Suddenly the country is abuzz with freebies.The media resounding with high-minded denunciation of them.Experts,opinion makers,op-ed writers are homing in on them.The Supreme Court is shaking its head.Now a committee of taxpayers are to decide if parties can promise freebies before elections.That too at a time when prices of gas cylinders etc are hurtling through the roof.One question continues to nag the mind:What about the freebies the ruling party has already handed out?The opposition circles are however subdued.Perhaps they feel their hope of going one better than the government in offering freebies is getting dashed.Yet they too may end up demanding a level playing field on freebies.
But why all this pother now,when only a little while ago the government itself was handing out dollops of them to cheering crowds?To find an answer one has only to look at the collapsing economies on the country’s borders.The Covid,the oil crisis and the Ukraine war have put them under severe strain and ham-handed handling of the strain have built up pressures until they have nearly broken down.Their governments failed to respond appropriately to the crisis and their ineptitude aggravated it.Though our government is reluctant to admit it, its cavalier attitude to the economy seems to bring on dangerously similar consequences.Neo-liberal economies are difficult to turn around,as they depend on mysterious market forces while the state just monitors the ups and downs.The great virtue of business that can supposedly self-correct with rational analysis fails to work at this point.
But those whose eyes are not blinkered can perceive how the state in such an economy sleepwalks into a mire with unacknowledged interventions.The magic formula of ease of doing business leads to unacknowledged freebies to big business.Tax rebates to the tune of ten lakh crores of rupees in five years(as acknowledged in parliament on August 7)had not led to any noticeable spurt in investments.What is it if not freebies,though by another name?
But no.Freebies are what you hand out to the people,not what you gift the captains of big business.The same goes for the debt defaults on banks turned into NPAs,thrice as much in amount.What you mark down for curtailment and elimination are the doles to the cussed lazy and unproductive plebs.The SC had on earlier occasions refused to interfere with policies,but are freebies not also policies?Even in countries with blazing capitalist banners there are subsidies and ‘incentives’ and food stamps during grave economic crisis.Since wise heads have decided that our blessed country is immune to such crisis,it is therefore fair enough to let prices of essential goods soar and come down with a heavy hand on freebies.And hands off policies!
But when the freebies ARE ingredients of policies designed to protect people from starvation and want and alleviate poverty,is there any point in condemning them because they are not market-driven or not solely designed to benefit the wealthy?
Suppose the same imp returns to power by casting black magic on the adversaries,as is the roaring practice now?Safe for another five years will it be legally entitled to roll back the flagship MGNREGA scheme?Bharat Dogra in his invaluable article some two or three issues back,shows the government under its spell is starting to skimp funds for it,in latest move by some 30 p.c.Only fear of massive upsurge all over the country might deter it.But who knows?If they are mesmerized into feeling securely entrenched,they could be ready for a bloody showdown.All one can say is,‘God forbid.’
But should MGNREGA have been the albatross around the government’s neck?Back in late nineteen sixties,American economist Robert Heilbroner,no fan of socialism or Mao,had admiringly noted that poor Chinese peasants had built massive infrastructure for an agricultural revolution with very basic tools and human labour and it would bear fruit in the next decade.His words proved prophetic and right through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution it raised the Chinese economy to a higher level for take-off to a higher stage of growth.Why cannot the MGNREGA be put to the same use and purpose?
Especially for planned water management and storage purposes with embankments,tanks,canals with a judicious mixture of local knowledge,civil engineering and environmental science?
It will then no longer be a tainted freebee,but a boon.
People should pay more attention to such possibilities in stead of blindly follow the inhuman maxims of neo-liberal economics.The money spent on them,not as naked bribes for votes,could also be spent in such a way as to enable the common man to produce more for himself and the country.The rebates on electricity in these days of high prices and meagre wages could not only brighten their lives,but also could be in exchange for rotator community service,again properly planned by grassroots activists.Neo liberal economics always ellides the human factor and turns the economy into a Fate. It is still possible to put people back into the scene as active voluntary agents,at least to some extent.As long as the logic of the masters is not allowed to control everything.
A friend from the countryside has complained that every family of small farmers in the state is getting free rice up to 60 or 70 kgs.This is the free gift of the BJP government,and farming being more than the price of rice in the market here,these lakhs of small farmers no longer work on their farms nor engage in any other productive work.As a family does not need so much rice they sell the excess amount for other necessaries,and as a result they are losing their working skills as well as willingness to work.When the Congress government was giving rice to such people at two-three rupees a kg,the BJP used to rend the skies with outraged protests for turning people into dependants,and now they ply the same trade with much greater fervor.Are they giving freebies or not?
The government in our country has for the better part of a decade been treating the economy like an automaton,hoping the market will correct the errors automatically.But the consequences have been unobtrusively piling up until they have become a huge drag on the economy.And they are frantically searching for quick fix solutions,hoping there would be surgical strikes within reach.They may be disappointed,a small price for them,but the costs will be huge and frightening for the country and the people.
If better sense prevails they would still admit their mistakes and reach out to the opposition if only to rise from the morass.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator