Selfie system gift of technology, familiarises public with govt schemes: Centre tells HC

The Centre on Friday defended before the Delhi High Court its decision to install “selfie points” in public places to publicise its defence policy initiatives, asserting the “selfie system is a gift of technology” which helps familiarise the public about government schemes and policies in a cost effective way.

It rejected suggestions about there being any political motive behind the selfie points initiative, and said there was no mention of any political party or insignia at such programmes. The selfie booths, it said, only highlighted the achievements in the defence sector like inclusion and active participation of women in the armed forces, and the Agnipath scheme.

The Centre made the submissions before a bench headed by Acting Chief Justice Manmohan which was hearing a PIL against the alleged use of public servants and defence personnel to spread “political propaganda” by showcasing the achievements of the government in the last nine years.

Petitioners EAS Sarma and Jagdeep S Chhokar alleged several selfie points were being installed by the government with directions to soldiers to promote the work done by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and public servants were being deployed as special officers for “Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra” to “canvass” for the ruling party in the upcoming elections in violation of service rules and Representation of the People Act.

“Selfie point is costing Rs 6 lakh and they are installing in all railway stations,” Advocate Pranav Sachdeva, appearing for the petitioners, submitted.

The exercise, he claimed, was being used to run the ruling party’s political campaign with public money and was distorting the level playing field.

“It is a political campaign and political speeches are being made on the platform. Each selfie point has a huge placard of the prime minister’s photo,” Sachdeva said.

The bench, also comprising Justice Manmeet P S Arora, said the measures being called into question did not make a reference to any political party and they involved only propagating the government’s schemes.

It said the prime minister, who is elected by the people and may be a political rival to someone, also holds a constitutional post.

“Government is run by someone in power and it propagates the scheme. That’s a hard fact of reality. A person is elected by the people. There is no denying the fact that he is holding a constitutional post. He may be someone’s political rival also, but he is holding a post,” Justice Manmohan said.

“There is no political insignia. He is only propagating schemes of the government …(As per the government), 2.5 crore people attended health camp, around 10 lakh people were screened for TB. Twenty lakh people screened for sickle cell anaemia (as part of the measures in question)…If officers and armymen are doing this, then they are propagating a scheme,” he said.

Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma told the bench the government of India was committed to ensuring that the benefit of its flagship schemes reach the targeted beneficiaries in a time-bound manner, and the “Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra” aimed at ensuring “last-mile” outreach of all its welfare schemes.

Terming the PIL as “motivated”, ASG Sharma objected to the petitioner raising the issue of alleged expenditure of Rs 6 lakh in setting up each selfie booth at railway stations, asserting it was outside the ambit of the present proceedings.

Sharma said the selfie booths highlighting the achievements in the defence sector were installed to “inspire and instill a sense of pride”. Various other schemes were being promoted during the Sankalp Yatra to attain “full saturation” in terms of reaching their benefits to the intended beneficiaries.

“This outreach has to be there. It can’t be some office memorandum in New Delhi. Now that Agniveer and women’s participation is there, the natural corollary is that you have to reach out to them (people) and inspire them to join. In addition to eliciting participation of people in a novel way, the selfie points are cost effective.

“We are familiarising public with government’s schemes and polices. Engagement in selfie system is a gift of technology and let’s make use of it. The physical construct of selfie points enables people to engage effectively, thereby having a greater impact,” Sharma submitted.

He also said at this stage, there was a reference to “nine years”, that being the duration for which the present dispensation has been in power, while promoting the welfare schemes.

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“We have addressed that (reference to nine years).. The mention of nine years was at that time in October. There is no mention of nine years now. This holds the field now,” ASG Sharma said.

The counsel for the Election Commission said the poll panel has already issued instructions about the prohibition on advertisements funded by public money and misuse of mass media when the model code of conduct is in place during elections.

The bench listed the matter for further hearing on January 30 and asked the Centre to put its stand on record.

The petitioners have claimed deployment of public servants to showcase the government’s achievements for a political purpose disturbs free and fair elections, which are an essential part of democracy.

“Centre’s brazen move, referred to above, has wider implications. Firstly, considering that the campaign to showcase the NDA government’s achievements, for the time being, will extend up to 25.01.2024, it will amount to deploying civil servants and public resources to influence the voters even during the 2024 Parliament elections,” the petition said.

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