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'The government's priorities are all wrong'

By SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF
April 14, 2020 16:25 IST
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'The prime minister did not think that COVID-19 was a serious challenge as late as March 20.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi interacts with sportspersons like cricket star Virat Kohli on the coronavirus as Sports Minister Kiren Rijju looks on. Photograph: PTI Photo

Last week, the Congress party's Maharashtra unit set up a COVID-19 task force under former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan's leadership to assist the state government in tackling the coronavirus outbreak.

Maharashtra is the worst-affected state by the coronavirus and the government run by the Maha Vikas Aghadi -- an alliance of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress -- is doing all it can to curb the spread of the virus.

"There is a huge challenge -- first, the medical challenge of saving lives, second, the challenge of economic revival and the third, to address social tensions... The prime minister must get everyone on board -- the medical fraternity, public intellectuals, social scientists, economists and most important, Opposition leaders," Chavan -- who served as minister of state for science and technology in then prime minister Manmohan Singh's first government; he has a mechanical engineering degree from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and an MSc from the University of California, Berkeley -- tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com.

What exactly is the Congress's criticism of the Modi government's handling of the coronavirus crisis?

a. Failure to quarantine all passengers who flew into India, from March 1 till March 24 when the lockdown was imposed.

At this time we quarantined each one of those who were flown into India with our special defence aircraft or Air India chartered flights, say from China, Italy or Iran.

But those who flew in on their own were let go and only asked to give an undertaking that they would self-quarantine themselves and after stamping their hands.

b. The permission given by the Delhi police to the Tablighi Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi, to hold their programme. The Maharashtra government had refused permission to them.

c. There was no firm and decisive leadership at the Centre in Delhi.

They failed to impose uniform restrictions across the country, for instance, about the compulsory use of masks, quarantining passengers who came from abroad, and the export of essential drugs or even the personal protective equipment.

d. Even though the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 13, the health ministry insisted that it was not a health crisis.

They failed to comprehend the magnitude of the epidemic while it snowballed into a full-fledged economic and humanitarian catastrophe.

e. There was no comprehensive plan to evacuate Indian students and workers held up abroad. Even today there are more than 25,000 Indians stranded abroad and all are facing grave challenges.

f. 'Taali, Thali and Diwali' proved to be more of a nuisance to the administration rather than adding any real value to our fight against the epidemic.

We cannot win this war by symbolism and tokenism, but only by hard science.

g. There were unfortunate attempts by the ruling party to communalise the epidemic.

h. The government failed to control the spread of fake news -- some even by ministers.

For example, the MoS AYUSH (Minister of State Sripad Naik) said Britain's Prince Charles was cured with Ayurvedic medicine from India, or the MoS Health, Ashwani Kumar Chaubey. who said that sitting under the sun for a few minutes prevented COVID-19.

i. The lockdown was implemented with no prior planning, particularly regarding lakhs of migrant labourers stranded all over, across the states.

What do you think the Modi government should have done differently?

The government should have established clear lines of communication across various ministries and between the central and the state governments.

The Centre should have immediately established a group/task force of scientists, epidemiologists, economists, who should have publicly advised the government and briefed the media (as in the United States).

The prime minister should personally address a daily press conferences as is being done by United States President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister (Boris) Johnson (before he fell ill with coronavirus) or almost every other head of State or the head of government.

There was unnecessary controversy when President Trump threatened India with retaliation when India refused to export the hydroxychloroquine drug. This could have been resolved by quiet diplomacy.

IMAGE: Congress workers distribute food to the needy in Samanghat in the prime minister's Lok Sabha consitutency, Varanasi. Photograph: ANI Photo

What exactly has the Congress been doing in this crisis?
Are you proactively engaged in the relief and supplies to migrants, the poor, and unemployed, elderly, etc?

The MPCC (Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee) has constituted a task force under my chairmanship. There are 23 members.

