Sriram Karri | Let’s end freebies. Evolve a ‘smart welfare’ consensus

A restaurant named Freebie was established with great fanfare at the end of the galaxy. It had a wide menu, delectable cuisine and great service; and, above all, was its billing policy – you eat, and your grandchild pays the bill. It took off with great gusto, patrons loving everything about it. No matter how much you consume, you pay nothing – they were told.

The restaurant closed within a day when customers, no matter how much they consumed, received bills at checkout time, far higher than what they could have possibly had to pay. Reason: these were the bills of their grandparents.

There is no such thing as a freebie. It only means a service someone else has to pay for. In India, like in most other countries, that person who must eventually pay is the taxpayer; or, if it is a more vicious a charade, a hidden tax called forced inflation, then it is, again, all of us.

Most people who game the system want to pay less and get more; and hope that a silent majority will end up paying for most of it, without complaining, or better, without even realising it. The Freebie restaurant model is of course the driving engine of every government in the world, and the philosophy is revered as a welfare state, development model, socialism, or rob Paul to pay Peter model.

A mythical moral champion of it, a kind of modern day father of all nations on earth, is Robin Hood, the fabled British rogue, who looted the rich to feed the poor. Every government and economic model is a variation on how smartly it can project the good it is doing for the poor, giving them things they need or want but cannot afford, (in exchange for that paltry useless vote once in a while), and in turn, bring to power many people, who can get away enjoying a lot, without having to pay anything at all.

A reasonable fair consensus must be that everyone must agree on a smart, sustainable and fair welfare schema, which will ensure the poor and downtrodden have a minimum viable and dignified life, with a shot of a hope to better their lives. No one should get what they absolutely don’t need, or have a cheaper alternative for, and no one, should ever, get anything free if they can otherwise afford it.

Thus, the definition of a freebie depends as much on potential beneficiary as the scheme, its positive long-term impact, or short-term necessity in crucial terms, and the negative cost a society or country would have to bear if it does not offer welfare.

Ending Freebies for the Undeserving

Anyone who is comfortable in life and gets anything from the government free of cost or at a subsidy is enjoying a freebie. Like bungalows for politicians. Why should a Chief Minister, a minister, an MP or an MLA have a bungalow instead of, say, a flat in a skyscraper? Imagine the disinvestment if we sold most of Lutyens Delhi and moved all ministers, MPs, diplomats, and officials to a few blocks of apartments and used the money to remove the loans of all farmers?

It is more vicious because the beneficiaries sign the policy themselves, while we are helplessly forced to pay and watch. Why should they have convoys of cars? Why should they get free power connections or telephone bills?

Ditto officials. All-India Services, especially the IAS, is a big freebie. Bungalows, cars, travel, foreign travel, higher education abroad, educational tours, everything is a freebie. End them, and make them pay. Why should retired officers of judiciary or IAS get free land from the government to build a house? It is a freebie. Make them pay or take them back. Why should a retired officer get a servant or a secretary or a driver for a lifetime? It is a freebie; stop them. Why should they move on toll-gate roads without paying a toll? It is a freebie. Make them pay.

Why must nonprofits be allowed free land, or buildings, or tax benefits? Or government funds. If they are serving people well, let them raise voluntary donations. End all public funding to NGOs. That is a terrible freebie.

In short, no taxpayer or anyone earning more than, say, Rs 75,000 a month, should ever get a freebie.

Wastage versus Welfare

An investment into the primary education and primary health of people, all people, except the very rich who don’t need it, is good welfare. Build the best schools, hire good teachers, feed the children at government schools and ensure every Indian of the future is educated to a good school-level competency.

After that, the gamut of free or subsidised higher education in a freebie. A government can mimic a parent, a poor one, here. A parent would go out of the way to give education to a child, but stops at that school level, post which the students must be enabled to take low interest loans and pay for themselves.

All healthcare — vaccines, basic health check-ups, and life threatening surgeries — must be provided for; many good schemes exist in the country but a lot more needs to be done.

A national goal of housing and subsidised food for the poor is a must, too. The PDS can never be termed a freebie and a decent home for the poor must be our collective mission.

Free electricity, free water, free or heavily subsidised LPG or cooking gas are not welfare schemes, people must, beyond a basic minimum block, be made to pay.

A single subsidised cylinder per month, and subsidised power for the first 200 odd units must be the maximum permissible welfare expenditure a government or a party must be allowed.

Free laptops, free mobile phones, free TVs, free cycles or motorcycles, free clothes, free travel, free education abroad are all irresponsible and unsustainable freebies that have no place.

These put fiscal pressures on government budgets, which then become a route to forced inflationary hidden-taxes.

Ad hoc cash awards to sportspersons, artists and other social achievers, except those in the military or the police, who have served valiantly or laid down their lives, is a freebie. Making movies tax-free on discretion is a freebie. Free land for business to come and invest is a freebie.

Smaller Government

Citizens of India are told to live a life where they are reconciled that they cannot have what they cannot afford, except a big government.

We cannot have world-class roads or universities but our bureaucrats and politicians have a world-class lifestyle. And in their standards of life, we are better off than even the western world, where judges drive their own cars and PMs and ministers take a ride on metro trains.

If it is a freebie, it must immediately go.

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