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Freebies not restricted to polls alone, Parliament should discuss it: Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday put the ball in the court of Parliament regarding the issue related to announcement of freebies by various political parties and said the complex issue needed a thorough discussion, as it was important to differentiate between freebies and welfare schemes.

A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana made the observations, while hearing a petition seeking de-registration of political parties, which announce and distribute freebies during elections.

The CJI said this was a very complex issue, which was not related to elections only, but had far-reaching consequences.

The Bench observed that all political parties were on one side in this matter as they all wanted freebies to continue. The question is, the court does have the power to issue orders, but tomorrow, someone may come to the court and say that a certain scheme was beneficial, then what will the court do?, it asked.

“In such a situation, a debate will arise on why should the judiciary intervene? The governments should discuss this and as far as the question of formation of an expert committee is concerned, you give your opinion on it,” CJI Ramana told Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, seeking his opinion on the matter.

As per the Apex Court, “We are not going to give any additional powers to the Election Commission to ban freebies, but this matter needs discussion.

“Suppose the Centre makes a law, which says the states cannot distribute freebies or cannot give amenities free of cost, can we then also say that such a law is not open to judicial scrutiny?

“We are listening to this issue for the welfare of the country, not for any other reason,” said the CJI-led Bench.

Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that when the government does not have money and it spends a big amount on winning the elections.

“Is this right? Due to this, the economy becomes weak. This is a serious issue,” he added.

Appearing for one of the petitioners, Senior Advocate Vikas Singh said that if freebies were announced, there will be a situation like Sri Lanka.

“From where will the money for the free schemes come from? It is the voter’s right to know. The tax payers should know that this money is going from his pocket only. In the election manifesto, it has to be told from where the money will come,” he added.

The CJI asked how the EC can say whether to make this announcement or that one?

Singh said this was a serious issue, which can have disastrous economic consequences. This was a legal problem.
He said everyone wanted power, so they announce freebies. This will make the country’s economy go bankrupt.

Referring to the Balaji Judgement, Singh said that political parties were saying that these free announcements were for social welfare, but the way revaris were being distributed in the name of freebies, this was not public welfare.

Vijay Hansaria, Counsel for one of the petitioners – Vijay Sardana, suggested that a committee of experts from the Finance Commission, NITI Aayog, should look into the issue.

The CJI said that intellectualism was not related to just one person or one party.

Interrupting P Wilson, the lawyer representing the DMK, the CJI said, “We can say a lot. The party you are representing, we have a lot to say about it. Don’t think you are the only wise one. We are just ignoring you. We will consider everyone’s suggestion at a comprehensive level.

“This is a very complex matter, but you confined it to election promises. Other issues are also important. Some benefits are indeed given in the name of welfare schemes,” he added.

The CJI further said, “Some people were concerned about the welfare schemes and economy of the country. We believe that the Parliament should look into this. This is the reason why I had talked about forming a committee in the beginning.”

The Supreme Court then instructed the petitioner, the Election Commission and the Centre, to come up with suggestions, so that the Court could issue an order, directing the creation of such a body.

The Apex Court said that a debate was needed on the freebies issue.

Coming down heavily on the Election Commission, the Apex Court asked EC, suppose a political party makes specific promise, such as giving vacation to voters to places like Bangkok and Singapore for free if they win, does the EC not have the authority to control these statements?

“How can the Election Commission claim that it cannot control it? Once the election code (Model Code of Conduct) is in effect, everything is under the EC’s control,” it added.

The Supreme Court also noted that the definition of freebies cannot be a ‘watertight compartment’.

“Look at the low-income homes managed by Housing Boards. Some states provide cycles, allowing underprivileged children to enhance their academic performance, providing equipment to toddy tappers and helping fishermen, all of which are welfare state activities. Hence, whether a promise qualifies as a welfare measure or a freebie, needs to be decided,” it added.

Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing the Aam Aadmi Party, said that there was no need for a committee, this issue should be looked into by Parliament.

The hearing will continue tomorrow.

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