Friday, June 9, 2023

Poll freebies: PIL in Supreme Court says freebies mock concept of free and fair election

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A PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a declaration that promise of irrational freebies from public funds before election unduly influences voters, disturbs level playing field, shakes roots of free-fair election and vitiates the purity of the election process.

The petition has been filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay through Ashwani Kumar Dubey. The petition said that promise/distribution of private goods/ service, which are not for public purposes, from public funds before election, violates Articles 14, 162, 266(3) and 282 of the Constitution.

The petition further said the promise / distribution of irrational freebies from the public fund before election to lure voters is analogous to bribery and undue influence under Section 171B and Section 171C of the IPC.

In this petition, the petitioner sought a direction to the ECI to insert an additional condition: “political party shall not promise/distribute irrational freebies from the public fund before election” in Paras 6A, 6B and 6C of the Election Symbols Order 1968; and, seize election symbol / deregister the political party which promise / distribute irrational freebies from public fund. In alternative, the Court may direct the Centre to enact a law to regulate political parties.

The facts constituting cause of action accrued on December 9, 2021 and on the subsequent days, when rather than promising better rule of law, equal pay for equal work, clean water, equal quality education, quality healthcare, quality infrastructure, speedy justice, free legal aid, citizen charter, judicial charter, efficient police system, effective administrative system; political parties arbitrarily promised irrational freebies from public fund.

The petitioner submitted the Aam Aadmi Party promised Rs 1000 per month to every woman aged 18 and above and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) promised Rs 2000 to each woman to lure them. Thereafter, the Congress not only promised Rs 2000 per month and 8 gas cylinders per year to every house wife but also promised a Scooty to every college going girl, Rs 20,000 after passing 12th class, Rs 15,000 after passing 10th class, Rs  10,000 after passing 8th class and Rs 5000 after passing 5th.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress promised a smartphone to every girl studying in Class 12, a Scooty to every girl pursuing graduation, free public transport for women, eight free gas cylinders per year to every housewife, free medical treatment up to Rs 10 lakh per family. The Samajwadi Party announced 300-unit free electricity to every family and Rs 1500 pension per month to every woman as well as financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh to the people who lost their lives in accidents while riding a cycle. Notably, the Cycle is its election symbol.

Another party promised jobs for one daughter and one son in each family and Rs 5 lakh to unemployed graduates. Some political parties promised free washing machines, housing for all, solar cooker, education loan waiver, government jobs, free cable service, Rs 7500 to every farmer per year, Rs. 1500 to housewives and 2GB data to all students.

The petitioner further said that bribery and undue influence was defined in 1920 and the then lawmakers wouldn’t have imagined that future politicians will stoop to such low levels and that’s why there is an exemption for public policies and public action under Sections 171B and 171C.

The petitioner further submitted that the fulcrum of democracy is the electoral process. If the integrity of the electoral process is compromised then the notion of representation becomes vacuous. Distribution of money and promise of freebies has reached alarming levels with elections being countermanded several times. In this scenario, the danger to the system of parliamentary democracy and Indian republic cannot be gained. Therefore, petitioner requests the Court to analyze whether States are really concerned about governance or do they cynically participate in the evisceration of democratic electoral and political process, which is a moot point.

The Petitioner also submitted that arbitrary promises of irrational freebies violate the ECI’s mandate for free and fair elections and distributing private goods-services, which are not for public purposes, from public funds, clearly violate Articles 162, 266(3) and 282 of the Constitution.

The Petitioner next submitted that apart from vitiating free and fair elections, arbitrary and irrational freebie distribution brazenly offends Article 14 of the Constitution as there is no reasonable classification of the people. The right to equality requires the State must make a reasonable classification and must have a nexus with the object but political parties are not adhering to this basic tenet of the Constitution.

The petition further said the injury to the citizens is extremely large because Punjab needs Rs 12,000 crore per month to fulfill the political promises if AAP comes in power; Rs 25,000 crore per month if SAD comes in power and Rs 30,000 crore if Congress comes in power, though GST collection is Rs 1400 crore only.

In fact, after debt repayment, Punjab Government is not able to pay even salaries-pensions, then how will it provide freebies? The bitter truth is that Punjab’s debt is increasing every subsequent year. State’s outstanding debt has increased to Rs 77,000 crore, with Rs 30,000 crore accumulating in the present financial year itself. With the State having a population of 2.7 million, per capita public debt is Rs 96,000. State’s debt to GSDP ratio is much above the prescribed limit of 30% and is the highest in the country. Punjab needs to focus on crime and rule of law but no political party is speaking on this matter. There was an increase of 10% in cases of murder from 679 in 2019 to 757 in 2020. State also saw an increase in suicide cases from 25 in 2019 to 35 in 2020.

Similarly, in 2020, 4838 cases of crimes against women and 502 cases of rape were registered. The healthcare situation is also poor.

Punjab had the second highest proportion of households (18.5%) that reported “catastrophic” healthcare expenditure, after Kerala, according to latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data. Patients from Punjab travel to neighboring States seeking medical care. Average expenditure per overnight trip for health purposes was the highest in Punjab among all States and Union territories — at Rs 31,512. Punjab’s average was about double the India average of Rs 15,336, according to a 2016 NSSO report. Up to 70% of mothers in Punjab do not receive full antenatal care according to NFHS.

The petition stated that, in Uttar Pradesh, according to the State Planning Institute (Economics and Statistics Division), public debt will increase around 8% from Rs 5.65 trillion in 2020-21 to Rs 6.11 trillion in 2021-22. Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) was likely to shrink 5.9% in 2020-2021. A scrutiny of revised data released for 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 also indicates that the economy grew less than 5% in the past 5 years.

According to the National Sample Survey 2020, UP is fifth last with literacy rate at 73%, less than the national average of 77.7%. The literacy rate among men is 81.8% and among women is 63.4% but political parties are not speaking on this important issue. According to the Rural Health Statistics (2019-20), as of July 1, 2020, UP has a huge shortfall in health facilities as per mid-year population in rural areas – in urban areas, the shortfall in PHCs is 45%. The health infrastructure is insufficient in urban areas to meet the requirement of city population and the rural areas the Community Health Centers are virtually lacking in respect of life-saving gadgets. In most of the districts, the Level-3 hospital facilities are not there. However, rather than speaking on this important issue, political parties are promising freebies to lure the voters.

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