Having ridden to power with absolute majority on the back of huge expectations raised by the “five mega freebies”, the Siddaramaiah government is desperately looking for ways to cut down costs and come up with a face-saving formula which it hopes will find acceptance by the people.
Over the last few days, Siddaramaiah and some of his Cabinet colleagues have had a series of meetings with the finance ministry officials to work out on the nitty-gritty of the number of beneficiaries, ‘inclusions and exclusions’ among them and the costs involved.
In the run up to the recently-concluded Assembly elections, the Congress party had made five promises: Two hundred units of free electricity to every household under “Gruha Jyothi” scheme, Rs 2,000 every month to every female head of the family under “Gruha Lakshmi”, Rs 3,000 per month to every graduate unemployed youth and Rs 1,500 to diploma holder under “Yuva Nidhi”, 10 kg of rice per adult person per month in every household under “Anna Bhagya” and free bus ride for all women in the state transport buses under “Shakti” scheme.
Now it is ‘conditions apply’
None of them had any “conditions attached” to attract maximum voters, but having come to power, the Congress party, like it did in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, is coming up with various excuses to limit the number of beneficiaries.
Having failed to meet their own promise of taking a decision on the implementation of these freebies “in the very first cabinet meeting” after the swearing-in, Siddaramaiah has set himself the target of June 1 to make an announcement after a final discussion and decision in the cabinet.
Opposition leaders, including former chief ministers Basavaraj Bommai and HD Kumaraswamy have taken up cudgels on behalf of the people and given a call to refuse to pay government bills from June 1 onwards if the government did not come out with an elaborate plan to implement its “solemn promises” made before the elections, with the Congress party even distributing “guarantee cards” to lakhs of families with the signatures of Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar.
Some indications of tensions within the government were visible on Day One itself when deputy chief minister Shivakumar snapped at a reporter who wanted to know whether all families will be covered under the “Gruha Jyothi” scheme (200 units of free electricity for every household) saying, “We have not promised that we will give the benefit to every vagabond on the streets.”
On free bus ride for all women, Siddaramaiah claimed that the promise was meant only for “Karnataka women” and free service would be limited to “red buses” and will exclude luxury buses.
Massive burden on state
Sources in the government told ‘India Narrative’ on condition of anonymity that on the basis of the exercise done so far, it is estimated that annually Rs 13,000 crore would be required for free power scheme, Rs 24,000 crore for monthly ‘allowances’ to women, Rs 10,000 crore for free food grains, Rs 2,000 crore for unemployment doles and Rs 4,500 crore for free transport for women. “A tentative estimate is that we will require around Rs 55,000 crore additional resources to implement all the five schemes. These figures could change because we have given two or three options for each scheme and it is left to the cabinet to take a final call on them,” these sources said.
Senior ministers who have been entrusted with power, transport, food and civil supplies and social welfare have begun putting pressure on Siddaramaiah to give “maximum benefits” to people covered by their respective ministries in order to take credit for their implementation or to “preside” over large funds at their disposal.
Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy told the media that free bus travel will be made available “for all women in Karnataka without any discrimination.” He said he had obtained reports from the managing directors of all four RTCs in the state and “they have given us some options, based on which we will decide.”
Finance ministry officials were mum on the question of raising resources to meet the expenses involved. It is understood that the state government is considering an additional cess of Rs 2 to Rs 3 on fuel prices, additional excise duty on liquor, increase in property taxes and stamp and registration charges to fund the freebies. Siddarmaiah, who also holds the finance portfolio, could come up these ‘hammering’ on the tax-payers at the time of a new budget he is likely to present in June.