The Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing an important constitutional question whether a State government could offer freebies such as colour television sets, mixies, grinders and laptops to people to implement the poll promises made by the political party in its election manifesto.

Senior counsel Arvind Dattar, appearing for petitioner Subramanian Balaji, who raised this important question in his petition, argued: “while the taxpayer has no right to demand a quid pro quo benefit for taxes paid, he has the right to expect that the taxes paid will not be gifted to other persons without any general public benefit.”

Mr. Dattar said before a Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi: “Making promises of free distribution of non-essential commodities in an election manifesto amounts to an electoral bribe under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act. The Comptroller and Auditor-General of India has a duty to examine expenditures even before they are deployed. Safeguards must be built into the schemes to ensure that the distribution is made for a public purpose and is not misused.”

Mr. Dattar contended that the most important constitutional mandate was that a public purpose could not be one that would result in creation of a private asset. The only exception that could be made to this overreaching principle was distribution of essential items such as food, clothing, shelter, health or education.

The petitioner, who had earlier questioned the free colour TV scheme of the DMK government, submitted that the present government had also announced freebies such as mixies, grinders and laptops to students and no guidelines had been issued regarding the beneficiaries.

Explaining various schemes offered by the Tamil Nadu government, Mr. Dattar said public spending on goods such as mixies, free houses, laptops etc., of about Rs. 9,000 crore “far outweighs any public benefits that might arise from such distribution. The same ends can be efficiently achieved without the creation of private assets, such as [through] creation of community computer centres instead of giving away laptops, and setting up of community television sets at panchayat level.”

Political objectives

He argued that free distribution with no safeguard would clearly violate Article 162, 266 (3) and 282 of the Constitution. The fact that colour TVs and other schemes of the previous government were cancelled showed that these were not for ‘public purpose’ but only to serve the political objectives of a particular party, he said.

Mr. Dattar contended that the State could not provide luxuries in the garb of basic needs. The distribution made by the State “falls foul of Article 14 since there is no reasonable classification.” The state’s mission under the Constitution was to ensure that every person had basic needs but the state was not under any obligation to provide for luxuries.

Arguments will continue on December 4.

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