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Culture of Freebies

Context

The Election Commission backed the Supreme Court’s decision to form an expert committee to look into regulatory measures governing poll freebies. However, it declined to participate in this panel.

Relevance

GS Paper – 2: Government Policies & Interventions

Mains Question

“Over the years, freebies have become an integral part of Indian politics.” While some initiatives, such as Public Distribution Schemes and MGNREGA, have become critical components of India’s growth strategy, freebies undermine the fundamental framework of macroeconomic stability.” Discuss. (250 Words)


Background

  • On August 3, the SC decided to form an expert body comprised of representatives from all stakeholders to examine freebies in depth and make recommendations.
    • The beneficiaries, those opposed to freebies, the central government, state governments, opposition parties, the finance commission, the RBI, Niti Aayog, and others were among the stakeholders mentioned by the Supreme Court.

2013 Supreme Court decision on the issue of freebies (S Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu)

  • The Supreme Court ruled that promises made by political parties and candidates in their manifestos could not be considered corrupt under the Representation of the People Act.
    • It also does not violate the principle of a level playing field (Article 14).
  • The Supreme Court had declined to intervene in the government’s schemes for providing goods at no cost.
    • The Supreme Court ruled that the distribution of such goods was directly related to state policy directive principles (DPSP).
  • It did, however, observe that freebies shake the foundation of free and fair elections to a large extent and directed the EC to develop guidelines for the same in consultation with all recognised parties.
    • In 2013, the EC was directed by the court to develop a model code of conduct (MCC).
  • The Election Commission welcomed the Supreme Court’s suggestion to form an expert panel to discuss the issue of freebies. However, the ECI stated that it cannot be a part of the body.

ECI’s justifications

  • The EC is a constitutionally mandated body.
  • As a result, it may not be appropriate for the Commission to be a member of the Expert Committee, especially if the expert body includes Ministries/Government Bodies.
  • May disrupt the level playing field
  • The EC stated that elections are ongoing in the country.
  • As a result, any opinion/point of view/comment made during deliberations in a multi-member body may amount to pre-deciding the issue and disrupting the level playing field.

ECI’s position on freebies: as stated in various affidavits submitted to the Supreme Court

  • No authority to regulate or act
    • The EC previously stated that it lacks the authority to regulate or prosecute parties that make such election promises.
    • Offering or distributing freebies before or after an election is a policy decision made by the party in question.
    • Whether such policies are financially viable or have a negative impact on the state’s economic health is a question that voters must consider and decide.
  • On using its authority to freeze election symbols and cancel the registration of parties that promise gifts
    • State and national parties were recognised and maintained based on a single criterion: electoral performance.
    • Invoking such powers by ECI may result in parties losing recognition even before their electoral performance is demonstrated.
  • There is no precise definition of freebies in the current legal/policy framework.
  • Freebies can be lifesavers in difficult times.
    • What is irrational or a freebie for one group of people may be rational and necessary for another.
    • The benefits of cross-subsidization and situation/sector-specific reliefs in addressing the various vulnerabilities of society’s segments cannot be overstated.
  • Political parties may modify the ban on freebies.
    • Political parties can make such promises knowing that they will be prohibited or negatively commented on by the regulatory authority.
    • This may provide them with more publicity and mileage than actual post-election implementation.

The Advantages of Freebies in India

  • Freebies include not only unsustainable pre-election promises, but also a variety of services that the government provides to citizens in order to meet its constitutional obligations (Directive Principles of State Policy), such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), Free Covid Vaccine, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
  • The ‘Mid-day Meal Scheme’ was introduced by Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister K. Kamaraj in 1956, and it was later adopted as a national programme a decade later.
  • The original avatar of the current National Food Security Programme is NT Rama Rao’s promise of rice at Rs. 2 per kg in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Rythu Bandhu of Telangana and Kalia of Odisha pioneered what is now known as Kisan Samman Nidhi.
  • Upliftment of the Lower Class: Because states with lower levels of development have a higher percentage of their population living in poverty, such freebies are more useful in these states for upliftment of the lower strata.

Freebies’ Negative Effects

  • Drain on Public Spending: Most of the time, freebies result in an excessive and unnecessary drain on public spending, as well as an economic burden on states, as most Indian states are in poor financial condition and have limited revenue resources.
  • Revdi (Freebies) for One, Disaster for Another: In order to maintain internal fiscal balance, the government overcharges industrial and commercial contracts. As a result, the competitiveness of growing industries is reduced, resulting in slower industrial growth and higher commercial prices.
  • As a result, the question is not how cheap the freebies are for the recipients, but how costly they are for the economy, life quality, and social cohesion in the long run.
  • Subsidies and freebies put pressure on government revenues, resulting in an increased fiscal deficit and increased interest payments.
  • Unregulated populism by offering and distributing ‘irrational freebies’ during election campaigns frequently create bias in the minds of voters, particularly the underprivileged class, who are easily swayed by freebies and impact informed decision making to choose their representative.
  • Temporary Nature: Freebies occasionally undergo negative transitions from universal to optional, then to a halfway house via surcharges; these promises are only valid until incumbents face fiscal constraints and are forced to withdraw benefits.
  • Freebies on Private Goods and Services: Freebies on Private Goods and Services do not result in a tangible social benefit.
  • For example, free electricity distribution does not provide any collective social benefits and thus can be considered Private Goods.

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