Guest post by Rejitha Nair
Human dignity is a value that is at the very foundation of our civilization, and our existence as a community. Unconditional and Universal Basic Income can be the gateway to a more humane society that takes human dignity very seriously, and grants a dignified life to all its citizens. In this guest post, Rejitha is examining the relationship between UBI and Human Dignity, and argues that we need to radically transform the way think about social security, if we have to achieve a dignified life for all the citizens. .
Rejitha is a faculty member at the Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. She has a keen interest in Human Rights Law and the interplay between law and poverty. She is also a PhD candidate at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) Hyderabad. In her thesis, she is examining the relationship between universal basic income and human dignity, and exploring UBI as an alternative way of thinking about social security in India.
The belief in inherent dignity of human beings is undoubtedly the central point of modern human rights discourse. The idea of human beings as agents capable of making moral choices, resisting injustices and participating in shaping of society is the fundamental premise of all human rights movements; all our socio- political relations are informed by this value. The world community has unequivocally recognised the inherent dignity of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Political rights and economic, social and cultural rights that we all endorse unflinchingly are derived from this very value.
The biggest impediments to securing human dignity are poverty and destitution. In India, under the poverty alleviation schemes we invest most of our resources in designing and implementing means tests to identify the target groups, and then devising strategies to provide them basic necessities like food and income. There is much legislation for providing the poor with basic necessities or for ensuring their livelihood, but the implementation of these statutes and schemes is very poor, to say the least.
The problem is at the very root of how we perceive poverty. As long as we continue to see poverty as a mere material lack of food, clothing, shelter, and livelihood, we continue to make schemes filling those material gaps. On the other hand, poverty needs to be seen from the lens of “capabilities deprivation” or denial of opportunity to develop. The covenants mentioned above declare that respect for human dignity requires the society to ensure a minimum threshold of capabilities for truly human functioning, and social structures and direct state actions ought to be evaluated on this basis. This alternative framework departs from describing impoverishment and destitution purely on material terms. It takes into account the everyday indignities a person has to go through which include pain, discomfort, exhaustion, discrimination, exclusion, voicelessness, stigmatisation, vulnerability, fear, low self-esteem, humiliation, shame, etc.
Only a strong redistributive policy can respond to these indignities, and ensure every citizen a minimum threshold of capability for a truly human functioning. Flowing from such a manner of thinking is the idea of unconditional and Universal Basic Income (UBI). Under the concept of universal basic income all citizens are given a monthly income sufficiently high to meet the basic necessities of life, but not as high as to act as a disincentive to work. This monthly income is universal rather than means-tested; it is given automatically to all citizens regardless of their individual economic circumstances. And it is unconditional, i.e., in order to receive basic income one need not perform any labour or satisfy any other conditions, or promise and conform to any specific outcomes. The features of UBI has great implications for securing dignity of human life.
UBI is not only easy to administer, but also challenges the stigmatizing notion of certain human beings as ‘dependent’ and the moral blameworthiness of group experiencing poverty. People would not have to live in constant fear and anxiety of exclusion because of failing to meet eligibility criteria to avail benefits. In fact it would be a step towards substantively egalitarian society, ensuring the Right to a Decent Standard of Living for all human beings irrespective of their economic status or their contribution to the labour market.
In a world where people are excluded from development opportunities because of their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability or poverty, and where distribution of income is becoming increasingly unequal; there is a need for a radical and fundamental shift in the way we look at social security. It need not be ‘targeted’ only at the ‘disadvantaged groups’ but should be a right available to everyone; as “something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest.”
When subsistence is ensured and people are not under constant threat of starvation and malnourishment; they are undoubtedly in a better position to assume their role as citizens, parents, workers and social beings. Basic income protects people’s autonomy and freedom to make decisions freely about matters concerning them, and not act out of compulsion and helplessness. There is also evidence of basic income having positively impacted access to productive and income-generating resources such as credit, land, common property resources, etc. With a basic income people are found to be more likely to take livelihood and economic risks and are capable of acting autonomous agents to pursue their good in life. Further, since basic income is not provided because of a person’s situation of disadvantage but it is ensured to everyone just by virtue of being a member of humankind; it in a large way abrogates the stigma attached to ‘beneficiaries’ as societal burden or failed citizens. It brings about everyone to an equal platform, materially and politically, where, as emancipated citizens, they contribute to the shaping of social, political and economic goals.
 Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.
 Right to decent standard of living has been recognised as an inherent inalienable right of Individuals under Art 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; Article 11 of International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1976.
 Van Parijs, P.2001. A basic income for all. In: Cohen, J and Rogers. ed.What’s wrong with a free lunch. Beacon Press Books, p.5.