Interview | Sitaram Yechury National

‘Centre is behaving like a big brother by centralising authority’, says Sitaram Yechury

Stating that economic restoration post the lockdown will require much higher government allocation, CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury calls for greater freedom and financial aid for the State governments at the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19, and warns that democracy will be a casualty if there is a totalitarian clampdown.

Is the lockdown and its extension justified considering the extent of adverse impact on the economy?

A lockdown may have been inevitable sometime or the other. The point is, it should have been imposed with a proper preparation. The lockdown should be used effectively and scientifically to isolate the areas where the disease is spreading and start reopening the remaining areas, like many other countries are doing or have done. But with a four-hour notice, the Prime Minister gave no time either for the State governments to prepare or people to be prepared. This led to unnecessary chaos.

Also read: Yechury faults PM on ‘disdain’ for media

Secondly, during the lockdown, there has to be widespread testing to isolate the areas where community transmission is taking place. And slowly start easing the other areas, with normal restrictions, of what I have always maintained, physical distance with social solidarity and not social distancing. We weren’t prepared with the testing facilities or personal protection equipment. We were unprepared for both effectively tackling the pandemic and providing relief to the people.

How do you look at the recent consultations between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chief Ministers via video-conferencing?

There was a direction given by the PMO for yesterday’s [Monday’s] meeting listing out the nine CMs who will speak. So why would the others go, if the speakers are already pre-decided? Of these nine, one was Odisha and the other was Puducherry, the others were either BJP-led or supported governments. What is this sort of consultation?

At every meeting the PMO decides which CM will speak. Now if you are going to have a CM’s video conference, then allow everyone to air their opinion. This kind of pick-and-choose and then putting out disinformation saying that four out of these nine wanted extension, that really impacts credibility of such meetings.

The Union Home Ministry shot off a letter to the Kerala government when it eased restrictions briefly; the Centre sent out teams to Opposition-ruled States such as West Bengal and Rajasthan. How do you see these events?

If you really want the States, which are on the battlefront, to be on board, you have to arm the State governments properly. For that, financial resources are absolutely essential. You are not returning them even GST dues. You have collected crores of rupees under this new fund, PM CARES; what is this money for? You transfer this money to the State governments. The Centre is behaving like a big brother, centralising the authority, wanting the States to do the job but the Centre will tell them how to do it. The Centre will not give them resources or allow them to have their own assessment on how to continue with lockdown or ease it.

Not only fiscal federalism but political federalism is also being adversely affected. Why are Central teams only to the Opposition-ruled states? BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are reporting one of the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases. From January 30, when the first case was reported in Kerala, till March 22, the Union government did nothing. This is the period when we should have armed ourselves. On the contrary, they organised Namaste Trump, and now the situation in Gujarat is of major concern with the pandemic on rampage.

And then you had toppling of Kamal Nath government and the public swearing-in with huge crowds. Then you had the Tabilighi Jamaat, which was a very irresponsible act by the organisers to have held congregation at that time. But who permitted it? How come the Maharashtra government refused permission for a similar congregation when they were asked but the Delhi police, that comes directly under Home Minister Amit Shah, allowed it?

How does democracy survive this pandemic?

Unless you bring back some degree of normalcy, which is possible only when you have a scientific approach, of identifying-isolating on the basis of widespread testing in the areas where it is spreading. Start your normal activities slowly with the necessary precautions. That is how even democracy will survive.

If you want a totalitarian clampdown, then democracy will be the casualty. Every time such an epidemic or health emergency arose, draconian laws were brought in. In the 1890s during the plague, British herded the patients into congested camps virtually condemning them to death. In protest to that the national movement rose and the famous case of Chapekar brothers shooting down the Pune Plague Commissioner Walter Charles Rand happened. Then came the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 with its draconian measures.

The same thing with some cosmetic amendments in 2005 is what we have now. Then came the sedition act — [Bal] Gangadhar Tilak was arrested for writing an editorial condemning the British approach in mishandling the pandemic.

So always the ruling classes have used epidemic conditions for greater authoritarian control. But that cannot be the reason to say that we should not fight this epidemic properly; this has to be fought, people’s lives have to be protected.

How will this pandemic impact the Indian economy? And what would be your prescription to pull it back from the brink.

This has to be tackled in three stages; in my opinion, there are short-, medium- and long-term measures required. All of these have to start now.

In the short term, immediately the government must do a cash transfer of ₹7,500 for three months. Immediately, distribute the foodgrains in the FCI [Food Corporation of India] godowns. Hunger and lack of nutrition makes people vulnerable to the virus.

Arrange for the migrant workers to return to their homes. Providing relief to the people is actually you are maintaining your workforce.

In the medium term, government should now announce a much larger relief package than what was announced of ₹1.7 lakh crore, which is less than 1% of our GDP.

Many countries in the world have given 20% of their GDP. Why are we being so measly, we don’t know. If you are able to write off loans that the rich took and not paid back to the tune of ₹7.78 lakh crore in the past five years, surely there is no dearth of resources in the country. You restore the wealth tax of 4% on the super rich.

This will give us enough funds to work out a package worth 10% of our GDP if not more.

In the long term, which also has to begin now, the main emphasis should be in public investments on health, education and much-needed infrastructure. This will give employment to lakhs and crores of people. The budgetary allocation under the MGNREGA should significantly increase. Instead of the promised 100-day of guaranteed work, it should be increased to 200 days. The original promise of MNREGA when it was legislated was that slowly it will extend to the urban centres as well- Urban Employment Guarantee scheme. That is the direction we should go.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 4:48:10 AM |

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