Nirmala Sitharaman rebuts Opposition criticism on ‘act of God’ remark

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Lok Sabha during the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, in New Delhi on September 18, 2020.   | Photo Credit: PTI

As Opposition MPs slammed the Centre’s handling of COVID-19, the economic crisis, the GST stand-off with States and the lack of data on migrant worker deaths and job losses in the Lok Sabha on Friday, speaker after speaker poured especial scorn on Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement terming the impact of the pandemic as an “act of God”.

Also read: Chidambaram takes a dig at FM over ‘act of God’ remark

Those criticising her “act of God” statement were acting with condescension towards a woman Minister, said Ms. Sitharaman, noting that it had the same meaning as the “force majeure” clause repeatedly invoked in legal arguments.

Also read: Of gods and governments

Given that there was no cure or vaccine for the virus, and the government did not wish to raise money through heavier taxation, the Centre was taking all steps necessary to deal with the situation and move the country towards stability and recovery, she said.

MPs were discussing the first batch of supplementary demands for grants for 2020-21, with the Lok Sabha finally approving a gross additional expenditure of ₹2.35 lakh crore, including net cash outgo of almost ₹1.67 lakh crore.

Also read: Left parties slam Nirmala Sitharaman for ‘act of God’ comment

Responding to the debate, Ms. Sitharaman said this was the highest supplementary demand pitched, and emphasised that the additional resources were largely going towards people-centric activity including the PM Gareeb Kalyan Yojana relief scheme as well as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, which received its highest ever budget of ₹1 lakh crore this year.

“This government has got COVID-19 as a blessing in disguise. The government can now blame all its policy failures on this act of God. But people shouldn't forget that the failure of a once-promising economy is not an act of god but an act of bad governance,” said BSP MP Ritesh Pandey.

Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy also noted that “the economy was in a downward spiral even before the pandemic struck”, and asked the government to allocate more money to demand-side interventions like the MGNREGA scheme and recognise that unemployment is the biggest problem at the current time, rather than wasting its time on selling off airports and PSUs.

Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury called for a scheme for migrant workers, alleging that more than one thousand had died due to the stringency and suddenness of the lockdown and flaying the government’s lack of data on migrant workers.

Echoing the concerns of a number of regional parties, even those which supported the Centre in other aspects, DMK MP Dayanidhi Maran raised the thorny issue of GST compensation, and accused the Centre of using the “act of God” as an excuse to dilute its promises. He also objected to the cut in fixed deposit interest rates, saying the government was betraying the middle class by doing so, adding that the decision to slash MPLADS funds at a time when money was being spent on a lavish Central Vista project was a betrayal of the poor.

‘Long-term outlook’

BJP MP Jayant Sinha defended the allocation of ₹500 crore to build a new Parliament building as a part of the Central Vista project as an example of the long-term outlook of the government which is looking to the future not just the present.

“We need a new Parliament building for a new India,” he said,.

Mr. Sinha termed the supplementary demands as a “manifesto for atmanirbharta”, pointing to the ₹3,184 crore allocation for a strategic petroleum reserve at a time when oil prices are at a low in the global market as an example of the policy of self-reliance. He also pointed to number of macro-indicators including appreciation of the rupee against the dollar, the credit spread and the fall in demand for MGNREGA work as a sign of a strong recovery and a vote of confidence.

The Finance Minister also refuted criticism that the Centre was withholding money from the States, noting that the total transfer to States, tax plus grants, was higher than last year.

“Although Central gross tax revenue has fallen 30%, tax devolution to states has happened without any interruption, and has fallen only 12%,” she said, adding that grants were being frontloaded to ensure that States did not suffer.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 4:17:59 PM |

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