementation of a basic income in India on the basis of reducing poverty. However, statistics show that poverty has been dropping sharply in India through the last decade. The Indian government stated that 22% of its population lived under the official poverty line in 2012. In 2015, that number had been reduced to 12,4%, according to World Bank Data. Also, as of 2019, only about 3% of the Indian population now lives in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock. This means that, as far as escaping poverty is concerned, things have been doing fine in India lately, and that helps to explain this election’s result: the BJP is not perfect, but has been making sure the trend in reducing poverty is maintained. And that collects a lot of votes.


In Sikkim, the small northern Indian state in which the ruling party (Sikkim Democratic Front – SDF) was seriously considering rolling out a basic income for its 600 thousand people, once re-elected, things gone the other way around. The ruling party was defeated – by a small margin – by a contender (Sikkim Krantikari Morcha), and with it goes the would-be policy of guaranteed income for all. Maybe the decision on choosing a leader, at this moment in time, was less related with basic income (Sikkim is one of the wealthiest states in India, enjoying low inequality and relatively high living standards on average), but with other issues. One of these could be the fact that SDF had been in power for 25 years, and so might have worn the seat too much, which easily happens in a democracy.


Some analysts consider this election to be a huge failure for the Congress Party. That is certainly an understandable connection and the result surely worried Congress leaders. However, trying to promote plurality, secularity, and now the “radical” redistributive policy of basic income, cannot be wrong in itself. It shows, rather, the mark of progressive politics. It’s just that the contemporary average Indian voter seems to be more interested in maintaining what he/she has gained in the last few years – which has, nonetheless, amounted to, on average, a great uplift in living conditions – and in securing a national identity (an easier Us vs Them mentality), then aligning with an all-encompassing pacifying agenda that doesn’t interest markets, GDP or (a power-driven) foreign policy.

In any case, and if examples like Finland have any relevance, this is not the end of basic income in India. Just a momentary stop on the roadside.


More information at:

André Coelho, “India: Congress party gets serious about basic income and reaches out to Thomas Piketty for policy design support”, Basic Income News, February 14th 2019

André Coelho, “India: Basic income is being promised to all poor people in India”, Basic Income News, February 1st 2019

André Coelho, “India: The Indian government also promises basic income to farmers”, Basic Income News, February 12th 2019

India’s BJP tells opposition to ‘accept defeat with grace’”, BBC News, May 22nd 2019

Annalisa Merelli, “Indian elections 2019: What can Democrats learn from Congress failure”, Quartz, May 25th 2019

André Coelho, “India: Sikkim state is on the verge of becoming the first place on Earth implementing a basic income”, Basic Income News, January 11th 2019

India: UBI is likely to come to fruition in Sikkim, but not without contention

India: UBI is likely to come to fruition in Sikkim, but not without contention

Flooded lands in Sikkim, due to dam construction.

As reported before, the Indian State of Sikkim, through the political party Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), presently holding power, is “committed to bringing Universal Basic Income” (UBI). The state is currently under an electoral process, which is set to terminate until the 27th of May. Other parties are contending the election (e.g.: Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM)), but these are unlikely to overthrow SDF, according to polls.

SDF officials are considering funding an UBI policy with hydropower revenue which, however, does not come without controversy, since some of these installations have affected sensitive ecosystems and the people dependent on them (the Lepchas). According to Tseten Lepcha, working President of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), in Sikkim, at least one of the largest hydropower projects are not well equipped with transmission lines, which limits the amount of electricity able to flow out of the installation, curbing its rentability (and, therefore, the available funds for the future UBI). The ATC also sustains that the regional government hasn’t taken due provisions to limit environmental and social impacts in the affected areas, which is definitely a contested issue with government officials (who believe all those issues have been taken care of).

One of these provisions has to due with the area of cultivable land that has gone under water, from which people from the affected areas drew their subsistence. That due to the existing power plants, a problem which will be aggravated by around 20 more hydropower projects still in planning. Locals are concerned about this issue, which directly affects their livelihood. However, they generally support the idea of a UBI being implemented in Sikkim.

A short video can be watched, summarizing the content around UBI’s proposal in Sikkim:

More information at:

André Coelho, “India: Sikkim state is on the verge of becoming the first place on Earth implementing a basic income”, Basic Income News, January 11th 2019

Vivan Eyben, “Elections 2019: Post Poll Talk in Sikkim Suggests SDF’s Return”, News Click, April 14th 2019

Can basic income ensure distributive justice in India?

Can basic income ensure distributive justice in India?

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is once again in the news as a promising program in the upcoming general election in India after finding its place in India’s 2016-17 economic survey. Proponents say UBI is economically prudent and could make a significant dent on poverty in the country. UBI bypasses India’s weak system of existing welfare schemes which are riddled with misallocation, leakages, and exclusion of the poor. It also makes sense from the perspective of an individual, who is assumed to be economically rational and thus can spend in accordance to his priorities and choices.

Having said there is insufficient empirical evidence to demonstrate how UBI could accomplish social justice and poverty reduction, especially in a country like India which is still held down by a regressive social structure in the form of a caste system. The caste system leads to a lack of mobility, producing a semi-feudal system of land ownership. Land is held by a small fraction of the population with the rest being landless or having little property, especially in rural areas. The fact that most of the poor are also concentrated in India’s rural areas makes the case that UBI could be successful at alleviating poverty.

Moreover, the proposition that UBI will reduce poverty assumes that the market works competitively and allocates resources efficiently. However, markets do fail in providing an efficient and just outcome in the presence of informational asymmetry, externalities, and monopolies. This is especially true in the case of India where the market is disproportionately in the hands of a few big players who can influence it to their advantage. For instance, giving out cash as opposed to goods and services in kind may not help in remote places if the corresponding supply of essential goods are not there (this role is otherwise performed by the public distribution system in India which may be dismantled to make fiscal space for UBI). A monopoly supplier may hike the prices to neutralise the extra income. To the extent the purchasing power of cash transfers in the form of UBI is curtailed by market fluctuations, the efficacy of basic income to alleviate poverty could be limited.

UBI even in the presence of efficient market can capture only poverty in terms of economic deprivation, whereas factors such as poor health, lack of education, discrimination and lack of entitlements cannot be addressed by the market but are crucial from the perspective of eradicating poverty.

John Rawls in his seminal work propounding the concept of distributive justice is guided by the ‘difference principle,’ which stresses that goods and services should be arranged in a manner that serves to benefit the least advantaged and foster growth towards equality of opportunity.  To the extent that everyone will receive the same amount of cash transfer irrespective of his or her requirement, the UBI fails to ensure distributional justice, in accordance with the ‘difference principle’. In this case, justice would require maximizing assistance to those who need it most, which at present our welfare schemes (despite its weaknesses) strives to achieve. UBI at best can only work in conjunction with the existing policies. In order to fully eradicate poverty, the welfare state should work towards increasing its capacity to deliver and regulate rather than leaving it to the market.


Rishi Kant

Currently pursuing Master’s in public administration (MPA), LKY school, National University of Singapore. Graduated in Economics from Delhi University and Post Graduated in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. 5year experience of teaching in various colleges of Delhi University and working with the government of India under various capacities. He has worked as a researcher in the field of Labour economics and evaluated major labour market policies in India such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Program. He has also part of capacity development programs organised by IMF in the areas of Macro-Economics, Fiscal and monetary policies, and Financial Programming and policies.



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