Tashi Phuntsok* questions the lack of discussion of the serious problem of unemployment in the exiled Tibetan community in South Asia and discusses the issue in the context of India’s ongoing new attempts to overcome the problem of poverty.
A great debate has once again begun about the state of Indian economy and possible solutions to the country’s economic problems with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections drawing closer. The performance of the Indian economy is a matter of great concern not just for the people of India but across the world. I feel that Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, officially called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the exiled Tibetan community in India should also be equally interested in these debates for the various reasons that I would like to dwell upon here.
On January 28, 2019, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi once again stirred up debate about Universal Basic Income (UBI)[i]. This was immediately followed by the Centre’s announcement of a revised upwards economic growth rate to 7.2 per cent for 2017-18, accompanied with 6.1 per cent unemployment rate.[ii] This unemployment rate is the highest since 1972-73. This state of high growth and low employment, also called “jobless growth” in economic terms, means that the rich reap the benefit of the economic growth while the poor are getting worse-off, coupled with increasing unemployment.
On 26th March, Rahul Gandhi finally announced an Indian version of UBI as NAYA, or the Nyuntam Aaay Yojana (Minimum Income Plan), to overcome the problem of poverty in the country.
The state of economic activity in the exiled Tibetan community also falls in a similar zone. On the surface, the Tibetan community is doing good overall; but once we go deeper, especially on the economic front, vis-a-vis unemployment, inequality, migration, poverty, etc., the picture isn’t very good. Besides, there is bound to be a definite impact of the Indian economy and its performance on the Tibetan community also. Indicators such as unemployment, poverty, migration, livelihood, etc., are greatly dependent on how the Indian economy performs. Given this kind of relationship, let’s look at the recent developments and debate with respect to the solutions proposed by the Congress party i.e. the implementation of UBI.
Let us first look at the state of the Tibetan community’s economic conditions at a glance. The Integrated Development Plan (IDP) IV (2010) prepared by the Dharamshala-based Tibetan Planning Commission, states that “about one fifth of Tibetans living in the South Asia swings between subsistence and poverty”. This would constitute roughly around 22% of the Tibetan exiled population according to latest 2009 census. According to Suresh Tendulkar estimation (2009), 21.9% of the Indian population lives below the poverty line. From this we can infer that the problem of poverty faced by both the India and Tibetan communities is similar. So could the solution to the problem also be the same?
The current state of the economy in the Tibetan community could be attributed to many factors such as failure in the agriculture sector, followed by the Handicraft sector. The Winter Sweater Selling (WSS) business, which is the backbone of Tibetan community’s livelihood, is also not on a sound foundation. The 2017 Report, “A Microfinance Success Story of Tibetan Refugees in India”, very well states the role WSS business plays and the problem associated with it. The report states that ‘almost 45% of the approximately over 120,000 Tibetan Refugees’ are involved in this business and it is highly dependent on three factors: weather, availability of land in respective states where they go for winter business and availability of short-term loan. In addition, the nature of this business is informal, of a very short duration (around 3-4 months) and non-permanent. Because of these reasons, it is observed that a majority of Tibetan sweater sellers do not want their children to continue in this business nor are the youngsters of today, with better education, interested in it. These factors are only making livelihood difficult within the Tibetan settlements, thereby leading to two major problems, as stated in Tibetan Demographic Survey (TDS) 2009 (a census, conducted every 10 years, the first being in 1998 and third expected to be conducted in 2020).
According to the TDS of 2009, of the total working age population of 69 per cent (75,841) of the Tibetan population in South Asia, the idle population is around 53 per cent (58,254), which brings down work participation to 30% and dependency ration to 41 per cent (though better than TDS 1998). This will have a serious impact on the unemployment and economic condition. Secondly, 75 per cent of the exile population has migrated, (domestic and international) of which 52% has permanently changed their residence for education and economic opportunities. This indicates the Tibetans’ dependency for livelihood on places outside their settlements. It follows that increasing integration will have implication on the community from the performance of Indian economy.