We had two very successful video conferences with all the members immediately after the group was constituted. We hope to submit our first set of recommendations very soon.

Our office-bearers and party workers are involved in providing cooked food to poor and migrant workers.

As Maharashtra is facing an acute shortage of blood, Youth Congress members have successfully conducted blood and collected over 10,000 bottles of blood. They have also started a statewide helpline. There have been over 50,000 requests for help and guidance.

What notable work have you done in the states where you are in power?

The governments of Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have successfully managed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In Rajasthan, social sector pensions are being given in advance for the next two months. An amount of Rs 1,000 per month is being given to families whose livelihood has been impacted by the lockdown.

National Food Security Act beneficiaries (ration card holders) will get their ration free of cost in April and May.

In Chhattisgarh, electricity charges for low pressure consumers under the lump sum scheme will be charged at half the rate for two months.

Drones are being deployed to spray disinfectants in an 180 sq km area in Raipur. This would be extended to an area of 770 sq km in the next few days.

As of Punjab, a relief of Rs 3,000 is given to each registered construction worker in the state through direct benefit transfer. A total sum of ₹96 crore has been earmarked for this purpose.

The CM has announced the distribution of 10 lakh packets of dry ration containing 10 kg atta, 2 kg dal and 2 kg sugar to daily wage workers and unorganised sector and migrant labourers.

The CM has authorised the sarpanches to use panchayat funds to help people in their respective villages.

Funds at disposal of the urban local bodies are also being used to buy medicines and food for urban poor and the daily wage workers.

In your opinion, is the work done by Congress governments better than those governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party?

This is not a time to indulge in competitive populism.

We all must do the best possible under the circumstances. I am sure the BJP governments are all doing their best.

Do you think the poor, migrants, who have been solidly behind the prime minister so far have had their confidence shaken by this episode?

Let us not think of politics at this moment.

There is a huge challenge -- first, the medical challenge of saving lives, second, the challenge of economic revival and the third, to address social tensions.

There is a huge uncertainty as to how long the crisis will last.

The prime minister must get everyone on board -- the medical fraternity, public intellectuals, social scientists, economists and most important, Opposition leaders.

Why is Congress President Sonia Gandhi targeting the ambitious Central Vista redevelopment project by the Modi government?

The Central Vista project was cleared by the Government of India on March 20 with a price tag of Rs 20,000 crore.

I think the priorities of the government are all wrong.

It shows that the prime minister did not think that COVID-19 was a serious challenge as late as March 20.

No one in his right senses would plan to spend Rs 20,000 crore for a beautification project in this crisis.

Also, there is no unanimity about the proposed Central Vista Redevelopment project. Such contentious issues should not be taken up at such a point in time.

There are serious questions about destroying the heritage architecture of Lutyens Delhi. Do we really need a new Parliament building and an office complex? Many urban planners and architects have questioned the plan.

The project was never discussed in Parliament.

When the country is facing one of the gravest health and economic crises since its existence as an independent nation, it would be criminal even to think of spending so much money on beautification.

The News Broadcasters Association has criticised Sonia Gandhi for her suggestion to the PM on a complete ban on government advertisements, which the association says will put more pressure on the struggling media industry. Why was this suggestion made?

The Modi government has spent over Rs 5,200 crore on advertisements -- Rs 2,282 crore on the print media and another Rs 2,312 crore on audio-visual media in 2014-2015.

The Devendra Fadnavis-led government in Maharashtra spent an average of Rs 85,000 per day on advertising.

56 per cent of funds allocated for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao programme were spent on publicity.

Indeed, government advertising is essential for programmes to reach the masses, but unfortunately these funds were hugely misused by the BJP governments, both at the Centre and in the states.

While conceding the point made by the news organisations that government advertisements constitute a major source of revenue for them, one has to balance the expenditure on publicity against the money required to fight the current epidemic at this critical juncture.

Mrs Gandhi had appealed to the PM in that spirit.

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SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com
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