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New Delhi, May 22, 2020
Congress President Sonia Gandhi today said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement on May 12 of a Rs 20 lakh crore economic package to tide over the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, and the Finance Minister spelling out its details over the next five days, had 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 in her opening remarks to a video conference meting of 22 like-minded political parties.
"Apart from the plight of the migrant workers, those who have been cruelly ignored include the 13 crore families in the bottom half of the population, namely - the tenant farmers and landless agricultural workers; the laid off or retrenched workers and employees; the shopkeepers and the self-employed; the 5.8 crore out of the 6.3 crore MSMEs; and organized industries, including the large businesses, that drive our country’s growth," she said.
Gandhi began by pointing out that India was facing an economic crisis even before the first coronavirus cases were identified in the country.
"Demonetization and a hasty and flawed GST were amongst its main causes. The economic downturn began in 2017-18. Seven quarters of declining GDP growth was no ordinary event; it was unprecedented. Yet, the government carried on with its misguided policies and incompetent governance.
"As we all know, on March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. All of us in the Opposition offered our full support to the government. Even when the lockdown was imposed on March 24, with barely 4 hours’ notice, all of us supported the decision despite its suddenness and obvious unpreparedness of the government.
"The initial optimism of the Prime Minister that the war against the virus would conclude in 21 days has turned out to be misplaced. 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 government also stumbled badly on the testing strategy and the import of test kits. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to take its toll," she said.
Gandhi said the economy had been gravely crippled and every economist of repute had advised an immediate need for a massive fiscal stimulus.
"Many of us like minded parties had demanded that cash must be transferred to the poor, that free grain must be distributed to all families, that buses and trains must be arranged for the migrant workers to go back to their homes. We emphasized that Wage Assistance and Wage Protection Funds must be set up to protect the employees and the employers. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
"Far from offering succour and support, the government has embarked on a wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of PSUs and repeal of labour laws. There is not even a pretence of consultation with stakeholders or debate in Parliament. We deplore these unilateral moves.
"A number of renowned economists are predicting that 2020-21 will end with negative growth of up to minus 5 per cent. The consequences 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.
"The government has also abandoned any pretence of being a democratic government. All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO. 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.
"It is our duty to offer constructive criticism and suggestions, and be the voice of the people. It is in that spirit that we are meeting today," she added.