April 12, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the announcement of freebies by political parties during the elections is good for the public. We also look at how unemployed youth have taken to MNREGA jobs in Karnataka, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Election Freebies: Are they just about policy?
If gift-giving is an art, then Indian political parties should qualify for the Turner Prize. Over the years, candidates have dangled everything from jobs, electricity and cycles to whole robots programmed to ace household chores. While these carefully curated offerings might seem like an overindulgence to some, more often than not, they can make or break an aspirant’s political journey.
Earlier this year, a petition filed in the Supreme Court called for deregistering political parties that give out “irrational freebies”. The court then sent a notice to the Centre and the Election Commission of India (ECI) regarding these handouts, calling them a “serious issue”. But the ECI begs to differ. According to them, a freebie is nothing more than a policy decision. Thus, ultimately, it all comes down to the people.
Back in January, the Supreme Court sought a response from the ECI and the Centre regarding political handouts close to the polls, both before and after. It was triggered by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay’s petition that called for stringent actions against political parties that offer these freebies. According to him, they amount to blatant bribery of the public.
It is believed that the culture of giving handouts during polls was started by Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha. This year, 7 states were set to conduct their assembly elections. While 5 of them are done – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand – the other 2 will enter poll season by the end of the year. In those 5 states, though, the sweepstakes were definitely one to behold.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won big in Punjab, focused more on women and farmers. They offered ₹1,000 every month to all women and free electricity to the farmers. They even gave up the first 300 units of electricity for free to all households.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told UP that they would transfer ₹2,000 to farmers every month, $800 million to self-help groups that empower women and several other cash schemes. And then, in February, PM Modi spoke about the supremacy of law and order over the use of freebies in elections.
While Congress didn’t really do that well in any of the states till now, they too offered a 40% reservation for women in the polls. And to further push their women-friendly agenda, Congress even promised smartphones, electric scooters, free bus travel and a rise in women’s pensions.
The point is, everyone loves free stuff, and political players know that. So over the weekend, the ECI filed an affidavit in response to the Supreme Court’s notice, stating that the distribution of freebies falls under a political party’s policy decisions. Simply debarring them for expressing the same is totally out of its jurisdiction.
VIEW: Burdens and bribery
In the last assembly elections of Tamil Nadu, political candidates were throwing anything they could in the handout pot for a favourable voter response. This includes everything from TV sets and devices to free power and water. In fact, remember the housework robot we mentioned before? That came out of a candidate in Tamil Nadu who, later, didn’t even win. Political experts, economists and bureaucrats have all said that these handouts will ultimately hurt the sanctity of the electoral process.
Most politicians want us to believe that the freebies are just welfare schemes that go on to help the downtrodden in society. But if that were true, political scientists say that these schemes would have been offered throughout their tenure. Instead, most of these promises show up right before an election and are only carried out for a couple of months after the polls. If anything, it acts as a carrot dangling in front of the public to sway them in one party’s favour.
According to author and professor of economics at Jadavpur University, Swapnendu Banerjee, “The culture of offering freebies is a political disease, depriving the public exchequer to frequently spend on unnecessary items draining whatever little funds are there to utilise for development.” For example, let’s look at AAP in Punjab.
AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal said that all their offerings will be carried out without imposing any new taxes. But that’s a little hard to consider when you take into account the state’s existing debt burden of ₹2.82 lakh crores. The 300 units of free electricity itself are expected to increase their subsidy bill by ₹5,000 crores. And this by the most conservative of estimates. And the ₹1,000 to all women every month will add another burden of ₹15,600 crores on the State Exchequer.
Besides hurting the “level-playing field” that the ECI tries to keep afloat in Indian politics, these handouts can also effectively distort real welfare schemes. As economist Dr Kirit Bansal pointed out, “Free water schemes to farmers deplete groundwater resources across India as per surveys while messing up farm economies.” A lot of the freebies actually have lasting impacts on the nation while putting a bandaid on political gangrene.
COUNTERVIEW: A taste of what’s to come
Even after all the numbers, facts and figures, certain analysts believe that some of these poll promises and election freebies can actually turn into good policies. For example, the costly PM-Kisan scheme that was launched in 2019. The aim of the scheme is to reduce the debts of farmers by literally transferring money into struggling farmers’ bank accounts. Targeting around 120 million small and marginal farmers with less than 2 hectares of land, the scheme offers up ₹6,000 per year as minimum income support. If executed properly, economists say that it can actually reduce wasteful subsidies and actually help the economy.
And this isn’t even a one-off. In Tamil Nadu, the then CM J Jayalalitha launched the Amma Canteen scheme which has successfully provided nutritious and hygienic food to millions at throwaway prices. The scheme was first introduced as a populist welfare scheme in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) election manifesto. It soon turned into a policy that was even tweaked during the pandemic to make sure people don’t starve. This is what the ECI means when it says that the handouts are a part of a political party’s policy decisions. It should be up to the voter to decide whether they work or not.
