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Welfare at the cost of welfare

A cut in library and beggary cess will critically impact existing programmes
Last Updated : 02 April 2023, 23:25 IST

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The Karnataka government is considering introducing a 5% cess as part of property tax for the welfare of unorganised workers but at the cost of reducing library and beggary cess. The focus on unorganised workers is certainly well-placed, considering how they continue to remain largely neglected. However, reducing library and beggary cess will inevitably and critically impact the existing programmes and initiatives that are undertaken for the benefit of users of public libraries, and beggars, respectively.

A library cess of 6% and a beggary cess of 3% is currently collected by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), including the BBMP, as a component of property tax. Library cess is crucial for the improvement and development of library services, and is tied to the democratic right of citizens to access these services. It empowers the state to exclusively use it for library development, which is meant to cover the capital cost of buildings, assets and recurring expenses of purchasing books and subscriptions to magazines. On the other hand, beggary cess is to be credited by ULBs to the Central Relief Fund administered by the Central Relief Committee, and is crucial for establishing and managing ‘receiving and relief centres’. Persons engaged in begging are provided with basic amenities and skill development training at these centres in an effort to eradicate the very need to rely on begging.

A deeper problem also lies in the fact that the BBMP has not fully transferred the cess amounts to relevant departments despite multiple requests. As per the CAG report, the BBMP and other ULBs together owed a library cess of Rs 287.3 crore between 2014-15 and 2018-19. In 2020-21, the BBMP alone reported receiving Rs 126 crore of library cess and Rs 63 crore of beggary cess, out of which it had remitted only Rs 75 crore to the City Library Authority and Rs 46 crore to the Central Relief Committee, respectively. It was also reported that the BBMP had not remitted nearly Rs 200 crore of beggary cess to the Central Relief Committee between 2008 and 2022. Such monumental delays are already affecting the state’s welfare initiatives meant for the relief and rehabilitation of beggars. The BBMP’s failure to transfer library cess to the authority for further disbursement to libraries under its jurisdiction affects the running expenditure of such facilities. In fact, in April 2022, the Urban Development Department of the Karnataka government came down heavily on the BBMP for not releasing library cess.

The government has received appreciation for its efforts to revive public libraries by bringing technological innovations, including the establishment of the Karnataka Public Digital Library portal to provide access to information. Any reduction in the cess will make it impossible to sustain the efforts to strengthen public libraries and operate them effectively. This, coupled with the lack of seriousness of ULBs towards the payment of both library and beggary cess for many years, is reflective of the pattern of non-utilisation of cesses levied on people for public welfare.

Based on the BBMP’s 2023-24 budget speech, the civic body was in receipt of beggary cess amounting to Rs 99.9 crore and Rs 112.74 crore for the years 2021-22 and 2022-23. This gradual increase in the cess amount collected by ULBs is in fact needed for providing adequate rehabilitative services and skill development training for beggars across Karnataka. The Central Relief Committee’s 2013 survey revealed that there were over 24,000 beggars in the state, which is estimated to have further increased owing to the Covid-19 pandemic which pushed scores of individuals deeper into poverty. However, only 3,500 to 4,000 beggars are benefiting from the services of receiving and relief centres at any given time.

As per the Union government’s SMILE-75 initiative, nearly Rs 50 lakh is required annually to operate a 50-bedded rehabilitation-cum-training centre for beggars. Based on this, a conservative estimate of over Rs 100 crore is required annually even if only 10,000 beggars are to be provided with such services. Any reduction in the percentage of beggary cess will therefore defeat the purpose of imposing it in the first place. All conversations on ensuring that the streets are free of beggars cannot materialise in lieu of such a myopic view where the amount meant for their benefit is on the verge of being diverted.

State’s welfare activities for unorganised workers should neither come at the cost of already marginalised individuals nor at the cost of the civic function of maintaining public libraries. Instead, the state must explore other sustainable avenues for their benefit, one of which can be to impose the obligation on e-commerce aggregators, who rely heavily on and impact the unorganised sector.

(The writers are research fellows at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

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Published 02 April 2023, 18:56 IST

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