CTA, among various initiatives, started the Tibetan Entrepreneurial Development (TED)[iii] in 2013, Integrated Settlement Development Plan (SDP)[iv] in 2016 and established a Non-banking Financial Company (NFBC)[v] in 2018[vi], which began to provide several loan products such as Winter Sweater Sellers Loans[vii], Tibetan Summer Business Loan[viii], Trinket Loan, Caravan Loan and Commercial Vehicle Loan[ix]. These initiatives are expected to solve a part of the livelihood problem. However, it is too early to see if these have had any major impact or whether the upcoming 2020 census will give a better understanding about the state and the progress of Tibetan community in exile.
Coming back to the Indian economy, two important questions arise when compared with the Tibetan community. Can the UBI also solve the problems within the Tibetan community , i.e. combating poverty and unemployment? Why no buzz is created by the Tibetan media or the civil society about the staggering unemployment rate in the Tibetan community?
UBI aims to uplift the poor and underprivileged population of a country by granting direct cash. It had its origin in the West, and was till most recently practiced in Finland but discontinued. The discussion on implementation of UBI is also recent in India. The Indian Ministry of Finance’s 2016–17 Economic Survey headed by noted economist Arvind Subramanian had suggested providing Rs. 7,620 ($120) per person per year to those in India’s bottom 75% of income distribution, which would amount to 4.9% of the GDP. The NAYA scheme proposes a minimum of Rs. 72,000 annually to eligible poor families, covering about 20 per cent of the population that earns less than Rs. 12,000 a month.[x] This “scheme will cost the exchequer Rs 3.6 lakh crore a year, making it the second-biggest expenditure head after the payment of interest on government debt.”
Can a similar solution be thought of for the Tibetan community and, if the CTA were to implement this, what would be the financial burden? If the CTA were to go by the Subramanian provision of UBI, then Rs 7,620 per person to 22% of the population would come to about 8% of the CTA’s budget expenditure for 2018-19[xi]. And, if it were to go by Rahul Gandhi’s version of UBI then the financial burden would be much higher.
Therefore, can the CTA think of providing UBI to overcome the problem of poverty in the Tibetan Community? Or can foreign aid bear this burden keeping in mind the CTA’s increasing budget every year? Since the CTA’s internal revenue generation is very limited (around 20% of budget), especially after the privatization policy of 2001, the increase in the budget can only be attributed to foreign aid. Therefore, the possibility of internally generating the expense for UBI, if implemented, is out of question; but looking at the rate at which aid is inflowing, a possibility exists. This possibility of providing aid for UBI, however, is directly dependent on the objective of the donor(s). This is not a simple area to dwell on. Therefore, I leave it here to be speculated upon.
The second important debate that has cropped up is the “jobless growth” debate with an unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent in India. The size of unemployment has not been this high for the last four decades. The important question is whether there is a connection between the Indian economic growth and the unemployment rate in the Tibetan community. Should CTA be concerned with India’s jobless growth? Has there been any debate in the exiled community over this high rate of unemployment and initiatives taken by CTA to overcome this problem?
The Tibetan community will not benefit from the current Indian economic growth, as economic integration of the Tibetan community is limited to only a section of the population. To further explain it, the sweater selling business, the dominant base for livelihood of the Tibetan people, only cater to lower-middle class of Indian population, who are not the actual section of population reaping the benefits of economic growth. However, the impact of high unemployment in India will affect the Tibetan community, where internal migration is very high.
Why has the problem of unemployment not been discussed nor given much importance in the Tibetan exiled community? Have other issues dominated the debate? The last TDS 2009 records “over 17 per cent of the total workforce population as unemployed and underemployed”, which is around three times more than the one experienced in India. And this is also confirmed with 75 per cent of the exile population being migrating or floating in nature, as mentioned before.
That economic growth is not the only indicator of wellbeing of any society or a nation is a proposition well regarded with increasing interest in economic development post the Second World War. And “jobless growth” only makes matters worse. Similarly, wellbeing should not be measured by the sheer size of aid or increasing yearly budget of the CTA. People’s livelihood, unemployment, migration, etc., are of immense importance not only for the survival of the Tibetan exiled community in South Asia, but also for sustaining the political goal, which is the dominant discourse in the exile community.
* Tashi Phuntsok, a PhD candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Vidyasagar College, Calcutta University
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[ii] Source from the leaked data of National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has recently, The Telegraph (13th March), has also come up with a very similar figure.
[x] The Telegraph, Calcutta, 26th March 2019