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:
The Morung Express newspaper has interviewed the sole Sikkim MP at Lok Sabha (central parliament in India), Prem Das Rai. On the 17th of February, excerpts of that interview were posted, where Rai clearly states that introducing a universal basic income (UBI) in the state “is a leap of faith”. To him, it is a trust issue, when critics point out that a UBI kind of policy may turn people lazy. In reply, he says that “lazy people will be lazy people whether they get money or not”.
Rai does not conceive UBI as a grant, or a subsidy, but an income. That means that the purpose is not to have UBI seen as a hand-out, but a human right. “UBI is for every citizen of Sikkim, all Sikkimese people”. This contrasts with the recent announcements of both national opposition party Congress and government Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Rai considers to be targeted schemes (Congress aims at the “poor” and the BJP at “poor farmers”) and in reaction to the agrarian crisis ravaging the country.
According to Rai, Sikkim state is not proposing basic income as a reaction to some urgent crisis, but as a way to look “ahead and changing the mindset of the youth”. Over that new mindset, and knowing they will have a guaranteed influx of money every month, regardless of their personal situation, people will naturally behave differently and tend to make better choices in life. That is Rai’s belief, anyway.
As for funding, and instead of speaking about taxes, Rai responds that Sikkim state is rich in resources, such as “hydropower, tourism, organic farming and pharmaceutical companies”, as well as “educational facilities”, and so will find the funds to cover for basic income, from within these several sources. The specific form this funding will be performed, however, is still unclear.
On Raul Ghandi’s Congress party promise to implement a kind of basic income all across India (conceived as a negative income tax), if it gets elected in May, Rai responds that Sikkim is the example to follow, devaluing Ghandi’s initiave. Rai sees basic income in India more as a growing number of regional initiatives, rather than a central idea, implemented nationally.
Children playing in Sikkim, India. Picture credit to: India Today
Anil Sasi’s article starts from the Sikkim announcement to implement a basic income in the state, up until 2022. After describing the basic income concept in broad strokes, explains the Indian tapestry of conditional social benefits, in cash and in kind, which is riddled with inefficiency and corruption. It refers that, so as to finance a basic income, the structure of existing benefit programs would have to be completely changed, “in order to free up resources so that a particular amount can be directed to people on a periodic basis”. From there, Sasi goes on to describe a few of the most relevant basic income-like pilot programs and experiments, using that to contextualize the Sikkim situation.
As in many other regions in the world, the planning for a basic income implementation involves slashing on existing conditional programs, some of which might be rendered obsolete on their own terms (emptied out of beneficiaries, due to mean-testing). Sasi points out, though, that this cutting on governmental subsidy programs might be dangerous, even counterproductive, citing economist Bhalchandra Mungekar, a former member of Rajya Sabha and the Planning Commission. Interestingly enough, however, Mungekar was one of the Congress party leaders to promptly backup Rahul Ghandi’s announcement of a national basic income implementation in India, were the party elected in the next general elections in May.
Flowers, on the way to the mountain. Picture credit to: Rookie’s Journal
Sikkim, the second smallest state in India, has grown a reputation, over the years, for environmental consciousness, ethnical diversity and tourism. It is also the home of one of the most educated people on Earth, with a 98% literacy rate. Moreover, in the last couple of decades, policies in the state have been implemented in order to reduce poverty, which presently sits below 8% (from a 41,4% in 1994). The Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), the democratically elected party governing the state since 1994, has written basic income into its manifesto for the 2019 Assembly elections, and aims to have it implemented by 2022.
SDF’s MP in New Dehli’s Lower House of Representatives (Lok Sabha), Prem Das Rai, has said that “our party and Chief Minister Pawan Chamling (…) are committed to bringing in Universal Basic Income. This, we will do three years of coming back to power in the state”. This initiative is not intended as a pilot test, but as an actual implementation, hence Prem Das Rai words: “Basically, it’s an income given to families irrespective what do they do. In Sikkim, it will be for everyone and every household.”
As for financing the basic income scheme, SDF officials are considering surplus energy generation revenue (from hydropower) and redirecting costs from welfare programs which cease to be relevant. Restructuring the tax edifice and using tourism revenues are also future financing routes to cover for basic income. In any case, Prem Das Rai is confident that this is “not just a feasible idea, but a very positive idea”.
About this issue, basic income activist Scott Santens has written, on Twitter: “What makes this news so big in my opinion is the fact they’re talking about full universality, unlike what’s being discussed at the national level right now, where cash may be targeted to the poorest 33% of the country and thus not actual UBI. This news out of Sikkim is actual UBI.”
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