Can Basic Income Cash Transfers Transform India?

Since the 1990s, on average the Indian economy has been growing at over 6% a year. Yet hundreds of millions remain mired in poverty, and inequality has grown steadily. For decades, although there are 1,200 centrally-funded social policies on the statute books and hundreds more at state level, successive governments have relied largely on the Public Distribution System (PDS) to redress poverty.

The PDS subsidises consumers via subsidised grain, rice, sugar and kerosene if they have a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card or something similar. Producers of many goods receive huge subsidies as well. Altogether, subsidies eat up 7% of GDP.

They do not work. The system is wasteful, inefficient, market-distorting, regressive and deeply corrupt. Rajiv Gandhi famously said that 85% of subsidised food did not reach the poor. The Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission said in 2009 that only 16% of it reached them. Others have estimated that for every Rupee spent 72% is lost in transit.

While continuing with the PDS, in 2005 the Congress Party, long regarded as the bastion of Indian democracy, launched a grandiose National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), supposedly guaranteeing every rural household 100 days of labour a year at the minimum wage. Huge numbers have supposedly benefited, vast sums spent, many eulogies uttered.

In reality, ghosts have been resurrected, recorded as having done labour. Most rural people have had few if any days of labour under the scheme (renamed to give it the status of having Gandhi’s name preface it). Much of the money has gone into local bureaucrats’ pockets. One study estimated that only 8% of recipients had been employed for 100 days in one year. Another suggested that only a minority of projects had been completed, another that it has not reduced rural poverty at all. Corruption is endemic. The scheme only awaits a journalist to write a book entitled The Greatest Social Policy Scam in History.

Meanwhile, something remarkable has been brewing. A radical alternative has been gaining ground. In 2009, led by SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association), we launched the first of three pilot cash transfer schemes. The principle is simple: Give people cash, a basic income, instead of subsidies or make-work labour. And do not attach conditions, directing people how to spend the money; they can work that out for themselves. We do not claim credit for what has happened since, for other factors have contributed. But the pilots have proved timely.

The first, financed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), took place in a low-income area of Delhi, where hundreds of households were offered the alternative of continuing with the subsidised items or receive a monthly cash transfer of equivalent value. Many initially chose the cash. Later, when we did the evaluation, many more wished to do so. Although a political campaign was organised in opposition to the cash transfers, involving physical violence towards our women fieldworkers, the results have been very positive, with improvements to living standards.

Meanwhile, with financial help from UNICEF, we launched a bigger pilot in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In eight villages, for eighteen months, every man, woman and child has received an unconditional monthly cash transfer. Over 5,500 villagers have been recipients. We have been evaluating the effects by comparison with people living in comparable villages, in a randomised control trial.

Such pilots take a long time. Politics does not wait. Suffice it to note that the results of this and the third pilot in tribal villages are heart-warming. Even though the amount paid is very modest, about 30% of bare subsistence, we have observed improvements in nutrition, school attendance and performance, women’s status, economic activity, and sanitation. Many villagers have told us they want to substitute cash for subsidies. More have come round to that as experience has been gained.

What seems to happen is that the cash provides liquidity and a sense of security that infuses confidence and gives people a greater sense of control over their lives. So the positive effects exceed the value of the transfer.

It is what has happened back in Delhi that is so intriguing. In the past few months, we have been asked to brief senior officials, and they have been emboldened to push cash transfers into the centre of national debate.

In November, the Prime Minister went on television to announce that the government is to launch a cash transfer scheme, rolling it out to 51 districts in 2013 by raising the price of kerosene and compensating people by cash paid into bank accounts. Not to be outdone, on the 15th December, Delhi’s Chief Minister launched an unconditional cash transfer scheme in her state for those omitted from the cap put on BPL card holders. A torrent of media comment has followed.

The Congress Party has been converted. Earlier this month, its leader, Sonia Gandhi, the Prime Minister, and several Cabinet colleagues, descended by helicopter on a village and announced its cash transfer policy to a crowd of 30,000.

Indian social policy is at a crossroads. Opposing cash transfers, a group of diehard supporters of the PDS have been promoting a Right to Food bill that would universalise the PDS and subsidised food. They have also organised hostile protests. They claim cash benefits would lead to abandonment of public social services.

They are being Canutish. The PDS is literally rotten, as Delhi’s Chief Minister has admitted. Often grain comes in sacks that contain numerous small stones to make up the weight; often the grain and rice are stale; often villagers travel long distances only to find that the rations are not there. All this is ignored.

The risk now is that, in the rush to operationalize cash transfers across the country, design faults and excessive politicisation will put back the cause for years. Here we have a lesson for government. In the villages receiving the basic income, the payments have been an extra, not a substitute for something. We asked everybody to open a bank account within three months of receiving their first payment. There were predictable teething problems. But soon, everybody had accounts, with help from our colleagues. In that time, suspicions were allayed and support for cash transfers strengthened.

The government is doing it the wrong way. It is raising the price of a subsidised item, kerosene, telling people they will be compensated through a bank and by means of an identity card, the Aardaar. But, as the government’s pilot has shown, many will lose in the short-term since they do not have accounts and cannot obtain the cash. This risks a backlash.

The solution must be based on realising that, while villagers are always on the edge financially, a government can take a medium-term perspective. If it rolled out the scheme to those 51 districts by offering extra money in the first year while stating that everybody must open a bank account in that time, the fiscal cost will be small. In the second year, it could phase out selected subsidies, sharing the gains by disbursing a third of the subsidy in additional payments while saving the fiscal coffers the other two-thirds. Remember that most money spent on subsidies does not reach the intended beneficiaries.

Will wisdom prevail? One cannot be optimistic. It is a pre-election year and Congress is set on making cash transfers what a leading politician has called “a game-changer”, an election-winning measure. This will galvanise opposition. Everybody would gain if only the politicians had the wisdom to de-politicise the reform. The Government should set up an independent Cash Transfers Commission to oversee the process and to ensure that the level of benefits is set by economic criteria and not raised just before elections.

How much better it would be if unconditional, universal, individual cash benefits were rolled out slowly and quietly. We know they have made a great difference to the lives of those thousands of villagers in our pilots. We have heard their stories, seen their children and analysed the data gathered by our fieldworkers. There is a great chance of transforming Indian social policy. Let us hope the politicians take it.


The author is Professor of Development at SOAS and co-president of BIEN, an international network promoting Basic Income. He is also a trustee of the Citizen’s Income Trust. A seminar on the pilot scheme was presented at SOAS on the 26th February 2013.