In 2011, when villagers of Mali Badodia in Indore district of Madhya Pradesh were asked if they were ready to be part of a pilot project on unconditional transfer of money, Ramkanya Kevat refused to sign the papers. “Many of us ran away from the surveyors. We thought after giving us money, they would either take away our homes or land,’’ recalls the 60-year-old, petting her goats.
Her village was part of the Madhya Pradesh Unconditional Cash Transfers Project, a pilot project by SEWA, with funding from UNICEF.
The only such large-scale basic income project to be conducted in India, the Madhya Pradesh pilot was organised in nine villages over nearly 18 months. Twelve villages, similar in demography and income to the nine villages under the pilot study, were selected as ‘control villages’ — they did not receive the basic income. At the end of the pilot, the ‘outcomes’ of the nine villages were compared to the control villages, and the results were seen as “positive”.
Back then in Mali Badodia village, a day’s wage was a little more than Rs 100. Under the pilot, every adult member was given Rs 200 a month and children Rs 100 each for a year, between June 2011 and May 2012. Between July 2012 and November 2012, the amount was hiked to Rs 300 for an adult and Rs 150 for every child.
Amid the debate over Universal Basic Income, the Kevats are among the few Indians who know what an assured minimum income entails. “Paisa mila tha (we got the money,” they all say.
Annapurna Prajapati, a volunteer from Indore, recalls that only when villagers got money regularly, were they convinced that their belongings would not be taken away.
While Kevat likes the idea of an assured income, she says she would not want UBI to replace subsidies such as ration.
“Who will give us wheat and rice at Re 1? Even now, we have to buy grains from the market because the subsidised ration doesn’t last a month. We pay Rs 125 for 5 kg of wheat from the market,’’ she says.
For Mangubai, 45, the “scheme” meant that at least during those 18 months, the family did not have to go to moneylenders, who lend at exorbitant rates — 5 per cent per month, sometimes even 10.
Bavsingh Kevat, 58, says the money helped him get treatment for his wife Lilabai, who had suffered a paralytic stroke. He had to take her to Mhow for treatment regularly. Given that the family owned less than two bigha, daily wages were the main source of income. “I don’t know what I would have done if not for this extra money,’’ he says.
Most people in Mali Badodia go in search of work to nearby places because they are either landless labourers or own small plots of land. Many of them say they used the money to buy goats, whose numbers have now multiplied. Also, it helped them overcome their inhibitions about visiting banks.
Further away, Ghodakhurd, a tribal hamlet with 120 houses that’s about 50 km from Indore in Mhow tehsil, has only recently got a road. Here, between January and December 2012, each adult got Rs 300 a month and the children Rs 150.
Tulsabai Dawar gushes about the scheme, saying it changed everything for her — it helped her buy goats and then buffaloes and cows. In her backyard are nearly a dozen cattle. She not only sells milk but also the mawa she makes at home. Her husband Bhavarsingh, who worked as a daily wager earlier, now takes care of their cattle.
Though almost self-sufficient now, Dawar thinks the scheme, if started again, would bring more stability to her family. She claims her two sons, guest teachers in a nearby school, have not received any payments over the last few months. The family owns a television and a sewing machine.
Some months, Radhabai Dawar, in her 40s, works at a potato wafer factory nearby. “We get work only for a few months in the factory. And when we do, there is always the fear that if we don’t report to work because of illness, we will be replaced. So we go even when we are ill,’’ she says.
The family owns a couple of cattle and a few goats, and a two-bigha land on which they grow maize. While they earn Rs 6,000 a month, their monthly expenditure is around Rs 4,000, and she feels a regular extra income would be a boon. “But the PDS ration should continue. We can then use this money elsewhere,’’ she says.
“When the scheme started we thought it would continue forever,’’ says Shardabai Dawar, another villager.
While both Mali Badodia and Ghodakhurd are villages where SEWA works actively on projects for women, Shahawada village in Depalpur tehsil of Indore, which was also part of the pilot, knew nothing of SEWA or assured income until their volunteers approached them.
“Everyone thought something would be taken away. But once they were convinced they could only benefit from it, there was a scramble for opening bank accounts,’’ says Ranjit Chaudhary, one of the first persons to sign up for the project.
Talking of how they were happy to get the cash, Mansingh Keshav Chaudhary, 50, says, “Farmers are always short of money, so we welcomed the money.’’
Unlike in Mali Badodia and Ghodakhurd, here in Shahawada, there are few claims of how the scheme “transformed” lives, yet many acknowledge that the pilot left them with some extra money to supplement their meagre income.
“It helped us pay school fees on time, buy medicines,’’ says Radheshyam Chandel.
“The first thing farmers or the poor do when they are short of money is put off buying new clothes. That’s why you see so many of us in torn clothes. That changed when we had extra money,’’ says Narayan Chandel, another villager.