Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Congress leaders on Saturday criticised the Narendra Modi government’s decision to freeze the dearness allowance of pensioners, government employees and soldiers in order to fund the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The finance ministry, in an announcement on Thursday, put on hold the increment in dearness allowance and dearness relief for 50 lakh central government employees and 61 lakh pensioners till July next year.

In a two-minute video clip released by the Congress, showing the meeting of the party’s consultative group via video-conference, the party castigated Bharatiya Janata Party for continuing with Central Vista project to reconstruct an iconic section of New Delhi, while cutting into the allowances of government servants during the crisis.

“We should be on the side of the people whose dearness allowances are being cut,” Singh said. “I sincerely believe that it is not necessary at this stage to impose hardship on the government servants and also the armed forces people.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who had on Friday called the move “inhuman and insensitive”, pointed out that the government was not cutting back on extraneous expenditure even during the coronavirus crisis. “I see the problem is that you are building your Central Vista at the same time,” he added. “But you are taking money from the middle class, not giving it to the poor, and you are spending it on your Central Vista.”

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram also raised the same matter. “When you have not cut back expenditure on the bullet train, Central Vista development, those are the programmes which should be first put on halt before you halt people’s dearness allowance,” he said.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said it would have been fine if the money was being transferred to migrant labourers. “But you are continuing with the new Parliament House, new building for ministers, new house for the prime minister, you are continuing with zero cut on expenditure of the government which could save you close to Rs 2 to 2.5 lakh crore,” he added. “But, you are denying relief to your armed personnel, to your pensioners, to your government servants.”

Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari said that before the government went around cutting everyone’s allowances and salaries, it should have first set up an “expenditure rationalisation commission”.

The Rs 20,000-crore Centra Vista project seeks to demolish and rebuild several historic buildings in a four-square-km area from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate. On March 20, the day after Narendra Modi announced a people’s curfew to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs issued a notification amending the land use of five plots to allow the project to proceed.

The total number of cases in India reached 24,506 on Saturday morning and the toll rose to 775, the health ministry’s said.

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