02 September 2022 14:52:30 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

Freebies walk a thin line between welfare and wasteful

Supreme court of India building in New Delhi, India. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The freebies debate has been making headlines, especially after the Supreme Court decided to set up an expert committee to take a closer look at the issue and referred the matter to a three-judge bench. 

It all started with a public interest litigation by an advocate who sought a ban on freebies by political parties in the run-up to elections. Initially, the Supreme Court veered towards setting up an expert panel to look into the issue, but once political parties, chiefly led by the DMK, AAP, and later the YSR Congress, started submitting “intervention applications,” the apex court wisely forwarded it to a three-judge bench. 

The political parties’ chief objection was that not all “all promises cannot be equated with freebies as they relate to welfare schemes or measures for the public good”. 

The Supreme Court in its initial observations even went to the extent of saying that an unfettered run on freebies may even leave State governments with little or no money to provide essential public goods like health and education — but these fears seem a tad exaggerated. 

That this issue is mired in politics is hardly surprising. In fact the clarion call for it was given by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi while inaugurating an expressway in Uttar Pradesh last month where he decried the growing ‘revdi culture’ in the country and warned of an impending fiscal disaster. 

Almost on cue, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal hit back by saying the provision of free education and healthcare could hardly be termed as freebies. It’s quite significant how this issue has come to the fore at a time when both the BJP and the Opposition parties are girding up for a string of Assembly elections lined up for the next 12-15 months. 

Defining a freebie 

But the fundamental question is how does one distinguish between a freebie and a welfare measure? Both can be defined as provision of some goods and services to the people either free or at the very least at subsidised costs. Legally entitled goods and services like supply of foodgrains or public health could be clubbed under welfare measures. 

But that does not make a “freebie” necessarily undesirable or wasteful from the point of view of the beneficiaries or even the political class that is providing it. There are also instances where something that was initially termed as a “freebie” went on to become an important welfare measure as the political and economic contexts changed.

A classic example is the mid-day meal scheme in schools. When the Tamil Nadu government under Chief Minister MG Ramachandran started this scheme in the early 1980s, it was met with all-around scorn. But just two decades later this scheme was scaled up across the nation and became an important part of the national level nutrition policy. 

So it’s not just hard but almost impossible to separate a “freebie” from a welfare measure. There are scores of freebies —provision of free colour TVs, grinders, mixers, laptops, bicycles for girls — that may, at first sight, seem like a wasteful indulgence but may end up conferring important welfare benefits for the beneficiaries.

Grinders and mixers may seem wasteful but may free up women from regular household work, giving them more time to participate in formal wage work. The free provision of bicycles to rural girl children in Bihar led to higher enrollment and reduced dropouts of girl students, so the welfare benefits of this scheme are quite obvious. 

But this is an issue where the economists tend to take a fiscally conservative stand and tend to view all freebies or even welfare measures with suspicion. As Prof TT Rammohan of IIM Ahmedabad in a recent column said politicians tend to have a better understanding of people’s needs as they are in constant touch with their electorate. 

Supreme Court’s involvement

Another viewpoint that seems to be gathering steam is whether the Supreme Court should even be getting into this debate. Given these are issues in the political realm, the efficacy of welfare measures and freebies is something for the electorate to decide and not the judiciary. 

The Supreme Court too is aware as one of the questions put to the three-judge panel is whether the apex court can even pass an enforceable order. In an electoral democracy, it is ultimately the people’s will that must be privileged, and the political class which is in a better position to sense the pulse of the electorate should be calling the shots. 

It is argued that the People’s Representation Act and the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM Act) are sufficient checks on the political class. It is often blithely assumed that the people at the bottom of the pyramid — who most often than not are the beneficiaries of these measures — are not in a position to judge and are often lured by the promises made by the political class. 

The more charitable version of this view is that the poor, due to their trying economic and social circumstances, are often forced to take a short-term view of things missing out on the long-term implications of these measures. But in a country riven with huge income and social inequalities, this should hardly be held against the poor, especially given the Indian state’s (both at the Central and State level) abysmal record in delivering public goods and services. 

Shifting focus

Instead of the freebie issue, the Supreme Court should perhaps be more worried about the humongous expenses of conducting the Indian elections. Candidates contesting elections, especially at the State-level, are often picked by their parties based on how deep their pockets are and how much they are willing to spend on their campaigns. 

The Indian electoral system slowly but inexorably seems to be pricing out an entire class of people from participating in it other than as voters. It would be worth the Supreme Court’s while to look into this pressing issue. Nevertheless, it would be interesting, and politically significant, to see what the Supreme Court’s last word would be on the freebie issue.