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“The idea of a minimum basic income has been floated around with much enthusiasm as the panacea to poverty woes of India. However, a parochial conception of poverty as mere income deprivation is neither an accurate understanding of poverty nor the correct diagnosis of the countries’ deeper lying structural inadequacies. In this post, the author argues for a change in the understanding of poverty, moving away from an income-based approach to the capabilities approach advocated by Amartya Sen.”
Much has been written about the benefits that countries could bring to their citizens providing them with a minimum basic income. In developed countries such as the United States of America (USA), policymakers and economists have advocated Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a remedy to currently languishing incomes and future mass unemployment. In India and other developing nations, a case for UBI being made much more strongly on its perceived ability to remove people from the narrowly defined notion of “poverty”. Touted as the next big policy move in welfare economics, UBI is a mechanism wherein the government of a country pays its citizens with a basic subsistence wage without pre-conditions.
I do not wish to downplay the impact that additional income would have on making people’s lives better. However, our perspective on poverty should not be blinded by our fixation with it. Our obsession with income is the result of a limited understanding of what it means to be poor. Poverty has been for long understood as the inability to garner enough income to provide for basic amenities. In such a limited sense of poverty, the UBI has been promoted with a “presumption” that it would be used to meet the minimal requirements of living (endowments being prone to misuse).
On the other hand, the capabilities-approach looks at poverty as capability deprivation. Poverty is the inability to be or do something that a person wishes to be or do. Such a broadened recognition of poverty would entail the development of a welfare apparatus that would generate opportunities alongside creating space for individuals to develop their intrinsic potential. UBI would only ensure that a poor person does not mechanically fall below the poverty line.
Other than mere income deprivation, a policy move towards UBI does not factor in what the people themselves consider as poverty. Apart from income, NS Jodha’s survey on rural poverty of two villages in Rajasthan indicates that there are multiple other non-quantifiable factors that make a person feel poor. For instance, placing reliance on patrons and difficult upward mobility were given by the sample group as signs of being poor. This survey is illustrative of the multidimensional nature of poverty.
Even if we are to assume that people would use income in a way that provides for their minimal subsistence, what has been constantly ignored in India is the known reality that we still do not possess basic welfare institutions across the country that can provide for the necessities of the citizens. For instance, even if a person has the income to meet healthcare requirements, we may not have hospitals to cater to the person. The question of access to welfare institutions has been completely sidelined in this debate on UBI.
The next problem of UBI is the difficulty in determining the quantum that each person would receive. Whose standard would be considered in determining basic or minimum? How are we to address the different needs and requirements (in terms of income) of different people? These questions gain prominence in the larger context of higher incomes needed by the elderly and specially-abled to maintain a standard of life similar to a younger person and a fully-abled person respectively. The UBI does not address conversion variations among people.
The application of UBI would be much easier in a society that does not engage in discriminatory behaviour. UBI does not ensure that income granted to each person is used only for the betterment of that individual. In India, there is a possibility that a patriarchal familial setup would all but ensure that UBI provided to each individual is aggregated and then used for the betterment of different family members. Research on the distribution of income in a family has indicated that expenditure is skewed in favour of the male members of a family. UBI is similar to other forms of household income systems which do not redress intra-household inequalities.
Finally, does UBI move in the direction of ensuring a satisfied life? Robert Nozick’s thought experiment with the ‘experience machine’ suggests that a human being would not want to lead a by lying around idle and bored. They not only want the feeling of satisfaction but also want to be able to do things that would give them satisfaction. I reiterate that the governments in India would have to ensure that the person is able to carry out activities that would secure a life worth living. We need to start focusing on developing capabilities. UBI could be a solution to unemployment, not poverty.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Ivan Rajan is second year undergraduate law student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. He is an associate editor at NALSAR Student Law Review. His areas of interest include Constitutional law, Administrative law, International Commercial Arbitration.
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