Health and education have never been called freebies: FM Sitharaman


Health and education are the main principles of a welfare state and no government in India ever denied them, Finance Minister said on Thursday.

Her comments came in the backdrop of the ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court on the issue of populist schemes, or “freebies”, and a charge by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal that the central government was opposing free and education.

“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, classifying education and health as freebies, Kejriwal is trying to bring in a sense of worry and fear in the minds of the poor. There should be a genuine debate in the matter,” the Finance Minister told reporters.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court said the legislation banning political parties from offering voters freebies is not advisable, while de-registering such parties would be “anti-democratic”.

After the latest hearing, Kejriwal held a press conference in which he alleged that there seemed to be something wrong with the Centre’s finances the way it was “strongly opposing” free facilities for people.

He said the Centre collected “a huge amount of taxes, including Rs 3.5 trillion per annum on petrol and diesel, and was still against providing people of the country free education, health care and other facilities”.

Countering the charge, the Centre released major expenses it incurred since 2014-15, a chunk of which went to developmental schemes.

The view in the central government is that the debate on freebies should be held in the public policy and political realm and not in the judicial realm. Earlier, a top government official had told Business Standard that as long as state governments showed the numbers in their budgets and are paying vendors on time, they are within their rights to announce any “freebie”.

“How do you define ‘freebie’? It is a matter of the political and policy realms. One can argue that fiscally it is a bad strategy, etc. The argument on freebies should be held in the political realm and decided there. If a state is announcing free electricity, they should have the means to pay the power distribution companies as well,” the official had said.

On July 26, the Supreme Court had sought a reply from the Centre on whether a body like the Finance Commission can regulate freebies and if revenue allocation to states could be regulated by taking into account the amount a state has spent on “unnecessary freebies”, especially ahead of elections.

However, the 15th Finance Commission stands dissolved, and although it was mandated with taking a look at populist measures by states, it steered clear of defining “populist schemes” or “freebies”.

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