India is nearly done building the plumbing to enable such a system by connecting the Aadhaar-based biometric ID system to individual bank accounts. It’s already replaced LPG gas canister subsidies with cash, a program that has 150 million beneficiaries and is the now the world’s largest cash transfer program. So could India take this example to its logical conclusion and replace all welfare benefits with UBI? (GiveDirectly is asking a similar question in a bold 10-year $30 million experiment in Kenya.)
The Survey’s assessment begins with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi suggesting both support and objection to the principles of UBI. The chapter then methodically addresses the conceptual pros (e.g., justice, equity, agency, efficiency) and potential cons (e.g., labor disincentives, moral hazard, political objections). It attempts various modeling, including a rough estimate that cutting national poverty in half via UBI would cost just 1.5 percent of GDP, less than the subsidy bill in the 2016-17 budget. For the data nerds, there are seven (!) appendices explaining all the estimates and calculations.
So, should India go for UBI or not? In the end, the Survey concludes, with its characteristic blend of charming caution and righteous audacity:
…UBI is a powerful idea whose time even if not ripe for implementation is ripe for serious discussion. One can easily imagine the Mahatma as fair mediator, deliberating and examining both sides of the argument carefully. The Mahatma as the embodiment of universal moral conscience would have seen the possibility of UBI in achieving the outcomes he so deeply cared about and fought for all his life. But the Mahatma as moralist would have had doubts because of seeing uncompensated rewards as harming responsibility and effort. As a fiscal conservative he would permit UBI only if convinced that macro-economic stability would not be jeopardized. Recognizing the difficulty of exit, the Mahatma as astute political observer would have anxieties about UBI as being just another add-on government programme. But on balance he may have given the go-ahead to the UBI.
Universal Basic Income: What Would Mahatma Gandhi Do?