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'The sooner we junk the rhetoric of freebies, the better'

September 01, 2022 08:54 IST
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'Welfare schemes are not a necessary evil, they are a necessary good.'

IMAGE: Women commuters in New Delhi show their pink tickets. Photograph: PTI Photo

Free electricity. Free bus ride. Free laptops. Free cycles. Free wet grinders. Free table fans. Free ration. Free gas cylinders. Free houses...

Which of these are freebies and which of these are welfare schemes?

According to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, what they give are for the welfare of the people and what the states ruled by opposing parties give are freebies.

The Opposition questions this argument.

How do you differentiate between freebies and welfare schemes?

"If there is one thing that has proved its worth across the world, in rich and poor countries, whether they are capitalist or Communist or something else, it is public support for education, healthcare and social security," Professor Jean Dreze -- the well known economist, social scientist, activist -- tells's Shobha Warrier.


The debate on freebies started with the prime minister calling it the 'revadi culture' which was a threat to the development of a nation.
The Supreme Court declared that the "promise of irrational freebies is a serious issue." Is it really a threat to the development of the nation?

The debate on freebies, such as it is, actually has a long history, going back to 2013 if not earlier.

This year, it began in January with a writ petition being filed in the Supreme Court by a BJP activist who has a rich record of filing eccentric petitions.

In fact, the Supreme Court had warned him four years ago that he would be banned if he filed 'one more improper petition'.

But the warning fell on deaf ears, and this time he is asking for political parties making irresponsible electoral promises to be derecognised.

This is not a serious petition, it is just another attack on Opposition parties by the BJP.

Nothing happened to this petition until the Prime Minister made that revadi speech on 16 July, and then -- voila, the Supreme Court hearings began within a few days.

Initially, the judges resisted judicial intervention in this matter, rightly so since it has already been adequately dealt with by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But on 26 August they agreed to reopen the entire issue.

So the real threat is not to the development of the nation, but to democracy.

And it does not come from freebies, but from attempts to undermine Opposition parties.

The BJP questions the free bus ride offered to women by states like Tamil Nadu, Delhi, etc as freebie to win votes. So also, free electricity given to farmers. Do you think so?

The BJP itself has offered free or at least subsidised gas cylinders to women and sought votes from this, free bus rides are not very different.

Both can be justified in my view, not least as a way of helping women to take up paid employment.

You may or may not agree, but this is a matter that should be left to democratic politics.

Nobody denies that electoral promises can go overboard from time to time, the question is whether the Supreme Court or the Election Commission should intervene and regulate electoral promises in some fashion.

I think that would be very dangerous.

It is only by extracting promises at election time that the poor get anything in this country.

Privileged groups have all sorts of extra-electoral means of consolidating their privileges.

For instance, it is not by dint of their vote that Supreme Court judges are able to secure astronomical perks, it is because they occupy a position of power.

Electoral freebies are just one sort of freebie, we should not pay selective attention to them.

Even if you feel that some regulation of electoral promises is needed, this is a matter for Parliament to decide, not the Supreme Court.

Indeed, that was the view taken by the judges themselves before the odd change of course that took place on 26 August.

IMAGE: People can be seen carrying their ration kits on their heads in New Delhi. Photograph: ANi Photo

The Tamil Nadu finance minister, a state that is famous for offering freebies of all kinds during the elections asked the central government, 'We are huge net contributors to the Union exchequer. On what basis should I change my policy for you.;
When a state that gives freebies performs well, can you say freebie culture affects development?

I don't think it would be fair to see freebies as a defining feature of Tamil Nadu's experience.

Tamil Nadu has a long history of public policies and popular movements rooted in ideas of social justice, self-respect and universal rights to basic services.

It has been a pioneer of many social security schemes including school meals, old-age pensions, maternity benefits, community canteens, child care services and the public distribution system.

Tamil Nadu also made a radical move towards free and universal education soon after independence, when mass protests led by Periyar and others forced the Rajagopalachari government to withdraw its retrograde education policies.

These are the sorts of initiatives that have made a big difference.

Electoral promises of free goodies like colour televisions or mixies are a relatively recent development.

Not all of them may be wise, but they fit in a larger pattern of state politics where disadvantaged groups actually have a voice.

That's what is badly missing in most other states, more than freebies per se.

But the question that baffles all is, how do you differentiate between freebies and welfare schemes? Where do you draw the line?

The first step is to get the question right. The term freebie is best avoided, because it is mainly a propaganda term that has been used in the business media to attack welfare schemes, and is now being recycled for political purposes.

It would be better to talk about subsidies. That would also help us to remember that the main recipients of subsidies in India are not poor people but privileged groups.

Then the question is, how do we distinguish useful from wasteful subsidies?

That's a serious question, because there are many subsidies of both types in India.

Some are certainly hard to justify. For instance, the corporate sector often benefits from dubious subsidies in the form of tax concessions, debt write-offs, padded contracts, protectionist measures, cheap mining leases and the so-called production-linked incentive scheme.

The perks enjoyed by some public-sector employees, including judges, could also do with some scrutiny.

Useful subsidies are those that can be justified on distributional, social, environmental or other grounds.

An informed debate on subsidies would not be a bad thing at all, but again, it has to take place through democratic forums, and not confined to the Supreme Court or expert committees.

Do you think it will take a long time for a country like India where majority of the voters still live below the World Bank's description of poverty line, to be free of welfare schemes? Or, is it a necessary evil?

Welfare schemes are not a necessary evil, they are a necessary good.

If there is one thing that has proved its worth across the world, in rich and poor countries, whether they are capitalist or Communist or something else, it is public support for education, healthcare and social security.

These are essential foundations of the quality of life, and we cannot rely on market institutions to provide them.

Far from becoming unnecessary as a country gets richer, these services can be seen as a marker of development.

The rhetoric of freebies obscures this simple fact -- the sooner we junk it, the better.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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