For those talking about the frivolous freebies, like the TV sets and mixer grinder promises, senior journalist and author Sushila Ravindranath says that they’re not so bad. According to her, since all these items are acquired from the people, i.e. the domestic market, it can keep the whole economy “rolling”. While somebody who normally couldn’t afford a mixer gets a new gadget for free, the local sellers benefit from the added revenue.
These kinds of promises are not unique to India. Most developing nations can attest to the same level of handouts and poll promises that have become a part of the political culture. If anything, they are expected by the public. And because they are expected, over the years, the effectiveness of these freebies is dwindling. Considering that politics is a game of perception and contrary to what most daytime television writers might believe, the public is smarter than it seems.
As Sulakshana Shetty, a Chennai-based housewife, noted, “Politicians are greedy; they make all kinds of promises at election time and then forget about us later. They need to be taught a lesson.” This she said as she accepted every poll season gift and still voted for an independent candidate.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Election freebies are ultimately bad for the Indian public and must be regulated.
b) Election freebies can ultimately help the Indian public by resulting in good policy.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Dagger in the heart of liberty
For the Left:
The Indian connection behind Sri Lanka’s disastrous environmental ‘wokeness’
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
No change in BJP leadership (Himachal Pradesh) – The BJP will contest the state assembly polls under the leadership of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. Party Chief JP Nadda said the BJP government is doing well in the state, and there will be no change in leadership. He also said there’ll be no cabinet reshuffle. It comes as there was speculation that Union Minister Anurag Thakur will replace Jai Ram. Nadda helped kick off the party’s campaign for the assembly elections and the Shimla Municipal Corporation polls.
Why it matters: The state goes to the polls later this year. In the November bypoll, the BJP lost the Mandi Lok Sabha seat and three assembly constituencies. The party has been on shaky footing in the state since. In the wake of the result, Thakur has been on a mission to fight anti-incumbency by passing laws on property rights for slum dwellers, reducing power tariffs, and a pay hike for government employees.
Dependency on MNREGA (Karnataka) – For youngsters in the state, rather than relying on big-budget investments, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) has come to the rescue. As the pandemic set in, many lost their private-sector jobs and had to return to their hometowns in search of work. Due to higher demand from unemployed youngsters, the number of person-days in the state has increased from 80.58 million in 2017-18 to 160.28 million in 2021-22. The number of people who have resorted to the employment scheme has doubled over the past five years.
Why it matters: As of December 2021, the state’s unemployment rate was 1.44%, per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). As of June 2020, 42% of the workforce were employed in the public sector and 57% in the private sector. The unorganised sector was not accounted for. The economic slowdown led to job losses which added to urban distress. The MNREGA was the last resort for many as their salaries are paid in 7-15 days.
Interest in maize (Chhattisgarh) – Tribal farmers in the Bastar region have shown an interest in growing maize. During the Rabi season, maize production was encouraged as the area under cultivation has increased to 1.26 lakh hectares from 13,000 hectares in the past three years. For the Rabi year, 2021-22, till the end of March, the target of sowing maize was set for 1.46 lakh hectares. In the Bastar region specifically, in 2017-28, maize was sown over 10,000 hectares. In the current season, it increased to 78,000 hectares.
Why it matters: In 2020, it was announced that farmers would get an advance payment for the maize they sell to the Indian National Farmers Produce, Processing, and Retail Cooperative Association (NACOF). The state government gave the NACOF its approval to procure maize from farmers. About 40% of the state’s output comes from the Kondagaon, Kanker, and Bastar districts. The maize cultivated in Bastar is exported to the US, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.
Bullet train eco zone rift (Maharashtra) – The state and the Centre are at odds on how much area in Mumbai and Thane along the proposed bullet train route should be declared as eco-sensitive zones (ESZs). On one of the stretches, the train will pass through the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and the contiguous Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. The state’s right to levy mitigations costs is linked to how much area is notified as an ESZ. The state wants it to be 10 sq km since construction projects were sanctioned in the ESZ.
Why it matters: In 2019, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared construction in and around wildlife zones in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) with one condition – safe passages for wildlife across the railway line. If the Centre adopts the projects under the final ESZ notification rather than the deemed zones, wildlife mitigation measures will be affected. Initially, the state wanted 2% of the entire bullet train project cost. It was later revised as the route passes through protected areas and ESZs.
Artists and anti-dam movement (Arunachal Pradesh) – Last month, graphic artist Nilim Mahanta and human rights lawyer Ebo Mili were charged under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. They were detained as Mahanta painted the message ‘no more dams’ across the walls of the civil secretariat building. Earlier this month, a joint statement by 22 anti-dam groups said their movement will be a part of the state’s history as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Why it matters: The state has a long history of anti-dam movements. Activists say building dams displace indigenous people and destroy large ecosystems. One example is the Lower Dibang Valley project, India’s largest hydroelectric project. Despite several environmental concerns, it was cleared in 2015. It could destroy more than 4,500 hectares of forest area, home to the Idu Mishi community.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
20,277 MW – The peak power demand in Gujarat was the highest ever recorded for the state in a day. The per head power consumption in the state is 2,150 units as summer sets in.