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FM Sitharaman slams Delhi CM, says health, education not freebies in a welfare state

 Responding to criticism from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the so-called 'freebie culture', Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said health and education have "never been called freebies".

"The Delhi Chief Minister has given a perverse twist to the debate on freebies," Sitharaman told reporters on August 11.

"By classifying education and health as freebies, Kejriwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in minds of the poor," the finance minister added.

Sitharaman's comments came after Kejriwal held a media briefing earlier in the day and said the Centre's finances may not be in a good condition going by the manner in which it was speaking against free services. According to the Delhi chief minister, the Aam Aadmi Party's free programmes had helped poor people and ensured they received quality services such as health and education.

However, the finance minister slammed Kejriwal's comments, saying no Indian government had ever denied health and education to the people.

The battle of words comes after the Supreme Court's suggestion on August 3 that a panel be set up to discuss the issue of freebies announced ahead of elections. A three-judge bench of the apex court had asked the Centre, NITI Aayog, Finance Commission, and the Reserve Bank of India to brainstorm and make suggestions to tackle it.

While Sitharaman today said there should be a genuine debate on the subject, the setting up of a committee has attracted criticism from certain quarters.

"What clause in the Constitution empowers the Judiciary to set a framework for how current and future Executives shall (or shall not) spend the people's money?" Tamil Nadu Finance Minister P Thiaga Rajan tweeted on August 4.

Similarly, on August 10, the Election Commission told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that there was no "precise definition" of the term 'freebies' in the existing legal framework. Further, the poll panel said it has been following the court's judgement, referring to its 2013 order in which it declined to interfere with schemes under which goods like televisions, laptops, and mixers-grinders were given free of cost in Tamil Nadu by the government.

“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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