Politics of the poor: banking on Universal Basic Income in India

Amid India’s polarized political landscape, UBI has emerged as a forward-looking tool for government to explore. The most widely accepted definition of UBI is an unconditional cash transfer to individual members of a political community, without means tests or work requirements. A broad church marries different political philosophies around conceptual support of a national UBI. Advocates on the left exalt the social responsibility of states to share national wealth with citizens irrespective of their productive market contribution. Neoliberal enthusiasts celebrate reducing inefficient welfare programs and placing responsibility for entrepreneurial activity on market-disciplined individuals.

Nika’s proposed study will explore a potentially dangerous failure of semantics. UBI proponents of the left and right might in fact be supporting two separate visions for society that masquerade under a policy of the same name. Contestations around UBI reflect the contemporary front lines in an old battle of ideas around the social contract. Examining the substance of such visions requires a focus on their underlying conceptions of citizenship, the state, and the market. These abstract concepts are made material in how different social groups claim access to rights in India, such as the right to vote, to work, to food – in this case – to income.

Nika will undertake ethnographic research to explore how engagement with government technologies and welfare programs co-constitute the very meanings of citizenship and the state. The study aims to portray the UBI discussion in a new way, articulating how a dangerous failure of semantics can justify social exclusion of the poor at the same time as it provides individuals with a new political consciousness around their rightful share of a nation’s wealth.  

Nika Soon-Shiong
Research Student