At a videoconferencing on Wednesday with parties’ floor leaders in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it won’t be possible to lift the 21-day nationwide lockdown in one go as scheduled on April 14. He, however, noted that he would consult the Chief Ministers before deciding the exit strategy.
Speaking briefly at the end of a nearly three-and-a-half hour meeting, Mr. Modi pointed out that the country was going through a “social emergency”.
Many countries world over are using lockdown and social distancing to contain the spread of Coronavirus. “In the coming days, as you have suggested that the lockdown should not be lifted all of a sudden, it should be staggered. Till now, the suggestions I have been getting is that it won’t be so simple to lift the lockdown. We will have to take some strong measures to ensure social distancing,” he pointed out.
Mr. Modi thanked the parties for their support and positive reactions. “Today, the situation in the country is akin to a social emergency; it has necessitated tough decisions and we must continue to remain vigilant,” he stated and sought their continued support.
“Kareeb, Kareeb yeh mood ban raha hai ki ek dum se lockdown uthana sambhav nahi hoga,” (The general mood is that it won’t be possible to lift the lockdown at one go).
Leaders from 18 political parties attended the interaction. Top Central officials gave detailed presentations on the steps being taken to meet the emerging challenges, including the status of distribution of benefits under the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana.
Congress extends support
The Congress supported the idea of an extension of the lockdown. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and senior party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said, “There is no question of supporting it or opposing it. It is a decision to be taken by the government. If they consult everyone before taking the decision, then we shall welcome it.” The majority of the parties felt that there should be a calibrated exit from the lockdown but left the final decision to Prime Minister, he added.
Among those who vociferously supported an extension of the lockdown included the Telangana Rashtirya Samithi (TRS), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP).
TRS president and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao has earlier advised Mr. Modi to extend the lockdown.
Speaking to The Hindu, TRS leader K Keshav Rao said that if the lockdown was removed, the situation would reach an unmanageable level. “Once Coronavirus spreads to rural areas where public health facilities are very poor, it will be a disaster. The lockdown comes at a severe economic cost, but health has to be prioritised over economy.”
SP Rajya Sabha member Ramgopal Yadav went a step ahead to say that the lockdown should continue till the last patient affected by Coronavirus is cured in the country. “If America is struggling to control the spread of the virus without stringent social distancing norms, then how can we, considering we have fewer doctors and limited health amenities,” he said.
LJP president Chirag Paswan recommended that while the lockdown should continue in urban areas, it should be eased in villages where farmers are in the process of harvesting the rabi crops.
Many parties flagged that the economic package announced by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26 is insufficient.
Biju Janata Dal leader and Lok Sabha member Pinaki Misra said there was an urgent need to refinance industries and ensure cash in the hands of labourers who found themselves out of job because of the lockdown. “The rescue package that the government announced is extremely limited and will not help. Most countries have drawn up a package worth at least 10 per cent of the GDP. In India’s case, by the same calculations, it should have been 15-20 lakh crore. So far the government has announced only 2 lakh crore.”
The TRS also spoke on similar lines. It urged Mr. Modi to forgo fiscal deficit for now to come up with a more robust package to help the country tide over the economic crisis exacerbated by the lockdown.
Mr. Ramgopal Yadav said big corporates should be asked to donate their last two year’s profit to the Central pool. “The government can’t alone shoulder the responsibility of dealing with growing hunger on the streets. I requested the Prime Minister to appeal to the nation, asking those who are capable to feed those who are going hungry around them.”
Support for farmers
Mr. Azad said the Congress recommended that the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) be extended to harvesting activities. “This will be of dual benefit: those who are out of jobs will get work and the farmers who are struggling to find labour for harvesting will get help.” The Congress also recommended that the Chief Ministers of the worst-affected States should be included in the Centre’s Group of Ministers(GoM) that regularly meets to take stock of COVID-19 related issues.
Tablighi Jamaat event
NCP president Sharad Pawar raised the issue of ‘communalisation’ of the battle against COVID-19. He said that while the Delhi Tablighi Jamaat congregration at the time of the pandemic was wrong, the fact that it was being played out on television and social media and ‘being used to divide the country’ was not right.
DMK’s T R Baalu said, “Communal colour should not be given to this pandemic. I requested that the Prime Minister should prevail upon his party and cadres to ensure that the entire community is not targeted because of one incident.”
Additional support to States
The CPI(M) was represented by Rajya Sabha member Elamaram Kareem who, among other things, demanded that the Centre should immediately release all pending dues to the State governments. Citing Kerala’s example, he said a GST compensation arrears of nearly Rs 3000 crore was pending. “The Central assistance provided to Kerala for COVID-19 relief is Rs. 157 crore. It’s is only 1.4 per cent of the total Rs. 11,091 crores allocated nationally.” He sought a hike in financial assistance to the State.
Mr. Baalu also said Tamil Nadu lacked funds to handle the pandemic. “The State government asked for Rs. 9,000 crore and the Centre has given only Rs. 510 crore. Pudducherry asked for Rs. 950 crore but hasn’t been given a single penny.” Though the lockdown was essential, the MSMEs should be opened step by step.
Almost all the parties that attended the meeting criticised the government’s decision to suspend MPLAD funds for the next two years. The Congress and all other Opposition parties said the government should ensure that the funds were spent in the MPs’ respective constituencies.