CHENNAI: It is a truism that government hand-outs are not really free and that someone somewhere is paying for them in one way or another. But it is important to address the debate on freebies by recognising at least three truths. First, not everything that is handed out without charge is necessarily bad. Free education and free or highly subsidised healthcare, for example, are arguably the responsibility of any caring welfare state. Second, there are freebies and freebies — some targeted schemes may cause an immediate loss to the exchequer, but may add revenue and boost productivity in the long run, while others are simply wasteful. And thirdly, there is a limit to the culture of freebies — the State cannot simply afford to abandon all fiscal responsibility by handing out money and goods without any sense of moderation.
The current controversy over freebies owes to the BJP’s apprehensions about AAP in Gujarat, where the latter has been promising to hand out money and free electricity to households. The ruling party is clearly concerned that the spree of such promises could affect its electoral performance. In more than one recent speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cautioned against freebie culture, claiming that while some parties are using them to win votes, the BJP is focussed on building infrastructure. In response, parties such as the DMK and the SP have argued that many so-called freebies are welfare measures — which indeed they are.
Most famous among them arguably is the midday meal scheme in Tamil Nadu, which was popularised and institutionalised by the late MGR, when he was Chief Minister. The promise of a protein-rich diet was not only a factor in attracting children to schools but also played a role in improving health indices. At the same time, Tamil Nadu has also been infamous in handing out material such as mixies and election seasons have been marked by one party offering cash while the other counters this by promising washing machines. There is a case for believing it has reached levels where such promises are merely attempts to bribe voters.
The Supreme Court is now seized by a petition that seeks to check the practice of offering irrational freebies, arguing that hugely debt-ridden states cannot afford to do so every five years, at election time. The Court has suggested the setting up of a wide-ranging experts committee to study whether a balance can be struck between welfare and fiscal health. The probable lack of a consensus is one problem staring at the committee. The arguably bigger challenge is to clearly demarcate welcome welfare measures from wasteful freebies, a line that is blurred when it comes to such measures.
In the long run, it is only an electorate that will see through the ploys and machinations of politicians that can prevent the spread of freebie culture. Political parties will fall in line when they realise that votes cannot be bought and that their promises of free handouts fail to strike a chord with people. A mature electorate is the best insurance against the proliferation of freebies.