From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Finance Commission
Mains level : Paper 2- Freebies issue
Concern over ‘freebies’ in Indian politics has recently been expressed by those in the highest offices in the country.
Issue of irrational freebies
- Challenge in defining freebies: There is often confusion on what constitutes ‘freebies’, with a number of services that the Government provides to meet its constitutional obligations towards citizens also being clubbed in this category.
- Distortion of electoral process: A Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India recently heard a public interest litigation in which the petitioner argued against the promise of ‘irrational freebies’ by claiming that these distort the electoral process.
- The bench asked the Central government to take a stand on the need to control the announcement of ‘freebies’ by political parties during election campaigns.
- The Court also suggested that the Finance Commission could be involved to look into the matter and propose solutions.
- The basic argument is that these are a waste of resources and place a burden on already stressed fiscal resources.
- Discussions on ‘freebies’ not only include the free distribution of what may be considered ‘club goods’ such as televisions but also welfare schemes such as free or subsidised rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and work provided through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Can we term foodgrain distribution under PDS as freebies?
- It ensures food security: Subsidised foodgrains distributed under the PDS not only contribute to ensuring basic food security but also act as an implicit income transfer allowing the poor to afford commodities that they otherwise could not.
- Price support for farmers: Further, the PDS also plays an important role in our country where public procurement at minimum support prices (MSPs) is one of the main instruments of support to farmers.
- The PDS allows foodgrains to be available for cheap for consumers while assuring remunerative prices to farmers.
- Food security during emergency: The PMGKAY is probably what kept many away from the brink of starvation during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
- From around the mid-2000s, the PDS increasingly became a political issue, with State governments expanding coverage and reducing prices.
- This ultimately led to the National Food Security Act being passed by Parliament unanimously in 2013.
- Despite its shortcomings, it cannot be denied that the PMGKAY and the support that it provided during the pandemic would have been impossible had it not been for the NFSA which expanded the coverage of the PDS to about two thirds of the population.
- In its absence, a much smaller number of people would have had ration cards with high errors in identification.
Other welfare schemes
- At a time when there are few employment opportunities, working under MGNREGA can guarantee some assured wages; if implemented in the true spirit of the legislation this is also demand-based and, therefore, responds to as much need as there is.
- Similarly, mid-day meals in schools have been proven to contribute to increased enrolment and retention in schools and addressing classroom hunger.
- A number of other schemes such as old age, single women and disabled pensions, community kitchens in urban areas, free uniforms and textbooks for children in government schools, and free health-care services play a critical role in providing social security and access to basic entitlements in our country.
- Building public pressure towards making welfare delivery an electoral issue is the need of the hour.
- It is important to recognise that most welfare schemes contribute to improving human development outcomes, which also results in higher economic growth in future.
- As suggested by the Supreme Court, the Finance Commission could be tasked with formulating the criterion to come up with the criterion for freebies.
- Sometimes, this process throws up initiatives that seem ‘wasteful’ — while these must be discussed, one cannot deny them completely.
There are a number of lacunae in these programmes which call for expansion in coverage, allocation of greater resources, along with putting in place mechanisms for greater accountability and grievance redress.