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Freebies: The row over handouts and welfare schemes in India

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By Zoya Mateen

BBC News, Delhi

Girls on way to High School Desari fom Garahi village in Vaishali district in Bihar on the bicycles provided under the cycle scheme of the state government. .Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

State governments in Bihar and West Bengal have distributed free cycles to female students

Do Indian politicians give away too many freebies?

That’s a debate that has been going on for weeks now. It started after Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned voters of a “dangerous” trend of politicians trying to “buy the people” by distributing freebies. He called this “revdi culture” – likening it to the frivolous distribution of sweets.

Mr Modi’s opponents have argued that schemes to minimise inequalities cannot be construed as freebies – they call his statements a thinly-veiled attempt to delegitimise welfare policies in India’s states.

India’s Supreme Court has been hearing a petition on the matter – after a leader from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought action against political parties that promise or distribute “irrational freebies” from public funds.

Is there a good or bad freebie?

It’s hard to say because the term lacks a precise definition, but broadly speaking, it is a transfer of goods or services made to voters without any payment.

But while there is no consensus on the definition of the term, plenty has been said about what a “good” or a “bad” freebie is.

Some say the concept itself is pejorative – one that discourages voters from making well-informed decisions – while others criticise that very suggestion which, they argue, strips voters of their agency to choose for themselves.

Irrespective of the argument, freebies have been an indispensable feature of electoral politics in India since Independence in 1947.

Image source, Getty Images

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India’s Supreme Court has referred a petition on freebies to a three-judge bench

From cash transfers, health insurance and food to colour TVs, laptops, bicycles and gold; politicians have promised voters the world.

Last year, a politician in the southern state of Tamil Nadu promised a 100-day trip to the Moon and a gigantic iceberg to help people beat the heat during summers. He said that he made these promises to “create awareness” about tall promises made by politicians. (He lost the election.)

Are freebies the same as welfare plans?

There are no watertight categories differentiating a freebie from a welfare scheme.

Providing voters with incentives before or after voting is not illegal in India – every party, including Mr Modi’s BJP, does it.

Governments also provide welfare measures to citizens for their socio-economic upliftment.

The ruling BJP has offered free or subsidised housing, gas cylinders, toilets and sanitation facilities to people. Around the country, other parties do the same.

In Bihar state, the government provides cash incentives to girl students for completing school. In Tamil Nadu, the government runs canteens that provide subsidised meals to the public.

But which of these offerings are legitimate welfare measures and which are freebies?

Economists often distinguish between “merit” goods” – such as healthcare and education, where public benefit exceeds the individual benefit – and “non-merit” goods, to answer the question.

But such distinctions are not easy to decide.

Distributing bicycles – as some state government and political parties have done – may seem like an election stunt. But for millions of young girls living in India’s vast rural hinterland, where public transport is a huge problem, it could be a means of attending school or college.

Image source, Getty Images

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Mr Modi’s BJP-led government has provided free cooking gas connections to people

Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s promise to offer free electricity in the capital Delhi may not make much of a difference for the city’s middle-class. But for millions employed in the informal sector, it could be a life changer.

During the Supreme Court hearing, the then Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, also remarked: “A shaving kit for a barber, a bicycle for a student, equipment for a toddy tapper [people who collect coconut sap to make a fermented drink] or an iron for a washerman, can change their lifestyle and uplift them.”

Some have also pointed out that many crucial welfare schemes actually started out as so-called freebies.

For instance, a Tamil Nadu government scheme to provide free midday meals to children in government schools was expanded to other states and later, nationally, after it was found to improve enrolment and attendance.

Why are freebies controversial?

Well, mostly because they aren’t exactly “free” – someone’s paying for it, namely the taxpayer.

Opponents argue that such services, therefore, put a strain on the country’s finances and are detrimental to economic growth.

While hearing arguments in the case, Chief Justice Ramana said the court’s main concern was that largesse “dressed as freebies should not bleed the national economy dry”.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

India’s famous midday meal scheme started off as a “freebie”

In June, the Reserve Bank of India in a report had also linked the financial woes of some states to spending too much on freebies – like free electricity and water – saying it was necessary to distinguish them from “public/merit goods expenditure”.

But opposition leaders and some economists reject the contention.

They argue that social welfare schemes cannot be described as freebies as any such expenditure is part of the government’s basic responsibility towards its citizens.

In an editorial published in the Indian Express newspaper, economist Yamini Aiyar wrote: “The truth is that the prevalence of ‘freebie politics’ is really an indictment of our economic policy and the abject failure to build a welfare state that invests in human capital.”

Ms Aiyar argued that the government had failed to make sufficient investments in areas like health and education, resulting in deep inequalities. So, it has been providing a myriad of free services to compensate for that.

“This is not about voters being ‘bought out’ but voters placing democratic pressure on politics to respond to their needs,” she says. “It’s about a limited economic imagination and vulnerable livelihoods.”

Some see the recent debate as the government’s attempt to wrest control from states – as the constitution also allows state governments to manage their debt and fiscal policies with little interference from the federal government.

Some have also pointed out that it’s often subsidies given to the poor that are pejoratively called freebies, when even businesses get a helping hand from the government in the form of tax cuts and loan write-offs.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Women are often the focus of freebies and welfare schemes

Do freebies help in winning elections?

There is no doubt that freebies and handouts form an instant connection with voters.

But political parties routinely criticise each other for offering these just before elections. The AAP, for instance, was criticised for promising free electricity and water in Punjab and Uttarakhand ahead of state elections.

However, voters themselves see it differently. Some say it helps meet their basic needs, others consider it nonsense, and demand more structural changes.

Either way, there is no way of holding a party responsible for not fulfilling its election promises as manifestos are not legally enforceable. And it remains to be seen how the court resolves these ambiguities.

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