Food Security and Universal Basic Income: Priorities of the Moment?

If it takes 50 years for an idea to gain acceptance, there comes a time for implementation, and that time is now

By Sada Reddi

As we inch towards easing of the lockdown, the country faces numerous challenges in all walks of life, and as it is to be expected in such situations, an array of solutions and measures are being thought out and debated by the general public. This is a salutary exercise in a democratic country. For in a mature democracy, many of these ideas would have been publicly debated and some taken on board and implemented.

Nonetheless, we can but applaud the decisive role played by the population, its frontliners and public opinion in implementing the lockdown, even though much more still needs to be done for our collective security. While waiting for a detailed and final plan for the gradual lifting of the lockdown to be made public, even if it has to be modified as we go along, the present crisis affords us with a unique opportunity to rethink our society and implement a number of measures which in the past have either received scant attention or treated with callous indifference. There are so many interesting ideas being ventilated in all sectors by people from all walks of life — from the ordinary citizen to the expert, and some of them will, at least out of necessity, require consideration for their implementation. Out of this constellation of ideas, two seem to me to demand the utmost attention: food security and universal basic income.

“We have had to wait for Covid-19 to appreciate the contribution of everyone in the health sector – from doctors, nurses to cleaners, and for that matter, every worker in the country. Yet for years the health system has been allowed to deteriorate in the interests of the private sector and the grievances of the personnel had fallen on deaf ears. Even patients had to suffer for the failure to allocate adequate resources to the Health sector with the result that very often the frontliners are blamed both for quality of care and that of some of the medicines imported…”


At the moment there is no shortage of ideas to confront the problems facing the country in every aspect sector of our lives ranging from indebtedness to economic stagnation and unemployment. For example, in education it may not be possible for some time to resume classes without putting the health of students, teachers and their families at risk. We can only push for more online learning at different levels of our education system and see if we can reduce classroom contact hours to the necessary minimum. Other measures may include reducing the weightage of examinations in favour of more continuous assessment, which may be made to replace first semester examinations, moving School and Higher School Certificate examinations permanently to May and June which will allow students to move to higher classes or university in August and September.

We have had to wait for Covid-19 to appreciate the contribution of everyone in the health sector – from doctors, nurses to cleaners, and for that matter, every worker in the country. Yet for years the health system has been allowed to deteriorate in the interests of the private sector and the grievances of the personnel had fallen on deaf ears. Even patients had to suffer for the failure to allocate adequate resources to the Health sector with the result that very often the frontliners are blamed both for quality of care and that of some of the medicines imported. Only one month back, in a dispensary, a relative of mine was asked to discard the aspirin he had been given previously to be replaced with a new brand, which confirms the poor quality of some of the drugs. But whatever be the new measures and reforms that are implemented, they should result following consultations with all stakeholders, for any decision implemented from above will only backfire.

As for food security, the time has come for a strong political will to put it in on the agenda not for cosmetic reasons but because it has become clear to the population during the present crisis how food shortage has been a major problem for the population. Shortage of vegetables, exorbitant prices, problems of distribution, speculation and hoarding are all the results of food scarcity. Such a situation has disastrous consequences for the health of the population especially among the poor, and even if we can import food, what we need at present is a sustainable solution. There is no dearth of ideas and suggestions regarding this crucial issue emanating from so many people — from small planters’ organizations, trade unions, politicians, civic organizations and other experts in the field. If it is true that it takes 50 years for an idea to gain acceptance, there comes a time for implementation, and that time is now.

Another important idea that requires urgent consideration is Universal Basic Income. Paul Berenger has referred to it in his press conference. This is not a new idea; it has been debated down the years and won the support of a number of world economists, among whom a number of Nobel Prize winners. There are several reasons why trade unionists, politicians and economists should debate the issue and strive for its implementation. In Mauritius, a large segment of the population, i.e. the senior citizens, is already covered by old aged pension scheme; workers in the formal sector are obtaining a minimum wage, but there are also those in the labour force who do not receive any form of assistance: those operating in the informal sector. In a first phase, the Universal Basic Income should be extended to them and to the unemployed and at later stage extended to the whole population. We already have a number of social security measures that can be streamlined towards Universal Basic Income.

This is imperative as we are going to face high unemployment as more people lose jobs due to and in the wake of the present crisis; ultimately more jobs will be lost with the advent of Artificial Intelligence as well as for other reasons. A Universal Basic Income will attenuate the predicament of the unemployed and the poor, reduce inequality, and serve to redistribute wealth so that economic development does not take place for the benefit of just the few.

It will also bring about a new perspective on education and work. We have far too long made education and employment a question of fear. Those who do not get some education are condemned to scarcity, unemployment, underpaid jobs, precarious living and insecurity throughout life. Now this radical measure is a direct and effective way to combat poverty and give employment and education new meanings.

In this time of crisis, how many of our citizens have not faced the grim prospects of unemployment and insecurity? While others can relax, live well and not worry about unemployment, many of our citizens live in fear of an uncertain tomorrow. Why can’t these benefits enjoyed by the few be extended to the whole country? At a time when we are thinking about what kind of society we want to live in and bequeath to our grandchildren, we can build a fairer society built on trust and mutual aid instead of fear and insecurity.

Over so many decades we have been able to maintain a Welfare State against all odds; we can go further and implement Universal Basic Income before we lose the battle due to unemployment. It is for economists and the experts to provide the country with a blueprint and to tell us whether the simple idea of Universal Basic Income is practical and implementable in our context.


* Published in print edition on 8 May 2020

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