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NEW DELHI : Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday rejected Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s criticism of central government’s management of the fiscal and demanded an informed debate on freebies--benefits announced by political parties ahead of polls.

Sitharaman alleged Kejriwal has given a perverse twist to the debate on freebies. Earlier in the day, Kejriwal questioned the central government’s policies. The debate over freebies comes in the context of a public interest litigation filed before the Supreme Court on this issue. It also assumes significance given that two states--Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh--will go to polls next year.

The debate over freebies also highlights the stark difference in the way political parties view how economic growth and social welfare goals could be achieved.

Sitharaman said, “Delhi Chief Minister has given perverse twist to the debate on freebies. Health and education have never been called freebies. No Indian government has ever denied them. So classifying education and health as freebies, Kerjiwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in minds of poor," said the finance minister. There should be a genuine debate on this matter, she added.

Arvind Kejriwal said in a statement that for the past few days, the way free services given to the public is being opposed is rather baffling. “It is being said that if this is not stopped then the 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 doubt on the economic well-being of the Central Government. Such huge opposition makes me wonder if it is in bad condition," said the statement issued after a press conference by the chief minister.

The debate over freebies is significant given that the ultimate tab falls on the tax payer. The central government has followed the strategy of spending on infrastructure to stimulate economic growth in addition to targeting welfare measures for the really needy. The practice of political parties to announce welfare schemes ahead of polls thus raises the question about how it will be financed. One concern of central government is about the dues that some state governments owe to central public sector power utilities after giving electricity subsidies.

Responding to Kejriwal’s criticism, a central government official said on condition of anonymity that nobody is saying 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 corporate tax rate cut was designed to benefit the corporate houses.

“In fact, the (Central) Government is perhaps the first one to be giving free food over and above the highly subsidised food provided under the National Food Security Act. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana provides five kilogram of free foodgrain to 80 crore people every month, and at the end of September 2022 it would have been running for 2.5 years," said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We have seen many political parties promise free television sets, kitchenware, gold jewellery, free mobile phones for all ration card holders, free electricity up to certain units to every household, gold as marriage assistance, laptops, washing machines, sarees, free internet connection, bicycles, etc to lure the voters," said the person. When they promise free electricity, water or other freebies, they are merely borrowing from future generations to reward present ones, said the person. “We can see a competitive electoral pressure resulting in a race to the bottom. To keep their reputation, political parties may even deliver on the irresponsible promises they make during campaigns," said he person.

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