UK based Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) is a non-governmental organisation that calls for a basic income for every individual. The group has advised the Finnish government in their attempt to offer a fixed amount as basic income to all its citizens. It is advising the Sikkim Government to something similar in their state. In an interaction with Business Today, Guy Standing, a founding member and honorary co-president of BIEN tells that the Central Government's move to provide direct income support to small farmers (Rs 6000 per household a year) is a right first step in that direction.
BT: How do you say that a particular amount of basic income can make a difference in the lives of people?
Guy Standing: We provided Rs 300 per person, per month (to every member of some villages of India on a pilot basis), and if you look at the statistics and the reports, it did make a difference. Because, supposing you are in a family with two children, husband and other relatives around, you fall ill and need to go to a hospital, the whole family has got their basic income; each will help out to tide over the crisis.
The central government has announced that it will transfer Rs 2000 for each small and marginal farmer family once in every four months as income support .Will it help?
You give Rs 500 as basic income to every person in that community and it will have real positive economic impact. It is much cheaper to administer than identifying the small farmer, check the details, avoid mistakes etc. A comprehensive scheme (that includes everyone in a village) works better. However it is better than giving subsidies. I would say fertiliser subsidy is something that mainly goes to richer farmers. So if you have to provide basic income to a farmer, do it while phasing out the subsidy at the same time so that they don't feel that they are losing. When we gave the people the choice to continue with PDS or the basic income, initially half chose PDS. But the same people came to us asking to shift them from PDS because they realised that it allows people to make choices.
BT:Is Rs 500 enough?
Standing: You start low. Money is a scarce commodity. What is important is that nobody should be excluded in that community. When we did, we went to the villages and politicians were skeptic when we asked people to open bank accounts. We gave it in cash for the first two months and by that time we wanted them to open their bank accounts. We got 96 per cent open the bank accounts within 3 months. I think we are in a stage where all of us should move to a comprehensive system of basic income. Ideally I would want every area to get the same amount.
BT: Should it be universal?
Standing: You start by rolling it out for the lowest income community. Tribal communities, for instance are the most vulnerable, the poorest, perhaps, you start with them. We found that it made a huge difference.
BT:How do you see MNREGA?
Standing: It is a disaster. You are asking them to work in tropical heat, burn calories to build assets that do not last and pay them a very small amount. Contrast, if I give you the same equivalent amount and you buy seeds or fertilisers.
BT: Has any government approached you?
Standing: We have been approached by the Sikkim Government. And I think what they are planning is exciting. It has to be comprehensive, not exclude one particular group or other.