• Child Rights Centre, CNLU

Women in Covid: UBI and Capabilities

By Nishtha Gupta, a 4th Year, B.A., LL.B.(Hons.) student at NALSAR, Hyderabad

The idea of distributive justice is premised upon the cornerstone of ‘equality’, but time and again academicians, as well as policymakers, have failed to provide a comprehensive idea of what kind of equality ensures distributive justice. Despite wide criticism of the Rawlsian theory of justice as an obsession with material resources, attempts by states to reduce inequality and alleviate poverty usually involve a redistribution of wealth and resources without much focus on developing the capabilities of people. This paper seeks to show that these policies rest on the false premise which equates poverty with wealth and uses a capabilities approach framework to analyse how the response of the Indian government to the recent Corona pandemic affects different classes of the population unequally, despite there not being a significant difference in their financial situation. It will be argued that the policies that would be better responded were their implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all in India. An analytical approach specifically from the feminist viewpoint would be the pivot with UBI as a suggestive remedy.

Defining Poverty

Distributive justice is premised on two prominent questions- what to distribute and how to distribute it? The visceral response to the first question was the distribution of wealth as, theorists from Aristotle to Rawls introduced us to theories that provide for means of distributing wealth among the people. What remained dialectal was, how could this be done in a way that would quench the needs and satisfy all its beneficiaries. In response, and despite its flaws, Vilfred Pareto’s proposed theory of ‘make at least one person better off’, became the standard espoused by policymakers and courts alike. By the middle of the last century, however, discrepancies between the theory and the practical situation began to emerge prominently.

Was the distribution of wealth enough to ensure distributive justice? The feminist movement and the civil rights activism in the United States produced a new concept known as ‘equality of opportunity’ while in the Soviet Union and China, the communist states were experimenting with a new brand of equality – ‘the equality of outcome’. The second question was also left open as the latest research by Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen showed its impracticality in the real world. Following the development of the impossibility theorem and the liberal paradox, social choice theory in economics hit a dead end.

The response to the ‘what’ question turned tides when answered differently by Amartya Sen in his celebrated lecture ‘Equality of what?” He came up with the theory of capabilities where poverty is measured by the choice of capabilities that individuals have reason to value. Poverty according to this approach has been measured as the deprivation of capabilities. Nussbaum furthered this approach by listing capabilities which the state ought to provide to its people, to ensure dignified living to its citizens.

Pandemic and Women

The first course of treatment for any pandemic, Covid not being the exception, is house quarantine and social distancing. And this is exactly how the Indian government responded to the first and second wave. What eluded most eyes was, however, something known as the shadow pandemic. With the onset of the pandemic, in a culture where men staying at home and contributing to housework is considered undignified, now they were being forced to restrict themselves to confined familial spaces. This gradually morphed into a phenomenon that saw an increase in violence, especially domestic violence inflicted against women and girls. The UN Chronicle and campaign launched during the period stressed on the lack of resources available with women to redress their complaints and a capacity saturation of the helplines and response teams. It is argued that a simple measure like the Universal Basic Income, could have ameliorated the conditions of women affected by the pandemic and trellised their vulnerability.

Theoretical underpinnings to UBI

UBI, as propounded by Parjis and Vanderborought, refers to an uninterrupted flow of cash to all the citizens in a country irrespective of the employment and social conditions they are living in. In their words

A basic income … is an income paid by the government to each full member of society … is meant to convey the idea that, owing to its unconditional nature, we here have something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest, and to which any other income, whether in cash or in kind, can legitimately be added.[1]

The concept proposed by Parjis is that people should have real freedom in addition to the formal freedom guarantee through property rights and security rights. Positing that formal freedoms do not result in the achievement of capabilities, Parjis argues for real freedoms, opportunities, beckoning people to achieve their capabilities. Hayek’s commitment to republican freedom had also demonstrated an inclination towards the idea of basic income. In his words

“There is difference between society that accepts duty of providing minimum level of welfare… one which seeks to determine the ‘just’ position and allocates to each what it thinks he deserves.”

It is argued for a universal income for the reason that the alternative of means-tested distribution of goods and cash is not efficient a fair in the state. The welfare state does not have the means to assess the people who are justified in receiving the UBI. The author has justified through the capabilities approach that the poor cannot be identified through these means.

As per a study in Kenya, the presence of UBI increases the psychological being of individuals. It gives them more opportunities to fulfil their aspirations and capabilities. The budget report also calculated the economic feasibility of UBI. The calculations have been based on the de facto poverty and GDP in the country and the figures are between 4.2-4.9 per cent of GDP in the initial phases. The budget reflected that the per cent would reduce depending on the decrease in the number of poor below the poverty line. with these foundations, it would now be beneficial to assess the impact UBI could have on women and their capabilities.

Redressing the Effects

Annals prove that there is a clear connection between the violence women faced at home and their economic condition in social life. Domestic violence and economic dependence are directly proportional.[2] Marriage gives men power over the wife. It gives him the power to control her social life, property and social capital. Coker posits an interconnectedness between violence and material resources. In her words

Inadequate material resources increase the batterers’ access to women who do try to separate. [T]hose women who are economically vulnerable have an increased vulnerability to violence. So you see this kind of interactive effect.[3]

A simple addition of income to the household, in the form of UBI, would allow women to utilise resources for personal development, giving them a sense of freedom and reduced dependence on the males of the house. Given that UBI is individuated, the money would go into her personal account, preventing abuse or access by others. It is only axiomatic that the minimal income gives a psychological satisfaction, at two levels- one to the woman, giving her a voice and means to her ends, and two to the male who now is aware of her independent source of income. It is pertinent that this is not only a boon for houses with instances of domestic abuse. The pandemic evidenced an increase in housework and burden on the women, with alterations in the living conditions of the family. Killewald concluded that unemployment and financial dependence increases the share of housework distribution[4]. Reilley inferred that higher-earning women were more likely to feel independent along with nominally being responsible for the housework where concomitantly unemployed women did not have choices available to reduce their household burden.[5] It would then appear instinctive that provisioning an amount for each individual would assuage, if not entirely resolve, the issue of dependence. What would come as an instant criticism is the amount of money, the government will be able to dedicate to this scheme. While the numbers have been accounted for in the economic survey mentioned earlier, the question is not just about the amount, rather the incentive and means to enable a woman to realise her capabilities, as Sen and Parjis envisioned.

The UBI would ensure that the citizens have money to save for the basic supplies and procuring necessities. They would have the income resource to convert their ability into functioning. Capabilities cannot be fulfilled without the presence of a constant income. The UBI supplemented by other capability development approaches appears to be the most efficient solution to tackle the impact of an epidemic like corona on the poor. India prides itself as being a welfare state, and implementation of unique, welfare policies like the UBI should be something it should not shy away from. Our women have already borne much suffering, it is time we repay, redress, and remedy these.


[1] Parijs & Vanderborght, Basic income. A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy (1st edn, Harvard University Press 2017). [2] Julie Matthaei, An Economic History of Women in America (Harvester Press, 1982). [3] Donna Coker, ‘Addressing Domestic Violence Through a Strategy of Economic Rights’ [2003] 24 WOMEN’S RTS. L. REP. 187, 188. [4] Gough M, Killewald A, ‘Unemployment in families: the case of housework’ [2011] J Marriage Fam 73 1085. [5] O’Reilly J, Nazio T, Roche JM, ‘Compromising conventions: attitudes of dissonance and indifference towards full-time maternal employment in Denmark, Spain, Poland and the UK’ [2014] Work Employ Soc 28 168.