Originally Published 2017-07-10 12:49:49 Published on Jul 10, 2017
Illegal immigration of the kind seen in the border states has not only changed the demographic composition of the territories, but has also posed alarming political and socio-economic problems.
What will UBI mean for illegal immigration?

The discussion on Universal Basic Income (UBI) in India's Economic Survey of 2017-18 has been both significant and surprising. Significant, for UBI finds a detailed and in-depth discussion in this Economic Survey, and surprising because, in a conservative vision document such as the said Survey, a revolutionary concept as that of the UBI has been given such considerable space. In the Survey this year, India's Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, not only quoted Mahatma Gandhi's dictum — no labour, no meal but also, through his articulation made it seem like the Mahatma was in favour of the principle of UBI.

According to the Economic Survey, this is an opportune time for UBI to be brought in discussion in India, if not be implemented, for the principle is of wiping every tear from every eye. Owing to its universality, unconditionality and agency, UBI has a popular appeal. The survey stipulates that UBI could potentially reduce poverty by providing agency to an individual to gain autonomy in choosing a profession, thus, making space for an improved lifestyle.

The survey expects that equipped with JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile), UBI has the power to make social welfare and security a reality by reducing bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption.

Despite there being a multiplicity of social security schemes having been rolled out by the government, India has not seen the desired level of reduction in poverty. This is due to 'inclusion' and 'exclusion' errors that relate to a targeting of right beneficiaries as well as corruption. For the Indian Economic Survey, UBI is thus, a quick fix solution to the country's ills of poverty as basic income to every individual could work as an effective solution to the said problem.

Herein, the reasons cited by the country's Economic Survey for proposing a basic income for people is different from the west. The logic that underlies the advocacy of UBI in the western world is that UBI can serve as a solution to the growing unemployment and stagnation of wages being seen due to automation. Compared to this, the situation in India, however, is different. Neither has India seen large-scale automation of the kind seen in the west nor is it witnessing such stagnation of wages. Considering India's encouraging economic growth, India is bound to reduce poverty in due course.

The logic that underlies the advocacy of UBI in the western world is that UBI can serve as a solution to the growing unemployment and stagnation of wages being seen due to automation.

Before considering introducing the UBI, it is perhaps advisable for the government to weigh the security ramifications of its implementation in the country. It is known that illegal immigration in India, especially in its border states, has become a cause of major concern. According to data from the census of 2001, there are 30,84,826 illegal Bangladeshi immigrants residing in India. If the government and media reports are anything to go by, there were as many as two crore illegal Bangladeshis in India in 2003. Similarly, as of 2009, between 50,000-1,00,000 Burmese Chin migrants were reported residing in Mizoram among other Indian states. Same is the case with a considerable number of Afghans, Pakistanis and Rohingya Muslims living in various parts of India. Illegal migration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh into Assam and West Bengal has posed serious problems for the Indian state due to demographic change in these states.

Illegal immigration of the kind seen in the said border states has not only changed the demographic composition of the territories but has also posed alarming political and socio-economic problems for India. In addition to fencing of the Indo-Bangladesh border being virtually impractical owing to the changing course of the Brahmaputra river, availability of better employment opportunities and higher wages in India encourage illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Easy availability of forged documents, connivance of corrupt bureaucracy and vote bank politics further perpetuate the occurrence of such unlawful migration between states.

According to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), there are more than 27,000 illegal immigrants present in Dhubri district of Assam. The present Assamese government has launched a 'Detect, Delete and Deport' scheme to get a handle on the problem of illegal infiltration. This is where the real problem with illegal infiltration comes in. Once citizenship has been managed with the help of unlawful means, the detection and deportation of such intruders in a country as vast and populous as India is difficult, if not impossible. Given their illegal status, immigrants of the kind are ready to take up employment opportunities even at low wages.

Now picture this. All three components of UBI — universality, unconditionality and agency, could inter-alia encourage illegal immigration in the long-run. If one is entitled to a basic income barely by being a citizen of a country, then all out efforts being made by potential illegal immigrants to attain citizenship should come of little surprise to the authorities. Further, the principle of unconditionality makes UBI all the more vulnerable. Since UBI is expected to be a 'no-frill' transfer, the selection process of beneficiaries is rather mechanical. As every citizen is entitled to a basic income, the process of screening and scrutiny at the bureaucratic level, thus, is likely to be less stringent.

All three components of UBI — universality, unconditionality and agency, could inter alia encourage illegal immigration in the long-run.

It goes without saying that the much-acclaimed JAM mechanism, in addition to providing 'agency' to its beneficiaries in the true sense of the term, could also go to blunt the efficacy of initiatives like 'Detect, Delete and Deport'. Under the ongoing social security schemes, a beneficiary desirous of enjoying benefits of public distribution system (PDS) food security has to undergo the process of obtaining a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card; caste, income and even a domicile certificate to name a few. These formalities require greater scrutiny and keep the beneficiary rooted to her/his native place thus, reducing the chances of internal migration. Even the guaranteed employment scheme — MNREGA provides for local employment. As against this, UBI coupled with JAM doesn't restrict the freedom of internal migration, wherein an illegal migrant only has to get a fraudulent Aadhar card, which reportedly is not too difficult to obtain.

It is true that social security schemes run by the Centre and state governments are plagued by corruption and inefficiency. But so is the fact that in running such welfare schemes, governments demonstrate their responsibility towards citizens. The moral and ideological support to the concept of a welfare state is vindicated through these social security schemes. A mechanical application of UBI for all citizens only to correct 'inclusion' and 'exclusion' errors does not make a prudent case. One has the example of Switzerland, which despite being a rich country rejected the proposal of providing a basic income to its citizens in a recently held referendum. In spite of receiving positive reviews from the economist, Guy Standing, the two pilot projects for UBI launched by the UNICEF and Self Employment Women's Association (SEWA) in Madhya Pradesh are not sufficient to undertake such risky ventures at the pan-India level.

For these reasons, the proposed UBI in the Jammu and Kashmir budget by Haseeb Drabu, the state's Finance Minister, needs serious reconsideration. Where the entire state government machinery, central paramilitary forces and army are unable to contain 'stone pelters' in southern Kashmir, there is little to say that a direct benefit transfer scheme like UBI will not only see residents thumbing their nose at it but will also be thoroughly misused.

The Economic Survey though does mention some arguments against UBI. However, the problems of illegal immigration, demographic change in sensitive border states and a consequent threat to national security should also have found space in the document. Perhaps, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has been right in finding UBI to be an impractical proposition and dismissing it as being politically unfeasible.

This commentary originally appeared in Swarajya.

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