Published April 27-28, 2020
The ongoing global pandemic is proving to be the biggest challenge India’s economy has faced in the last few decades. The nation-wide lockdown has temporarily slowed the spread of the disease but it has also brought enormous hardship to the poor, who cannot afford the consequences of the loss of livelihood and the economic downturn it will inevitably lead to.
The poor urgently need assistance to avoid the dire effects of not having an income for several months. The rich have the luxury of dipping into their savings or borrowing; the poor don’t have those options. They have to rely on public assistance, and they need it now, not in some distant future. They need a basic income if they have to survive.
Problems are always unwelcome but sometimes if properly understood they present rare opportunities for much-needed and necessary changes. The pandemic presents an opportunity for the government of India to do what should have been done right after India became independent of the British Raj over 70 years ago.
The British rulers of India lived lavishly at the expense of Indian taxpayers — and everyone pays taxes. As foreign rulers, they considered it just and proper that they should live like kings while the people of India suffered poverty and deprivation. They lived in Lutyens’ Delhi in style befitting an imperial power ruling over colonial subjects.
With the end of British Raj, the white rulers vacated Lutyens’ Delhi. Those who took over control of the government of independent India — politicians and bureaucrats — moved into those lavish quarters. It is impossible to justify that. How can those who were supposed to serve the public live like they were imperial rulers of a subject people, and extremely poor people at that?
The basic morality and ethics of the governance of a democratic nation entails that the government is for the people, not for the politicians and bureaucrats. They are public servants, who serve at the will of the people. To serve the people, they must not live like kings. And it is not just a matter of optics. It is more than that it doesn’t “look good.” It shields those in government from understanding the daily struggles of the average Indian.
It is time for the Indian netas and babus to stop living in the lap of luxury, like their British predecessors did. It is also time to provide to the poor the financial support that they desperately need now. The pandemic has connected the two issues: to provide the poor the needed financial support, and to halt the waste of public money that goes into funding the extravagant lifestyles of the politicians and bureaucrats in Delhi and elsewhere.
Lutyens’ Delhi was a symbol of the power and control that the British rulers exercised over the colonized people of India. In 1947, when the government of India changed hands from the British to Indians, Lutyens’ Delhi should have been returned to the people. The functionaries of the government of independent India should have demonstrated their commitment to the cause of nation building by living modestly, as befitting a nation that could not afford to continue to fund the extravagant lifestyles that the British enjoyed at the expense of the poor of India. But they did not do that.
How much do Indians pay for those who rule over them is hard to estimate. Just Lutyens’ Delhi has immense wealth locked up, wealth that could — and must be — given back to Indians. There are hundreds of bungalows sitting on prime lots of more than an acre each. Each bungalow occupies land valued at several hundred crores. A conservative estimate of the land value comes to around Rs 5 lakh crores.
Here is what I propose that Prime Minister Modi should do to stop this waste of public assets (and free up the locked-up wealth), and at the same time provide for the financial support to the poor during this crisis.
First, the politicians and babus must vacate their publicly provided, free accommodations in Lutyens’ Delhi. We ordinary citizens have to pay rent or buy our own houses. Why should the netas and babus get it for free? Like the rest of us, they should get a salary, and rent or buy the housing they want and can afford. This can be accomplished in a month. Remember, demonetisation was done overnight. The Prime Minister should give them all a month’s notice and demonstrate to the world that he means to correct the wrongs of the British Raj and that India is not going to tolerate it anymore.
The second part is to sell off the public property that is Lutyens’ Delhi. Public property, by definition, belongs to the public, and the public has the right to use it as and when they need to. The proceeds of the sale of Lutyens’ Delhi rightfully belong to all Indians equally, rich and poor. But because the economic effects of the pandemic disproportionately falls on the poor, I propose that the 15 crore families (about 60% of the population) who have been hardest hit be the first to receive their share of the money raised by the sale.
Each of the 15 crore families should receive Rs 30,000 in the next few months. It is not a large amount but it will help them enormously to get back on their feet. With the money, their demand for goods and services will pull industry to increase production, which in turn will generate jobs. While helping the poor, it will give a much-needed boost to the economy without damaging side-effects.
I call this proposal “Prime Minister’s Lutyens’ Delhi Liquidation Relief Yojana” or LLR Yojana. It is not a “universal basic income” (UBI) scheme since it is limited to the poor, and limited to the desperate time India faces now. For the longer term, I have proposed the Dhan Vapasi model, which looks a little like a UBI scheme but is actually a larger idea to bring all public assets currently under-utilised into production. That will increase jobs, incomes, and help create the infrastructure for boosting economic growth.