Can’t couch all freebies as welfare schemes: Supreme Court

Updated on Aug 12, 2022 05:22 AM IST

A bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana asserted that a distinction between welfare measures and freebies should be drawn when tax payers keep questioning governments over lack of basic amenities such as good roads and electricity, even as freebies are doled out as poll promises.

 (Shrikant Singh)
(Shrikant Singh)
By, New Delhi

Stating that all freebies cannot be couched as welfare schemes, the Supreme Court on Thursday observed that “some financial discipline” must be there to tackle the “serious issue” of hand-outs as electoral promises, adding that a debate should be initiated to assess its impact on the economy of a state and tax payers.

A bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana asserted that a distinction between welfare measures and freebies should be drawn when tax payers keep questioning governments over lack of basic amenities such as good roads and electricity, even as freebies are doled out as poll promises.

While stating that it would not entertain pleas to deregister parties offering freebies, the bench expressed its concern on an issue that has become the latest bone of contention between the Union government and the states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly spoken of the malaise of freebies in recent weeks, and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Tamil Nadu finance minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan have weighed in on it from the other side. The plea in the apex court itself was filed by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member.

“The impact is very much. The economy getting ruined on the one hand and people getting benefits from the welfare schemes, on the other...both have to be balanced...It’s a very serious issue. There are people who are supporting such measures saying it’s a welfare state. People who are paying taxes complain why their money is not spent on roads and electricity. This is a serious issue and it has to be discussed,” remarked the bench, which also included Justice Krishna Murari.

CJI Ramana, on his part, commented that as a “conventional” judge, he has usually refrained from entering an area where the government needs to legislate, but that he decided to take up the issue of freebies owing to its serious impact and the debate that has commenced among public and in the media over them.

“Welfare schemes are different, giving freebies is different...Some financial discipline has to be there. We can see some other country having problems because of similar things,” added justice Ramana, referring to the financial turmoil in neighbouring Sri Lanka which has been going through a crisis that some attribute to the culture of freebies.

Clarifying that the court cannot legislate nor can it direct the Parliament to frame a specific law, the bench added that while it would not “go by emotions” and “commit blunders”, it is certain that there are issues about freebies that warrant an extensive debate. “We should not go by emotions but we feel there are issues. People keep asking what is this government doing? Why are roads like this? All this needs debate,” it said.

At this juncture, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has filed an application to oppose the judicial proceedings on freebies, submitted that the issue is beyond judicially manageable standards and therefore, the top court must leave it to the wisdom of the elected governments and the voters to decide.

Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing AAP, argued: “No doubt, the issues are important. But every issue that is important cannot be susceptible to judicially manageable standards. The court should not even embark on a journey to set up a committee which will not lead anywhere.”

But the submission failed to cut ice with the bench. “Don’t you agree there has to be a distinction between freebies and welfare measures? We are being very cautious. But you cannot say ‘don’t examine the issue at all’. That can’t be...Ultimately in this country, its effect on the public and on the economy requires some debate. We cannot say ‘don’t do this’,” it told Singhvi.

At this point, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, intervened to call it unfortunate that some parties equate freebies with welfare measures.

“This understanding is completely unscientific and will lead to an economic disaster...Distribution of freebies is elevated to the level of an art by some parties recently. Elections are fought only on this plank,” said Mehta, imploring the bench to issue some ‘Dos and Don’ts’ for political parties in the larger national interest.

To this, senior counsel Vikas Singh, appearing for the petitioner in the case, wondered if the government, which can itself frame a law to regulate freebies, is instead asking the court to issue guidelines. He suggested that the Representation of People Act should be amended to insert provisions regarding freebies and a party violating them should be deregistered.

Appearing for the Election Commission of India (ECI), senior advocate Maninder Singh also pointed out that the poll body has in the past recommended deregistration of political parties for breaching certain procedure.

The bench, however, made it clear that it will not entertain any plea regarding deregistration of political parties. “That is an anti-democratic thing. We won’t entertain that,” it said.

Mulling over the possibility of having a committee of experts and representatives of political parties to discuss the issue, the bench said it would hear all the parties in detail on August 17 to decide the future course of action.

During the hearing, the bench also pulled up ECI for not submitting its affidavit in the court although the details were out in the media. The court is hearing a petition by lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, who has sought directions for issuance of stringent guidelines to deregister errant political parties and seize their election symbols for offering “irrational freebies” ahead of polls.

Through its affidavit on Wednesday, ECI said that it welcomes the constitution of an expert panel for deliberation on ways to regulate hand-outs, but would rather stay away as a participant due to its role as an arbiter of political disputes.

The statutory body also highlighted its limitations in the light of the top court’s 2013 judgment in the case of S Subramaniam Balaji vs Government of Tamil Nadu & Ors. ECI pointed out that the Supreme Court had in the 2013 judgment declined to interfere in schemes under which gold, TVs, laptops, mixers-grinders, electric fans, milch animals and goats were promised on the grounds that their distribution was directly related to directive principles of state policy.

Before the bench, ECI has taken a position that the poll body cannot regulate distribution of freebies and that it is for the voters to decide whether they should elect leaders even if such hand-outs could harm the economic health of a state.

While considering Upadhyay’s petition on August 3, the court remarked that no political party wants freebies to go, even as the Union government termed such hand-outs the “road to an economic disaster” and urged ECI to devise ways to deal with them. The Centre conveyed its stand to the court days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit out at the culture of freebies (calling it the ‘revadi’ culture) while speaking at an event in Uttar Pradesh on July 16.

On that day, the court also indicated that it may consider setting up a panel which can go into the issue “dispassionately” and make recommendations to the Centre and ECI, as it sought suggestions from all parties by August 11.

On August 8, AAP moved the court seeking to be heard. In its plea, the party opposed Upadhyay’s petition arguing that electoral promises such as free water, free electricity or free public transport are not “freebies” but examples of discharging “constitutional responsibilities of the State” towards creating a more equitable society.

To be sure, AAP is the only political party that has sought to intervene in the matter after the Centre sought curbs on electoral promises on freebies.

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