India spends approximately Rs 9 lakh crore in welfare through thousands of schemes. MGNREGS, PM Kisan etc have mammoth budgets and sweeping scales. Apart from the difficulty of reaching the right beneficiaries, much bureaucratic energy is spent on verifying eligibility, supervising the implementation etc.
The Rs 9 lakh crore does not cover the expenditure in maintaining an army of bureaucrats in central and state governments or the pensions of the retired civil servants.
Though we have been able to lift a substantial number of people out of the poverty trap, especially in the last decade, it is distressing to have a greater number of impoverished Indians than the entire population of the US.
Various poverty alleviation schemes are leaky like sieves, and taxpayers' money often end up lining the pockets of middlemen, sleazy agents, and shady NGOs. The result is that India continues to have the largest number of poor people in the world. We have more than 36 crore people living below the ridiculously low poverty line in rural and urban India.
This is after the significant reduction in poverty during the period between 2005-06 and 2015-16, where India was able to reduce the number of poor by more than 27.1 crore. However, since 2018 - the NITI Aayog report indicates - poverty has been going up in the country again.
Among 28 states and UTs covered, except Mizoram, Kerala, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, all have reported an increase in hunger levels. Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh have the lion’s share of poor people (19.6 crore).
The NITI Aayog's SDG Index 2019 covers the date till 2018 and does not factor in the Covid impact. What would be figures now is anybody’s guess. Despite such a human tragedy of epic proportion unfolding around us, there is no discussion on ending poverty in the public space now.
We are more bothered about the skyrocketing trajectory of the gambling index, also known as stock market index, or the ups and downs of GDP.
Politicians have stopped even paying lip service about the poor. Once upon a time, Garibi Hatao, or remove poverty, was an election-winning slogan though not much of poverty was reduced after the election victory. Now, even that pretense of caring for the poor is not required to win the polls. The poor have become irrelevant despite forming a huge chunk of population.
The basic reason for such indifference has perhaps got to do with our culture. Most religions talk about charity and kindness a lot but very less about equality and rights. Poor are poor owing to their Karma or because god has willed so. It is their fate.
That was the traditional view when Indians flirted with socialism. The government was expected to act as the benign kings of yore and give ‘daan’ or charity to the poor. The definition of who was poor was left to the discretion of bureaucrats and the system reeked of petty corruption, with not even a fraction of the intended money reaching the deserving.
After the euphoria of liberalisation that lifted many from the lower middle class to middle class, the majority who the free market left behind have lost even this charity. They are expected to wait patiently like obedient pets for something to trickle down from the feasting tables of the high and mighty. Even if they are to be helped, they should earn it.
The programmes like MNREGS came from this neo-liberal thought. The poor had to work to earn the pittance, whether they had the talent or interest for the same. A corporate will get tax holidays and subsidies even before it had contributed one paisa to the economy, but the poor must do the work as commanded by the middlemen representing the government.
It is time to implement universal basic income (UBI) in India. To give Rs 1,200 per month to 150 crore Indians will cost the government Rs 21.6 lakh crore a year.
This would be far lesser than the Rs 9 lakh crore spent through more than ten thousand schemes when we compare the humongous bureaucratic cost incurred in deciding who is poor, and designing and maintaining complex systems to disburse the money. The UBI should become a fundamental right of every citizen.
This will take the pressure off the poor from struggling to meet the basic needs and would give them dignity.
Their choice of work would become a mode of self-development rather than a desperate means of sustenance. It would seem like a utopian dream, but so was abolishment of slavery, or democracy a century ago. Any other method in India is sure to get sunk in the quagmire of corruption.
(The writer is author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy and can be reached at email@example.com)