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Are freebies what we need?

Like rabbits out of his hat, Arvind Kejriwal has been pulling out subsidies and waivers that the public never even asked for. Will they make Delhi a better city — or will they repel voters?

Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, had in 2015 promised the Capital would be a world class city in four years. But his government at the fag end of its term has not been able to achieve anywhere near that status for the Union Territory. Instead, with Assembly elections due in early 2020, he is doling out a series of freebies in good measure.

Are these freebies a step towards making that promise a reality or are they just election sops? In the past few months, these issues have been rattling the chains of many while at the same time sounding like sweet music to other ears.

Take the latest: Waiving off water arrears. True that the chief minister announced it was a one-time waiver and will not keep happening. Delhi residents who have a water bills stacked up will now not have to pay the late payment surcharge and also pay the actual bill at discounted rate.

Consumers living in the A and B categories will get a 25% waiver, category C consumers will get a 50% waiver and individuals in the E, F, G, and H categories will receive 100% waiver on their water bill arrears. Kejriwal had said that there are 10.5 lakh people who come under E, F, G, and H categories.

The good news for the residents as well as for the government is that everyone benefits from it. Those well off are less likely to accuse them this time of catering only to the poor for votes.

An editorial in the Indian Express, however, points to an important fact — the UN’s Dublin Principle which says that water is an economic good and its pricing should therefore reflect its scarcity value. The Principle says that there are proposals to charge for water according to its opportunity cost. Going on to say, “There are examples of charges intended to recover costs, pay for treatment of wastes, cover administrative expenses and induce environmentally sound behaviour”.

However, what Delhi has instead is a depleting ground water table and a loosening of the purse strings by the government. Interestingly the government’s most recent scheme is for those with working meters but others who get them installed by November 30 of this year will be eligible for the late payment surcharge waiver.

Many of Delhi’s unauthorised colonies and JJ clusters do not yet have piped water connection —the Economic Survey of Delhi 2016-17 shows that this was 18% of total households.

In 2017, the government had also promised piped water by the end of that year to every household. This has not happened yet — the goal post has been shifted now to 2024. Some colonies like Gautam Puri where majority of the homes don’t have connections sees people illegally tapping pipes on the streets, without a water meter. Yet there are those who still have to buy water for drinking every day from private vendors or stand in line for one of DJB’s water tankers.

At present, the amount due from citizens who do have a connection is a whopping Rs 2,500 crore from domestic consumers. Commercial ones owe Rs 1,500 crore. But instead of allowing the negative to be highlighted, Kejriwal presented the positive of Rs 600 crore which he says the Delhi Jal Board would earn with this scheme.

What it is actively pursuing is making the city more self-sufficient in water supply. The AAP-led government and the central Jal Shakti Ministry launched a pilot project to create natural reservoirs to conserve rainwater in the Yamuna floodplains.  The government this year opened a new sewage treatment plant at Okhla which will reportedly cater to 40 lakh residents. It also approved the construction of a drinking water treatment plant in Chandrawal at a cost of Rs 598 crore.

With a capacity of 48 crore litres (477 MLD) per day, this is expected to be completed in three years. Such steps are perhaps more in tune with bringing the city closer to becoming the best — a city where water isn’t scarce.

Before the water subsidy was announced, AAP had also made electricity totally free for those consuming up to 200 units a month. This would cost the exchequer over Rs 500 crore, which then makes the total power subsidy cost a total of Rs 2,250 crore in the current financial year. Earlier the Delhi government had set aside Rs 1,720 crore in the 2019-20 Budget to give 50% subsidy on power bills to those consuming up to 400 units a month.

The most contentious of all freebies yet was the promise of free Metro rides for women. Perhaps the government had envisaged that at least all women would back and celebrate this move. But majority of the regular Metro users were not happy, even calling it discriminatory.

It had also proposed free bus travel on DTC and cluster buses. The government’s aim, it claimed, was to make Delhi’s transport system safer for women. This, they pointed out, would be achieved if more women stepped out of their homes. Making public transport free, they said, would especially help women avail the services and give them a good opportunity to join the workforce.

Kejriwal had announced that it would take about Rs 1,500 crore for one year. What the people missed out on is that the budget allocation for 2019-20 is a whopping Rs 60,000 crore out of which a chunk of Rs 5,882 crore is already allotted to transport — a 38% increase from 2018-19.

In any case, if one looks at the transport system, one move which would make the city closer to being a developed one is the introduction of 1,000 electric buses.  It also flagged off 25 low-floor buses but unfortunately this is nothing when looking at the total buses required — 11,000 of them, while the city has just present there are around 5,500.

Other than that, the government’s other promises are to pay the Class 10 and 12 CBSE board exam fees of all students studying in government schools; wi-fi at 11,000 spots; and GPS charges for auto rickshaws.