Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it the “Revadi Culture” a month ago. The Supreme Court said freebies could potentially ruin an economy and asked political parties to respond. The Election Commission shrugged its shoulders. And now, the government has proposed a mega committee of experts to examine the matter.
Some wise person once said, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” So, one can only imagine what sort of recommendations such a committee would come up with, though solicitor general Tushar Mehta is quite sure that this was the appropriate solution to tackle a problem that has persisted since civilization dawned on savages.
Can the committee really crack it?
Everything has a price is how the wise ones often put it. However, the government believes that a committee comprising central and state finance secretaries, representatives of political parties, the RBI, finance commission, the Niti Aayog and some industry bodies can do the trick to frame rules around the freebie culture that includes everything from food to TVs and laptops.
Modi used ‘revadi’, a popular sweet distributed during festivals in the northern parts of India, as a metaphor for such election promises. Whereas, the thinking behind every decision and policy should be accelerated development of India’s economy, such a culture of freebies could only harm and negatively impact the growth, he added.
The government thinks so
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the central government said the expert committee should include beneficiary representatives as well as those opposing freebies. The government counsel argued that freebie distribution has become an electoral weapon to lure voters and is seen as a welfare measure, which is completely unscientific leading to economic disaster.
Chief Justice N V Ramanna was of the view that freebies break financial discipline which is not the same as bringing up welfare schemes for the underprivileged. He said he was reluctant to intervene on issues that fell into the lawmaker’s domain but freebies presented a serious issue that makes for an intervention.
However, the chief justice said the apex court had been cautious in dealing with the issue but refused to accept the view of the Aam Aadmi Party that it cannot actually examine it. “The question is now to what extent we can interfere or go into the issue…what will be the effect on the public and economy. We cannot just say that there should be directions,” he said.
But the real issue lies elsewhere
Which brings us to the real issue around here. How does one define freebies so that it does not mean the same as subsidies? Is there a difference though? The answer is a resounding yes as one relates to spending government money on distributing free stuff in an untargeted manner while the other goes about it with clearly defined outcomes.
Be it farm subsidies or those for power, the fact remains that there’s a certain upper limit for them and beyond that the receiver should get themselves cut off. Remember the experiment with the LPG subsidies? Of course, it must also be clarified that power subsidies aren’t the root cause for DISCOM losses, it’s the way these companies are structured, but that’s the topic of another story at another time.
Coming back to the issue of an expert committee attempting to find a way around freebies, the country may be better served if the discussions around it happens in legislatures which then vote to either create self-regulation or empower the central government to bring up the laws. Drastic challenges require drastic measures. And this is one.