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Promises that must be kept

Promises that must be kept

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi unveiled the idea of 'minimum basic income for poor' – a spinoff the global concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), the entire political spectrum was intrigued. BJP expectedly flouted the idea – framing it as nothing more than a political gimmick. However, dissecting Rahul's probable masterstroke gives an insight into the idea's feasibility. Congress's attempt to present a populist idea was expected, given their desperate campaigning to come back to power; but, hardly anyone anticipated that they would adopt an idea which no country in the world has successfully implemented. Elections constitute a plethora of promises and, here we are, looking at a possible revamp of the entire system of schemes for the poor. Though UBI is for everyone – rich, poor, working or unemployed – the core idea stresses on eradicating poverty or at least ensuring the basic sustenance of individuals. And, UBI is not new. But it has never been adopted by any country, except for several pilot attempts. UBI, for India, was first flagged in the Economic Survey, 2016-17, as a 'conceptually appealing idea' and a possible alternative to social welfare schemes. The Economic Survey of India, 2016-17, had presented a rather necessary model of UBI – tending to the poorer sections of India. In that, the estimated minimum level of income needed to sustain life (poverty line) was fixed at Rs 7,620/annum, drawing from eminent economist Suresh Tendulkar's formula. Estimations through surveys suggested that such a model would cost the country 4.9 per cent of its GDP as against 5.2 per cent spent on all 950 central and centrally sub-sponsored schemes. Aadhaar had also been envisaged as a method for individuals to receive income via direct benefit transfer alongside the recommendation to flag off the idea with women, elderly, widows and specially-abled sections. However, counter-arguments echoed. The veracity of Tendulkar's poverty line (22 per cent poor) came under scrutiny against C Rangarajan's (29.5 per cent poor), though NITI Aayog's Elimination of Poverty report supported the former's formula. NITI Aayog justified Tendulkar's poverty line by asserting how the focus was to be relied on combating extreme poverty by assessing 'sufficient income for basic necessities of life' rather than 'comfortable existence' which will render the tracking of those in abject poverty as useless. Moreover, some existing schemes of the Centre are inclusive of long-term benefits for the comprehensive development of people, which UBI lacks. A small model of UBI already exists in the system – under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), since 1995, the central government provides pensions to the elderly, widows and the disabled. However, even these counter-arguments are eclipsed in front of the mammoth task of implementing UBI, given India's income diversity. And, there is no inspiration since such a model has hardly been tried in comparable regions. Though the government did attempt to bring everyone under Aadhaar, many more will be left out should Aadhaar be used for securing benefits in the UBI scheme. Rahul will face an uphill task in implementing his bright idea. However, P Chidambaram rung the optimistic bell citing how Congress will come up with a detailed plan in its election manifesto. "The poor of India have the first charge on the resources of the country" he asserted, acknowledging the necessity of a poor-exclusive scheme. The argument raised by the lotus party on how the funds will come for such a mammoth exercise like UBI does not make sense since India's 2018-19 food subsidy bill alone was estimated at 1.7 trillion rupees, roughly 7 per cent of total federal spending. With the GDP that India possesses, adequate policies can provide the poor with enough food, clothes, healthcare, education, etc., through a certain level of minimum income. This brings us to the 'New India' argument bifurcated between Modi and Rahul. Rahul's new India cannot be built unless poverty is eliminated while Modi's new India stresses on not letting corruption exist and providing opportunities to karma-yogis (those who prove themselves through work). Let us acknowledge that poverty and corruption have both been the nadir of our highly progressive country which today boasts of having the sixth-largest GDP – arguably pacing towards being a superpower. Not comparing the two versions of 'New India', eyes will now be set on Congress's elaboration of its masterplan to eradicate poverty. Even if it is populist, the manifesto will talk about something that has been discussed for more than two years and now deserves to be given a shot. In the interest of the poor, such a promise is less likely to just be a mere electoral sop. Why? Because India will come down heavily on Congress should it fail to deliver its masterstroke. It is that one promise that must be kept at all costs.

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