Hours after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal questioned the state of the Central Government’s finances, citing its opposition to freebies from political parties, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused the AAP leader of giving a “perverse twist” to the debate and said that spending on health and education has never been viewed in this category.
Addressing a press conference in Delhi, Kejriwal said, “For the past few days, the way free services given to the public are being opposed is rather baffling. It is being said that if this is not stopped, governments across the country will go bankrupt. They are saying it will lead to a crisis and all such services should be immediately stopped. This also creates doubts about the economic wellbeing of the Central Government. Such huge opposition makes me wonder if it is in bad condition.”
He said, “For the past 70-75 years, children are getting free education in government schools and poor people are getting free medicines in government hospitals. People also get free ration. So what happened all of a sudden that so much ruckus is being created to roll back these public services? I really hope and pray that the Central Government is financially sound and thinking wisely.”
Calling for a “genuine debate” on the issue, Sitharaman told reporters, “The Delhi Chief Minister has given a perverse twist to the debate on freebies. Health and education have never been called freebies. No Indian government has ever denied them. So by classifying education and health as freebies, Kerjiwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in the minds of the poor.”
Kejriwal, who has been under attack over the introduction of schemes such as free electricity in Delhi and Punjab, also questioned the need to bring in the Agnipath scheme for military recruitment.
“It was being said that this scheme was brought because the pension bill of soldiers had bloated so much that the Central Government was finding it hard to bear the expense. This has happened for the first time since Independence that a Central Government has said such a thing,” he said.
Referring to the rural employment guarantee scheme, the Delhi Chief Minister said, “Through MGNREGA, the Central Government used to give 100 days of guaranteed employment to the poorest. They are now saying that they don’t have the funds to run MGNREGA. There has been a reduction of 25 per cent in funds allocated to that scheme this year as compared to previous year.”
He also alleged that taxpayers’ money was used to write-off taxes for the “super rich and huge companies” while tax was imposed “on food items consumed by the poor”.
A plea against freebies promised by political parties is being heard in the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the Election Commission had said that being a constitutional authority, it “may not be appropriate” for it to be part of a committee proposed to be set up by the Supreme Court to suggest ways to deal with the issue.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had targeted political opponents and accused them of promising freebies in exchange for votes. Describing the distribution of freebies as “revdi culture”, he said it was “very dangerous” for the country, its development and wellbeing.
In the run-up to the elections in Punjab earlier this year, AAP had made a pre-election guarantee of providing 300 units of free power every month — it came into effect in July. After coming to power, the new AAP government in Punjab sought a special financial package of Rs 1 lakh crore from the Centre spread over two years to improve the state’s poor fiscal health.