Congress President Sonia Gandhi said at a virtual meeting of several Opposition parties on Friday that the Centre’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic package, unveiled earlier this month to help the economy tide over the impact of a national lockdown, was a “cruel joke on the country”, NDTV reported. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had unveiled the package, intended to help micro, small and medium enterprises, farmers, industry and migrants, in four tranches.
“All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office],” Gandhi told the meeting. “The spirit of federalism, which is an integral part of our Constitution, is all but forgotten. There is no indication either if the two Houses of Parliament or the Standing Committees will be summoned to meet.”
The Congress, in a statement shared on Twitter, said leaders of 22 “like-minded parties” attended the meeting. The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party, however, did not attend. Also conspicuous by their absence were leaders of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. The Shiv Sena, which had been part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance until last year, was represented by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
“The initial optimism of the prime minister that the war against the virus would conclude in 21 days has turned out to be misplaced,” Gandhi said. “It seems that the virus is here to stay until a vaccine is found. I am also of the view that the government was uncertain about the criteria for lockdowns, nor does it have an exit strategy. Successive lockdowns have yielded diminishing returns.”
The Congress chief said that the economy, which she alleged had been in poor shape for over two years, has now been “crippled”. She said that while every economist of repute had asked the government to provide a large fiscal stimulus package, “the prime minister’s announcement of a grand Rs 20 lakh crore package – and the finance minister spelling out its details over the next five days – have turned out to be a cruel joke on the country”.
“The defining image of the pandemic has been the lakhs of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home states,” Gandhi said. The Congress president alleged that the government has also ignored those comprising the bottom half of the population – tenant farmers, landless agricultural workers, laid-off employees and shopkeepers.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have over the past two months attempted to reach their hometowns on foot or in private vehicles. Some have died of illnesses or accidents on the way. The Centre on May 1 started over 300 “Shramik Special” trains to ferry migrant labourers, but this has not been able to halt the exodus on foot.
Gandhi on Friday accused the Centre of not heeding the Opposition’s suggestions to provide free grain to the poor and arrange for buses and trains to take the migrant workers back to their hometowns. Instead, she said that the government has “embarked on a wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of public sector units and repeal of labour laws”, without consulting Parliament.
The Congress chief said that if the predictions made by economists that India would see a Gross Domestic Product growth rate of minus 5% in 2020-’21 turns out to be true, it will be “catastrophic”. “That the present government has no solutions is worrying; but that it has no empathy or compassion for the poor and vulnerable is heartbreaking,” she added.
The lockdown, which began on March 25, is scheduled to end on May 31. During the fourth phase of the lockdown, the Centre has allowed several economic activities to resume in low-risk zones.
Covid-19 has infected over 1.18 lakh people in India as of Friday evening, and killed 3,583, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.