In India, the trend of garnering votes by doling out freebies is on the rise.
It all began in Tamil Nadu when the chief minister, K.Kamraj provided free education and free food to needy students. In order to counter the appeal of these schemes, Annadurai, founder of DMK, promised almost free rice to voters. Though he implemented the scheme, he had to scrap it due to financial burden on the state. It was to prove a minor glitch, as in the subsequent years, different political parties, short of promising the moon, doled out various freebies such as free rice, TV sets, laptops, free gas stoves, maternity assistance, farm loan waivers, power bill waivers, cash doles etc. and went on winning election after election. A direct corollary of this was that various political parties across the nation adopted it as a surefire way to woo voters.
In the 2010’s, a prominent political promised and after the elections were won, distributed free laptops. The latest entrant to the electoral fray, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promised free water, power, medical care, Wi-Fi etc. and won the 2013 and 2015 elections. For winning in Feb 2020, it went a step further and promised all-expenses paid pilgrimages to the elderly and free rides for all women on city buses and metro; and duly registered a thumping win.
In the recent elections in both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the voters were showered with free incentives such as free cash dole to Brahmin priests, Krishak Bandhu for farmers, Kanyashree for girls etc. besides other goodies. The Central Government provided free gas connections. All this leads to public good but as the saying goes “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” But it is worth pondering whether such free distribution leads to actual public good?
In fact, such declarations on the eve of elections are certainly unethical as here, public funds are used to appeal for votes. Just as Congress won the elections riding on schemes like MGNREGA and loan waiver for farmers. The honourable Supreme Court took the initiative to put a stop to such doling of freebies on the eve of elections. Recently, the Madras High Court its strong displeasure on the way freebies were being offered by political parties rather than promising improving affordable healthcare and education, agriculture, infrastructure etc., the hallmark of good governance.
Fundamentally, “cash for votes” on the eve of elections and “free gifts for votes” after the election is one and the same, and it imposes a huge cost on the society as a whole as the culture of doling out freebies makes people lazy, makes them shirk hard work and erodes the incentive to contribute productively to the society. As someone has to ultimately pay for these freebies, it imposes a penalty on the creators of social income and wealth.
The apologists for freebies say that it is a unique form of social welfare but if it were so, we would not be hearing of poor education and health facilities, lack of electricity, crumbling infrastructure, starvation deaths, farmer suicides etc. Freebies have very limited and short lived political, economic and social impact because they are aimed at targeted group or community and meant only swing and manipulate voters.
Now, the larger question that begs an answer is whether such dole is proper once the elections are done and over with? According to Prof. Reetika Khera of IIT, Delhi, government services are of three types. In the first category are public services such as highways, railways or foreign policy which can be only provided by the government and must be provided by it only. The second category has facilities that a person can attain on his own but if these are provided to him, it benefits the society as a whole. For example, vaccinating a person will help in the fight against Covid pandemic. Though vaccination is a personal facility, it is called the good or merit facility. The third category of facilities profits a particular person only such as providing of free power, till a fixed limit, in Delhi. Such distribution does not have a positive effect on the society so the government must avoid it. Rather than providing this direct benefit, the public must be enabled so that it can buy this facility from the market itself.
Now, how to differentiate between merit and personal facility? This can be made clear by comparing two schemes. The Central Government transfers Rs. 6,000 to farmers’ accounts under PM-KISAN scheme while on the other hand, the Delhi government provides free water and power. Both the schemes are free but the difference between them is that the cash transfer to farmers provides an incentive for them for agriculture and strengthens food security of the country whereas distribution of free power does not provide any such benefit. So the cash transfer to farmers must be counted under merit facility and free power under personal facility. This does not mean that the former is the best, which would have been if they would have been provided subsidies for groundwater recharging, not burning stubble, reduction in usage of chemical fertilizers etc. This would have increased their incomes, besides benefitting the society.
The Central Government should do a rethink on other welfare schemes. Presently, people are being trained in suitable skills under Gramin Kaushal Yojana and Deendayal Antyodaya Kaushal Yojana, LED bulbs are being distributed under Unnat Jeevan Yojana and pregnant women are being given cash amounts under Matritva Vandana Yojana.Such schemes should be maintained as they are but the Centre is also giving a number of free facilities as well, such as bank accounts are being opened under Jan Dhan Yojana, almost free food grains are being given to the BPL families under Antyodaya Anna Yojana, pension is being provided under Atal Pension Yojana and subsidies on insurance are being given under Aayushman Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Bima Suraksha Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Yojana.
No good social benefit of these schemes is apparent; on the contrary, these create the risk of leakage due to administrative corruption as doling of freebies inevitably leads to corrupt practices because middlemen, those invisible lever-movers of in the Indian administrative machinery, get into the act.
It would be better if the cash amounts under these schemes is directly transferred to the accounts of the beneficiaries which would not only put a stop to administrative expenditure and corruption but also accrue actual benefit to the account-holders. Another benefit would be that the public would use the amount as per their need and discretion.
Presently, the citizens of the country have become far more aware and conscious in comparison to say, 10-20 years earlier. People in even deep interiors do not hesitate in spending on sending their children to English medium schools.It’s high time to let go of the notion that only the government machinery can fulfill the aspirations of the public.
The government needs to trust the public and provide them cash amounts directly rather than entangling it in the quagmire of all these schemes. The opponents of such distribution say that, if at all, monies are to be distributed to all the citizens, then it will also be given to those who are well-off and wealthy, but this doesn’t hold water. Suppose, if any wealthy citizen is given Rs. 6,000 just like a farmer, they can be collected back from him as extra tax. The benefit would be that poor won’t be labelled as poor and the country would be freed of machinations of officialdom.
The other aspect of welfare expenditure is the financial capability of the government whose prerogative is to decide whether to provide pensions or to build roads. When it provides free facilities to the public, its capability to provide quality healthcare and education and build infrastructure is diminished. It cannot invest in new technology. Diversion of scarce revenue and resources for narrow political gains is not desirable and cannot be justified as it has an adverse impact on the economic development of the country and as a result, the lives of the poor become difficult and miserable, Venezuela being a live example. Providing free facilities to its citizens smashed its once prosperous economy which is in doldrums today. It is high time that all political parties must have a relook and do away with the culture of doling out freebies for winning elections. Rather, new technology must be invested in and direct cash must be transferred to citizens.