Time for parties to replace ‘revdi culture’ with sturdy economic policies
The onus is on Prime Minister Modi, the BJP and the other parties to rewrite the country’s economic policy to provide secure jobs with decent income to all. That should be the next set of reforms the country must contemplate, design and implement
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had aimed at the opposition parties, such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when he denounced governments for promoting ‘revdi culture’, little expecting it would boomerang on him and the BJP. After all, his own government was distributing freebies—cash transfers to farmers, a house, a toilet, gas cylinders, free rations and so on.
The Supreme Court made it worse for him. It set up an independent expert committee to “study the impact of freebies on the taxpayers and the national economy and recommend measures to regulate it.” The top court did not look at it as an opposition parties’ problem. It said all parties distributed ‘revdis’ (literally, small cakes of sugar or molasses covered with sesame seeds, and metaphorically, freebies). When senior advocate Kapil Sibal said the court should leave it to Parliament to decide on ‘appropriate remedial measures,’ the court shot back, “Do you seriously think Parliament will debate regulating freebies? Which political party will debate this issue? No party will agree on curbs on freebies ahead of polls. Each of them wants it.”
Who will bell the cat?
Of course, it is hardly unlikely that the SC committee would put an end to freebies. First of all, every party is going to say, “What other parties give is freebies…what we give is not freebies.” It is not going to be easy for the committee—which will have representatives of the NITI Aayog, the RBI, the yet-to-be-constituted sixteenth Finance Commission, the Election Commission and political parties—to define what are freebies and what are not.
The economists and the public finance and central bank professionals on the committee might tell a political party ruling a state, “Your finances are not good, you might face problems repaying your debts, you should not stretch your expenditure too much,” but they cannot say, “Drop such-and-such schemes because they are freebies.” Their definition of a freebie is going to be based on their judgement whether it is good or bad for the public finances and not on whether it is productive or consumptive. They have no authority to tell governments to drop or continue with a certain scheme, because making schemes is entirely the domain of elected governments.
At best the committee might end up drawing up a list of broad guidelines on how to regulate spending by the central and state governments. A number of such guidelines already exist to enforce financial discipline. Some of these guidelines, such as Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management, are backed by laws. The SC committee might suggest some more ways to strengthen financial discipline and fiscal prudence.
At the end of the committee’s findings, therefore, we might come back to the same situation as we are facing today: The economists, public finance experts and the RBI expressing fears of a “fiscal disaster” with governments distributing freebies, and the governments stretching their budgets and borrowing for distributing them and saying they are sovereign and know best how to look after their people and manage their finances.
Thus, there is never going to be an end to the revdi culture. The reason is not far to seek. The political parties do not want to attack the root of the problem.
A marker of acute poverty
There are two sets of actors in the revdi culture: the political parties and the target sections. The political parties distribute revdis to get the votes of the target sections. Why are people willing to barter their political choice with freebies? Because they desperately need freebies. Why do they desperately need freebies? Because they do not have a decent income to fulfill their family’s needs and also make savings, to live with respect, dignity and financial security. Do upper and middle classes want freebies? They might even feel insulted by the remotest suggestion of it. “What do you think, we are beggars?” they might shout.
The revdi culture exists because poverty exists and poverty exists because our economic policy has delivered growth to the economy but not to the large masses of people.
According to official data, more than 75 per cent of farming households own less than a hectare (2.47 acres) and survive by working as labourers to supplement the income from their small fields. That is a huge population. There are more than 11 crore farmers receiving cash benefits under PM Kisan-Samman Yojana. Not all farmers are registered under the scheme. However, even if we take 11 crore as the total number of farmer households in the country, 75 per cent of them or 8.25 crore farming households are supplementing their farm income with wage labour. That translates to 8.25 x 4 = 33 crore Indians (taking four members to a family on an average).
These 33 crore Indians live an extremely vulnerable life. If the crops fail in one season due to more or less rain or pests of any kind, they slide into poverty. If even one working male of the family suffers long illness or remains unpaid for his labour for months, the family has to live from hand to mouth. For lack of food and nutrition, other members might fall ill, and that means greater misery. Can we fault these 33 crore Indians for seeking revdis?
Who is to blame? Not the poor of course
The conventional wisdom of economists was that if the surplus labour in agriculture moved to non-farm employment, it would bring about economic growth and higher wages and better living conditions for workers. Though economic growth has taken place, the wages and living conditions of workers have not improved. Most of the urban workers (for example, gig workers) have casual, low-wage jobs, with no paid leave, medical reimbursement, safety, accident insurance, provident fund or pension. Can we fault them for trading their votes for revdis?
The country’s unemployment rate has remained 7-8 per cent in the past eight years. In June 2022, as many as 44 per cent of youth (20-24 age group) in the country were jobless. In number, that would mean at least 15 crore youths. About one crore workers who were laid off by the manufacturing sector during the pandemic have not been taken back. As many as 80 lakh persons engaged in non-farm sectors lost their jobs in the two months of June and July 2022. Out of 22 crore persons who applied for central government jobs in the past eight years only 7.22 lakh or only one percent of the applicants got jobs. Can we fault the tens of crores of jobless Indians if they desperately seek revdis and are ready to sell their votes for them?
Isn’t it clear? The guilt for promoting the ‘revdi culture’ lies with the prime minister, the BJP and all other political parties. They have failed to give the country an economic policy that delivers quality job growth along with high economic growth. It is their collective failure. It is because they have failed to provide quality employment to large masses of people that they distribute revdis to them—as a way of making up for their guilt.
The onus to end the ‘revdi culture’ lies on Prime Minister Modi, the BJP and the other parties. They have to rewrite the country’s economic policy to provide secure jobs with decent income to all. That should be the next set of reforms the country must contemplate, design and implement. If there are good income and savings, people would stop seeking revdis. The markets for revdi-for-vote would close. Democracy will become freer and stronger.
(The writer is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor’)
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