It all started in Ashwini Kumar Upadhyaya v. Union of India where the Apex Court recommended the formation of an expert panel for evaluating the scenario of freebies. In this suit’s aftermath, a debate sparked in the country as to the rationale behind Freebies and their controversial implementation. It further faced criticism on grounds that it burdens the already- tanked financial conditions of the state, sparking a debate where equally cogent arguments in its favour also stood at loggerheads.
With the debate further shifting over the Legal aspects of the freebies, it becomes pertinent to understand and deal with this conundrum at hand along with the void of legal provisions to keep a check on this rising new trend.
Freebies from a Statistical and Legal Perspective:
According to the UNDP Index, India continues to house most of the world’s poor. The nation continues to have the greatest proportion of destitute individuals and children in the whole globe. The figures provide a case for ‘free services’ and this leads to the Government introducing these services for the underprivileged.
What is a luxury for one segment of society may be a need for another. Freebies go from being want-based to being need-based in states with a higher percentage of the population living in poverty. It is necessary to provide the people with these subsidies for their uplift in areas with relatively lower levels of development. However, free services come at a cost – the public exchequer and the majority of Indian states frequently have extremely few resources in terms of income and poor financial health. The economy was not in a good state even before the pandemic and during the pandemic itself, the Indian Economy went further down the tube.
Further, the Reserve Bank of India pointed out that based on the Debt-Gross State Domestic Product Ratio (2020-21), Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala, West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have the highest debt burden, accounting for around half of the total expenditure by all state governments in India. It’s fascinating to consider that several debt-laden states covered by the research have historically prioritized social welfare programmes. In order to preserve the internal fiscal balance, the government overcharges industrial and commercial contracts as a result of lowering prices for consumers and beneficiaries.
From a Legal standpoint, freebies include a wide variety of amenities that the state subsidizes as part of its constitutional obligations such as the Directive Principles of State Policy, the Public Distribution System (PDS), National Food Security Mission, and more. However, there is no existing legislation which provides an upper cap to the amount of freebies promised and delivered by the states. The political parties in India, after observing the loophole, try to give Voters assurances of freebies once elected to power. This practice has acquired greater traction in recent years as political parties have been more creative in their offerings, as observed in Manifestos.
Also, there has been an exchange of arguments over the definition of the ‘Freebies’ as well. One such attempt was seen in a Court case where Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who was representing the petitioner, provided the following description of what does not qualify as a freebie:
1. Freebies are not a constitutional obligation.
2. Freebies are not for the entire population but only for a section of people
3. They do not have a direct link to public purpose
4. They are not for crisis or emergency
However, the bench remarked, “Free houses and bicycles in rural areas have changed the lives of many people. It makes a lot of difference for people there. So is this a freebie or given for the upliftment of people?”. Hence, the lack of what is and should be a Freebie causes ambiguity. In a recent example, the ECI declined to monitor the practice of offering gifts during political
campaigns, leaving a gap in the law that the law cannot fill.
Unchecked populism among the impoverished class, due to a lack of laws, often creates prejudice in the minds of voters by offering and distributing ‘irrational freebies’ during election campaigns. However, the court remarked that this idea shouldn’t be placed in a delicate area. “Free houses and bicycles in rural areas have changed the lives of many people. It makes a lot of difference for people there. So is this a freebie or given for the upliftment of people?” the court questioned.
Election manifesto laws are also nonexistent and even a set of rules may compel political groups to turn their moral obligations into legal obligations. When candidates are forced under law to keep their promises or risk penalties, a rigorous rule might alter their worldview. Ultimately, the current void puts an undue risk on the democratic process as even if they fail to deliver freebies, no legislation would there is no legislation that would allow them to deal with that. The legal system does not offer a means for anybody to file a lawsuit in a court of law for breach of such promises.
International Perspective Regarding Manifestos
The Central Election Management Board (EMB) in the United States oversees the clause about the platforms of the political parties. The platform for a given election is developed by the central committee of the political party following its charter and bylaws. Bhutan, surprisingly, has the Election Commission remove any language from manifestos that aims to win votes based on a candidate’s adherence to a certain religion, area, national identity, ethnicity, or king. Additionally, it assesses the reliability and completeness of the party’s manifesto, which contains the growth-oriented policies and objectives that the finalised future
administration must put into practice.
The Way Ahead
If such programmes target specific populations, there should not be a problem offering free medical treatment or schooling to the underprivileged. The issue right now is how little fiscal room different governments have and if they can have some guidelines to regulate them. Additionally, the concept would vanish as the political demographic’s standards rise, which is a result of rising literacy, socioeconomic wealth, and political awareness.
Regulation of unreasonable giveaways and ensuring that voters are not persuaded by irrational promises require agreement and deliberation in the Parliament. The voting class must maintain constant attention to accomplish all of this. Governments and states should be able to design assistance programmes for the poor, but they must have a sound justification for increasing spending on necessities backed by legal sanctions in case of non-compliance.