NEW DELHI: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday hit out at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for giving a "perverse twist" to the debate on freebies, saying the AAP leader putting education and health in that category is an attempt to create fear in the minds of the poor.
A day after Kejriwal joined the debate on freebies, calling for a referendum on spending taxpayers' money on healthcare and education, Sitharaman said spending on these two has never been called or classified as freebies since Independence and to drag them now in this debate is to give it a "perverse twist".
"Delhi Chief Minister has given perverse twist to the debate on freebies. Health and education have never been called freebies," she told reporters here.
"No Indian government has ever denied them since Independence. So, classifying education and health as freebies, Kejriwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in minds of poor," she said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in recent days hit out at the competitive populism of extending 'rewaris' (freebies) which are not just wastage of taxpayers' money but also an economic disaster that could hamper India's drive to become atmanirbhar (self-reliant).
His comments were seen directed at parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which have in the run-up to the assembly elections in states like Punjab and more recently Gujarat promised free electricity and water, among others.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court had suggested setting up a specialised body to examine "irrational freebies" offered to voters during elections.
The Centre told the Supreme Court on Thursday that the "freebie culture" has been elevated to the level of "art" for fighting elections and will lead to "disaster" if some political parties understand this is the only way to deliver public welfare measures.
Sitharaman said there has to be a genuine debate on the issue and everyone should participate in it.
In a detailed rebuttal to the Delhi chief minister's comments on freebies, government sources said no one has stated that free benefits to the poor is wrong.
But it is also wrong to classify the loan write-offs as being freebies, or to say that the corporate tax rate cut was designed to benefit the corporates.
They went on to point to free ration and cooking gas being provided to the poor to buttress the government's stand.
The Centre is of the view that there is no justification for political parties offering freebies such as free electricity and water, and that the exchequer cannot afford it and it will eventually lead to bankruptcy of states.
States should look at their coffers before giving freebies to citizens, sources said, adding they should not harm state finances.
Sources also cited higher spending on the rural employment guarantee scheme -- the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), as well as fuel and fertiliser subsidies.
On allegations of lowering outlay on the MGNREGA, sources said the government is fully committed to increasing allocation should the demand arise, as it had done earlier.
On Kejriwal's charge of GST being levied on essential food items like rice and wheat flour, they said states like Punjab imposed taxes on such commodities and the recent levy is an exercise to curb tax evasion by well-known brands.
Countering the barb of Rs 10 lakh crore loans being waived of super-rich friends of BJP, sources said debt write-offs are not waivers.
Write-offs, they said, are technical requirements as per the RBI, and the recovery process continues.
RBI data shows that not only has the amount written off by public sector banks fallen since 2018-19, the money recovered from written off accounts has increased over that period, they said, citing action against wilful defaulters.
On reduction in corporate tax rate, they said total corporation tax collections in 2019-20 did decline by about 16 per cent to Rs 5.57 lakh crore.
But the decline was about Rs 1 lakh crore and not Rs 1.45 lakh crore, as was feared at the time.
The tax collection figures for 2020-21 are not relevant because of the Covid impact, sources said, adding the latest provisional unaudited numbers with the Controller General of Accounts show that in 2021-22, corporation tax collections rose to Rs 7.12 lakh crore, surpassing by a good margin the collections made in 2018-19 when the tax rate was cut.
On the allegation of the Union government reducing the share of states in the devolution of taxes, sources said as per the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, the Centre has increased the states' share in central taxes to 42 per cent from the earlier 32 per cent.
This has been retained under the 15th Finance Commission as well.
In fact, the Centre has been transferring the devolution amount to states in advance, sources said.
This has been done thrice so far, the latest of which was on Wednesday when the Centre released two instalments of tax devolution to state governments amounting to Rs 1,16,665.75 crore, as against the normal monthly devolution of Rs 58,332.86 crore.
The BJP Thursday claimed that while the central government's welfare policies empower different deprived sections of society with targeted schemes, some parties' engage in 'revdi' culture by dishing out freebies for everyone for political gains.
"Revdi culture is about dishing out lollipops for political gains and it makes no transformation to people's lives. It misuses taxpayers' money with the rich benefiting at the cost of the poor," BJP spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said as he targeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for his counter-offensive after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's denunciation of freebies.
Modi named no one in his speeches but the AAP leader sprang to defend it due to his sense of guilt, Poonawalla told a press conference.
He referred to Kejriwal's promise of opening 500 new schools and claimed that two two dozen schools were shut in reality and accused him of giving people "free corruption, pollution, advertisements and liquor" instead of free education, water, health and electricity.
Later addressing another press conference, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said that Kejriwal has made false allegations against the government.
Bhatia said Kejriwal claims that the government has reduced the MGNREGA budget whereas it was increased by Rs 25,000 crore in the 2021-22 financial year in wake of the Covid pandemic.
At the same time Bhatia said Kejriwal has again lied about state's share in GST.
The states continue to get 42 per cent of the taxes collected by the Centre, not 29 per cent as claimed by Kejriwal, Bhatia added.
Poonawalla claimed more than 700 of the 1,027 schools the Delhi government runs do not have science and commerce teachers in Class 11 and 12 and over 745 schools have no principal.
Nearly 418 schools have no vice principal and 40,000 seats meant for the economically weaker sections had not been filled according to the RTE act and the court had come down hard on this, he added.
Alleging corruption in the AAP government, Poonawala accused Kejriwal of protecting his ministers Satyendra Jain and Manish Sisodia and Delhi Waqf Board head Amanatullah Khan against graft charges.
He also cited the four CAG reports that were tabled "belatedly" by the AAP government and over which the LG had expressed serious concerns.
Poonawalla alleged that huge corruption and mismanagement had taken place in the Delhi Jal Board.
Tanker mafia was promoted instead and that is why these reports were suppressed, he alleged.
He also accused the Delhi government of insulting "women and sportspersons" by allegedly targeting CWG medal-winner Divya Kakran.
Poonawalla said the AAP social media team trolled Kakran and its leader Saurabh Bharadwaj "insultingly" asked her to show a certificate after she complained about not being given any financial benefits by the Kejriwal government.
He said Kakran then produced a certificate regarding her representing Delhi and alleged that the AAP has a history of insulting those who raise the honour of the national flag whether soldiers or sportspersons.
He asked Kejriwal to sack Bharadwaj from all positions in the party.