What are Freebies?
The most popular freebie announcements in Indian electoral campaigns, to mention a few, have been: free electricity and free water (with an upper limit) in Delhi by the AAP; free sarees, pressure cookers, television sets, and washing machines in Tamil Nadu by the AIADMK; and free oil, ghee and ration in Uttar Pradesh by the SP. Not restricted to material objects – waived-off loans, direct cash transfers, and rations can also count as freebies for campaigning purposes. For example, the PM KISAN Yojana, aims to provide minimum income support of up to Rs. 6,000 to farmers across the country, irrespective of the size of their land holdings, and can be considered a freebie.
What makes the ‘freebie culture’ debatable?
Predictably, there are ethical, political, and economic concerns regarding the promises and distribution of freebies. Electoral promises of freebies tend to sway voters in an unfair manner and may reduce the democratic nature of the election. Freebies are comparable to political parties bribing voters with future rewards to be given out from public funds. Freebies are a shortcut for parties to win elections – instead of preparing public policies for economic development that will enable citizens to afford goods and services for themselves, the parties promise to simply hand over the goods and services to the citizens.
While handouts in welfare schemes are intended to safeguard the interests of economically vulnerable sections of society who cannot afford essential life services, freebies for all, irrespective of need, are a waste of the state’s limited resources. Furthermore, giving freebies comes at a huge cost to economic stability. Excessive fiscal deficit, which is the difference between government expenditure and government revenue, can throw the economy into a debt cycle and cause inflation. Although money in the economy is passing through many hands, the size of the economic pie (Gross Domestic Product) is not increasing. The taxpayers' money is being returned to them, albeit with redistribution. If the hand-out comprises cash or consumer goods that do not lead to any increase in production, there will be an increase in aggregate demand, but no change in aggregate supply. Depending on the fiscal deficit, and excess of demand over supply, there is a chance of inflation. On the other hand, universal free access to essential goods and services should not be conflated with freebies. Free access to a minimum amount of water and electricity, free schooling, and healthcare, among other such services, constitute humane living conditions that should be provided by the government as safeguards for the vulnerable. For Instance, the Mid-Day Meal scheme that provides students a freshly cooked lunch in government and government-aided schools to combat malnutrition as well as poor attendance levels in school-going children.
Further, providing essential goods and services for disaster relief makes more ethical use than short-term canvassing for voters. The relevance of freebies depends upon the nature and context of the goods being offered. The public should be sensitive in demanding the right kind of freebies. Lastly, these freebies should not be seen as alternatives to welfare schemes that boost the economy as a whole.
Let us take a look at a case wherein the intentions announced by the political parties can fail to be delivered because of the simplistic way in which handouts are dealt with.
During the April 2021 election campaigns, political parties offered monthly allowances to the women heads of each family in the state of Tamil Nadu. While the intention of announcing this allowance was to empower women through financial support, social equations reduced this scheme to a mere election gimmick that is indifferent to the current social situation. First, in announcing allowances for all women, intersectionality is ignored, women from lower socio-economic classes are in much more need of monthly stipends in comparison to women from better-off socioeconomic classes who have access to financial resources. Second, in patriarchal households, women may be usurped of their allowance by male members. Another social distinction that can make a lot of difference is literacy and awareness. The benefits of this allowance will only be available to women who are able to first, draw out, second, control the expenditure of this handout. Most importantly, making women dependent on the state for subsistence instead of offering means for self-empowerment seems to do the opposite of making them self-sufficient. It would be more beneficial if the allowance was invested in income-generating activities led by women. For example, micro-credit lending and borrowing amongst self-help groups for women as seen in the Grameen Bank.
The debate regarding freebies should be cautious of categorizing all kinds of disbursements or handouts under the same category. The usefulness of a handout should be measured with reference to its specific demand and overall social impact, not generalised. While investments in human resource development (such as healthcare and education) or other productive investments in employment generation are beneficial, indiscriminate handouts of both essential and non-essential items to appease voters must be discouraged.
(Written by Lavanya Goswami and Edited by Anoushka Gehani)