Freebies announced by political parties and social welfare schemes of governments are different, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said on Thursday, Bar and Bench reported. He made the oral observation while hearing a plea about directions to file criminal cases against political parties for luring voters with freebies.

“India is also [a] country where there is poverty and the central government also has plans to feed hungry etc,” the chief justice noted.

Ramana made the comments after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, argued that the distribution of freebies cannot be deemed the only way to ensure citizens’ welfare. The Centre has argued in favour of the directions sought in the plea filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay.

On August 3, the Centre had told the court that offering freebies to voters will adversely impact the country’s economy.

At Thursday’s hearing, the court also noted that the economy was losing money due to freebies offered to voters, but the chief justice added that the welfare of citizens must also be kept in mind, Bar and Bench reported.

“It is a serious issue...Those who are getting [freebies] they want it and ours is a welfare state,” Ramana noted. “Some may say that they are paying taxes and it has to be used for developmental processes… So it’s a serious issue. So both side has to be heard by committee.”

EC declines to be part of expert committee

At the previous hearing, the judges had suggested that an expert body comprising various stakeholders such as the government, the NITI Aayog, the Finance Commission, the Law Commission, the Election Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, and members of the Opposition should be formed to give their suggestions on the matter.

On Wednesday, the Election Commission declined to be part of the proposed panel, Live Law reported.

The poll panel said that since it was a constitutional authority, it would not be appropriate to be a part of an expert committee consisting of representatives of the Union ministries and government bodies.

The Election Commission added that its views on the matter of freebies could “disturb the level playing field” during polls that take place while the plea is sub-judice.

At Thursday’s hearing, Ramana said that the judges came to know about the Election Commission’s stand from the newspapers and had not received an affidavit from the poll panel till Wednesday night.

“How does it reach newspapers and not us?” the chief justice questioned, according to Bar and Bench. “What is there to read in election commission affidavit now?”

SC refuses to de-register parties offering freebies

Meanwhile, the chief justice said that the court would not deregister political parties that offer freebies as that would be “entering an undemocratic arena”.

The chief justice also observed that the court has to be cautious to not “encroach upon the legislative domain”.

“Every day you are on road and when there are issues travelling we think why we elected this government,” he added. “Issue is we cannot take over these issues and say we will do it. It is because of the seriousness I am very reluctant to look at legislative issue.”

The matter will again be heard on August 17.