Finance Minister says Arvind Kejriwal is twisting freebie debate

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. | Photo Credit: PTI

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday slammed Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for “perversely twisting” the debate on freebies by questioning whether the provision of education and healthcare also constituted such handouts.

Asserting that the provision of health and education are part of governments’ duties in a welfare state, Ms. Sitharaman said they have never been called freebies.

“No Indian government has ever denied them. So by classifying education and health as freebies, Mr. Kejriwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in minds of poor,” the Finance Minister said, stressing that the Delhi Chief Minister has given a perverse twist to the debate on freebies when there should be a “genuine debate” on the issue.

At a press conference in the capital on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Kejriwal had remarked: “Why is there sudden opposition to free education, healthcare, medicines, food, etc? Is everything okay with the Centre’s finances?”

An official involved in economic policy said that the Centre has been providing free foodgrains to the poor since 2020 and will continue to do so till September 30 this year and beyond if it senses the need. “The fiscal position was not a consideration in this, whether we had to provide vaccines or food for the poor, we have to find resources for whatever is necessary,” the official said.

Stressing that the debate on electoral freebies is not about one political party or a State, officials said the question is whether these are sustainable and viable.

“If someone wants to provide free power to subsistence farmers or small enterprises that need support, it is a good thing but the spending must be provided for in the Budget so power companies get their dues. That is responsible governance. But if you don’t foot these bills, announce free sops before elections and then turn to the Centre for a special ₹1 lakh crore assistance package, there is a problem,” the official explained.

Taxes on food

The Delhi Chief Minister had also claimed that wheat and rice were being taxed for the first time since Independence, a claim that senior government officials emphasised had already been already called out as incorrect during the recent Parliament debate on inflation. Several States, including Punjab, used to levy Value Added Tax or VAT on foodgrains prior to the GST regime, they said.

“In fact, at the recent GST Council meeting, when a ministerial group’s report on doing away with tax exemptions on unbranded and pre-packed food items was taken up, Delhi’s representative Manish Sisodia said there was no need to discuss this as it has already been considered by the group of Ministers and tax leakages are high,” an official pointed out.

“There was ample time to raise objections. Coming out and saying something else is another political gimmick, much like freebies are… the Delhi CM should instead ask his Finance Minister why no objections were raised on the matter in the GST Council meeting or through the consultation process prior to it,” the official said.

Rural employment guarantee

On Mr. Kejriwal’s comments about the Centre slashing allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) by 25% this year and not having money to pay 100 days’ wages to workers under the scheme, another official said that the government has always been flexible on MGNREGS allocations, raising them when the need arose.

The Budget estimate for MGNREGS this year is the same as last year, based on optimism that an improving economy and a normal monsoon will improve rural employment, this official said. “However, should there be higher demand under the scheme, it will be fully provided for, like it was done last year,” he underlined.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2022 10:02:53 am |