World Basic Income's Laura Bannister interviewed Sarath Davala, head of the India Network for Basic Income, at the Nordic Basic Income Conference in Oslo, April 2019.
India's journey towards basic income
I'm a sociologist. Twenty years ago I was teaching at a business school, but I wanted to work in rural areas, so I got to know SEWA [the Self Employed Women's Association, a major trade union and grassroots organiser in India] and I started working for them part-time. My PhD was on trade unions, and a business school is the last place for that! SEWA had been working on many kinds of social security projects, and they asked me would I like to head the [Madhya Pradesh basic income pilot] project with Guy Standing as principle investigator.
We got into the study, and spent a lot of time in the villages and we collected around a hundred stories, finding out what is going on within families. I was myself sceptical in the beginning about giving unconditional money, but as it turned out it produced dramatic results. Before that, I always used to come back from my work in the villages feeling very empty, thinking 'all this is not working'. NGO interventions can be ineffective, and NGOs get busy after a time with trying to sustain themselves. But the basic income – it worked!
Many people from the project started volunteering their time to drive forward basic income. We formed a network and began making presentations to the government. But 2014 was a real setback. We had been working with the Congress Party for years at every level, but then they got swept out, and Modhi came in. There was no chance there. The new government was busy with something else. But India is a big country so we were talking and writing everywhere still.
People like to learn not from their own country but always from others. Despite the major pilot in Madhya Pradesh, it was the Swiss referendum that got Indian politicians interested. Every year, the parliament present an economic survey giving an account of the past year and projections for the future. In 2017, The Chief Economic Adviser wrote a whole chapter on basic income, saying this could possibly be a way forward. For him I think it was a question of governance rather than social justice. In India we have documentary evidence, the government has said that for one rupee of welfare given they are spending another three on delivery. So you are spending four rupees and getting only one rupee to people that need it. So their interest is in stopping the in-kind transfers, and doing it instead as basic income. That efficiency is the driving force of this idea at the moment – wider ideas about social justice and the commons will likely follow later. Some amount of discussion happened and we organised a national conference around that in 2017.
In Telangana, the state where I live, the government introduced a very interesting scheme for farmers in April 2018. Of course, the struggles of farmers is a national issue. Farmers were on the street, having demonstrations. So the state government introduced a scheme titled 'Friend of Farmer' which involved an unconditional cash transfer of roughly $100 a year for two years. It went to all farmers, rich or poor. And everyone started realising 'wow, there's really something in this'.
Then in view of the 2019 elections more discussion happened and we talked to more people. Interest in basic income was really starting to build up.
A basic income in Sikkim state
The ruling party in Sikkim state announced proposals for a state-wide universal basic income. We went to see them the next day. They have not announced an amount, they want to do studies, create the background infrastructure. The detail is now being filled in.
They will fund it with money from hydro power, but also possibly by applying a small tax on tourism, as many European countries do, like charging residents in hotels a small amount, or on arrival at airports. Even charging 1000 Rupees, it's like 12 Euros, it's not a big amount for a tourist. These funding sources are not talked about in terms of 'the commons'. They just see hydro and tourism as a sustainable source of money.
There is a question about using hydro, the related carbon emissions and the sustainability of the planet. And eventually we should ask those questions, but not now. If you ask those questions now, you could be stopping something quite incredible. I think those questions have to be tackled in the medium term. And Sikkim state would be doing hydro power anyway, whether or not it's used to fund basic income.
A basic income across India - the Congress Party's proposal
The Congress Party, the lead opposition party at the national level, then announced their own plans for basic income. They said universal basic income would not be possible, we have to target – they have chosen to target the 20 per cent of people who are below the poverty line.
How we are going to target, how we are going to select is the big issue. Scholars are sitting down and working out how we are going to do this. Maybe we should use exclusion criteria rather than inclusion criteria. There's also recent national survey data. Any targetting is basically arbitrary. There's discussions happening around this to find a workable plan.
Now that they have announced basic income, it's really appealing to everybody. Twenty per cent is a big amount of people! And they all vote. The idea has penetrated into the local media, they are explaining what it is, local television channels are talking about it, it really is a big big issue.
There is still disbelief. Basic income is something that people cannot comprehend, because it's never happened yet. But because the farmers' programme has happened, people are thinking 'that was unconditional, maybe this can happen too'.
We didn't expect any of this. We just kept going, kept going, kept going. There's been a tipping point, and now everyone is talking about it.
The results of the 2019 general election in India, and the election of the state government in Sikkim, are expected on 23rd May.
For more information on basic income in India, see https://indiabasicincome.in/