Let me start with some bit of personal history. It was in 2017 that Atanu Dey, a friend who is an economist, first proposed the idea of returning wealth controlled by the government to the people. We had been discussing how to put India on a path to prosperity. We had previously tried two initiatives. One proposed a new Constitution for India that emphasised personal and economic freedom, and constraints on government power. The other was about giving Indian cities greater autonomy via urban governance reforms because cities are where wealth creation happens. We could not get traction for either.
It was then that Atanu wrote a note to me with a simple idea that was not immediately obvious to me – the Indian government controls a lot of wealth which is lying unused, misused and abused, and if this wealth is monetised and returned to the people, it can truly transform their lives and India’s future. Really? How is that possible? Did India have this kind of wealth? India is a poor country, right? But Indians are rich? How is this possible? And the government – why are they not telling us about it?
As I understood the idea, it became clear that it was bold, path-breaking and transformative. Over the next few months, we spent time refining it. I put a team as part of my “Free A Billion” initiative to work to try and estimate India’s public wealth – wealth that belongs to the people but is controlled by the government. This is locked up in minerals, surplus land and the assets of the public sector units (PSUs). As we did the research, the numbers amazed us.
$20 trillion dollars was the estimated wealth under the control of the government. That would approximate come to Rs 1, 50, 00, 00, 00, 00, 00, 000. That’s 15 followed by 14 zeros. In other words, more than Rs 50 lakh for every Indian family.
Put in simple terms: India is rich, but Indians are poor.
And the secret to doing UBI right for India was to monetise this public wealth and return it to the people in smaller chunks every year – Rs 1,00,000 every year to every family. This would double the annual income for more than half of the families in India.
That was the origin of the Dhan Vapasi (Wealth Return) idea – launched with this video on August 15, 2018.
Tomorrow: India’s UBI Moment (Part 3)