Assembly elections

Pre-poll bonanza: Indebted Goa government goes on a freebie spree ahead of Assembly elections

Furious Opposition has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party government of misusing public money to woo voters.

Earlier this year, Tamil Nadu's election freebies held the nation in thrall. Now Goa seems to be competing for second place.

With Assembly elections due early next year, the Bharatiya Janata Party government is raining freebies down on the people of the debt-ridden state. This has prompted the Opposition to accuse the state government of misusing public money to woo voters.

Former Union minister Ramakant Khalap said the BJP government’s strategy was to put into citizens' right pockets what it had taken out of their left pockets.

Election-time freebies

A week ago, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar promised youth between the age of 18 and 35 a free package of 1 GB data and Rs 100 worth of talk time on their cell phones every month. He told a Bharatiya Janata Party Yuva Morcha meeting in Panaji that the scheme was expected to be launched in November. He said tenders had already been floated and a service provider would be selected soon. It is not certain how much the scheme would cost the state exchequer. This is in addition to a proposal to extend free Wi-Fi to all colleges in the state for five years, which is expected to cost the state Rs 22 crores.

With the youth taken care of, the government also has freebies for women.

At the meeting, Parsekar promised to increase the domestic household package the state government has been giving 1.40 lakh women as part of another 2012 poll promise. From October 1, the Griha Aadhar Scheme for housewives will be increased to Rs 1,500 per month from Rs 1,200.

Similarly, the age limit for the Laadli Laxmi scheme – also a 2012 election promise, which gave women a Rs 1-lakh grant upon their marriage – has been tweaked to include those tying the knot later in life. The age limit for this scheme has now been increased by five years, to 45 years.

Both the household dole and marriage schemes together will put the state exchequer back by Rs 30 crore per month.

The chief minister has also promised to supply subsidised cereals and pulses, aside from vegetables, through Krishi outlets to ease each family’s monthly food bill.

Earlier this year, the state government wooed the media in what was clearly an election year budget. It announced that it would increase its contribution to a family pension scheme for accredited journalists by Rs 2,000, taking the amount to Rs 3,000 a month. It also dispensed with contributory payments journalists had to make previously. This is in addition to a monthly pension payment of Rs 6,000 that the government is already making to retired journalists. The payouts to journalists under these schemes add up to Rs 3 crore a year.

Sleight of hand?

In July, the Opposition was incensed when BJP ministers and party workers held 150 ceremonies across the state’s 40 constituencies to distribute free packs of three nine-watt LED bulbs to each household under the Jyotirmay Goa scheme. The bulbs were handed out to 1.35 lakh people along with campaign leaflets. The Opposition alleged that the state government had hijacked a central scheme to gain brownie points with voters in the run up to the elections.

But what has caused the Opposition serious heartburn is the Goa Regularization of Unauthorised Construction Ordinance approved in June, which is apparently aimed at regularising around 40,000 illegal structures built either on private, government or comunidade (community) land.

‘People to eventually pay’

Even as the freebie run continues, there is growing concern over Goa's rising debt. “This government has been resorting to frequent market borrowings, and today Goa's has a 15,000 crore debt burden” said Congress spokesman Sunil Kawthankar.

The funnelling of around Rs 75 crore a month through three flagship social security schemes and sundry subsidies, which comes mainly from borrowings, is a hoax, Kawthankar said.

“People are simple," he said. "They do not realise that while the government is ostensibly giving them doles, it is collecting taxes at a much higher rate from the public itself to finance these schemes. Power and water tariffs are up, all government fees are hiked, taxes on services and commodities are higher in Goa. At the end of the day, people are paying much more.”

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