Universal basic income can be a game changer
Universal Basic Income (UBI), if implemented on a larger scale, could be a game changer for women's empowerment in India.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an idea that has been around for centuries, but it is only in the last decade that it has become a talking point. In India, UBI was first tried out in rural Madhya Pradesh in 2011-12 with heartening results; it was also put forward in the 2017 Economic Survey and in a recent report by the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council as a potent social policy tool for India. It is appealing because it is universal as opposed to targeted, unconditional as opposed to conditional, periodic (monthly) as opposed to a lump sum, cash-based as opposed to in-kind transfers or coupons, and individual as opposed to household-based.
In this context, it is worth looking at WorkFREE, a pilot on basic income in five slum communities in Hyderabad. The project provides an unconditional, individual cash transfer to each resident (adult and child) every month, along with participatory community empowerment programmes. The project is funded by the European Research Council and Mustardseed Trust, based at the University of Bath and implemented in partnership with Montfort Social Institute and India Network for Basic Income.
For women, it has proved invaluable. It improves their ability to resist exploitative or abusive relationships. It gives them greater control over finances and labour choices. “This is transparent money. I know exactly how much is coming and when it will come. Other money in the house my husband doesn’t fully tell me about. With this money that I saved quietly every month, I have bought an almirah for the house. I didn’t have to ask him,” says Jyothi, a 32-year-old domestic worker.
The pilot shows women’s savings increased and lessened their dependence on credit.
Many women entrepreneurs were also able to enhance their earning capacity. Radha, a 34-year-old tailor says, “I kept asking my husband to buy a scooter in instalments. If I have a scooter, I can go around for my tailoring work and get more work. He never agreed. When we got this money, I said we can take a loan and pay it off with this. Actually, when we took the loan, we managed to pay it off even without touching this money. But it allowed me to convince him.”
UBI can enhance women’s dignity and reduce their domestic work burden as they then have the ability to buy time and labour-saving gadgets such as fridges, mixers and washing machines. It reduces their caregiving responsibilities. “UBI is a revolutionary idea whose time has come. It is a general middle-class perception, including among policymakers we have interviewed, that money given to the poor will be misused. Our study has shown that it is based on traditional prejudices. A regular income helps them to plan their spending for the necessary requirements with long-term benefits,” says Varghese Theckanath, director of Montfort Social Institute. Vibhor Mathur, doctoral researcher, University of Bath, adds, “By giving cash in hand to all without paternalistic conditions or restrictive or exclusionary targeting, we can empower each person with the freedom and dignity to live.”
UBI significantly reduces women’s stress and increases their capacity to provide for their families. Many reported that they were able to provide small treats for their children, something they could not afford before. If and when implemented across India, it can be a game changer for women’s empowerment and inclusion, one of the main themes of India’s G20 presidency.
The views expressed are personal