Framing an agenda for the Opposition

Already battling the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), West Bengal has been battered by Cyclone Amphan. While preparatory arrangements and evacuations of five lakh people by the state government ensured that the loss of life was minimised, the devastation suffered by families and the damage to public and private properties as well as the ecology of Bengal has been incalculable. The cyclone is a national calamity. In this hour of pain and tragedy, Bengal seeks everyone’s cooperation. All stakeholders, state and central, have to come together to provide relief and solace to those who are suffering.

It is against this backdrop that Opposition parties meet on Friday, for the first time since Covid-19 hit India. There is much to discuss. Many states are run by parties that are in Opposition at the Centre. They will share experiences. They will also compare notes on the Centre’s response and on the gap between its words and deeds. The political impact of the Covid-19 response and the spirit of federalism will inevitably come up.

It is important to note that all Opposition parties were not always on the same page. In early March, the Trinamool Congress, and a few others, were aggressive in urging adjournment of Parliament and taking coordinated steps. The National Democratic Alliance government would not listen. Some Opposition parties decided to trust its judgment. Meanwhile, in West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee began preparing, regardless of New Delhi’s views.

When the 21-day national lockdown was announced, at just four hours’ notice and without consultation, the Opposition parties and their state governments continued to be supportive. They abided by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s request to eschew politics in this hour. It is another matter that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to politicise the response to Covid-19 in the states, with the bulk of the party-sanctioned online drivel being reserved for Bengal.

The BJP and the Centre have showboated their efforts. They have grabbed publicity, but left the states to handle the crisis. I will illustrate with two sets of examples: Testing and cost of treatment; and the so-called economic stimulus announced last week.

On April 22, the West Bengal government was the first to announce free treatment for Covid-19 patients in private hospitals requisitioned by the state. The government undertook the cost. On April 30, the Maharashtra government imposed a price cap on Covid-19 treatment by private hospitals. It took a leaf out of West Bengal’s book and extended free treatment to all residents of the state under the state health insurance scheme.

This is how states learnt from each other. What did the Centre do? It confused everybody on the testing protocol and was at sixes and sevens when it came to providing overarching guidance to states, both before and after March 24. Testing labs could be cleared for Covid-19 only by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The Union health ministry and ICMR took their time. In states where 20 laboratories were required, and available, only two were cleared.

Once the clearances came, the states got to work. Laboratories have been working in double and triple shifts to ramp up testing. Bengal is testing close to 9,000 samples a day, among the highest in India. If we could not test so many earlier, it was because the clearances and kits from the Centre did not arrive. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. Governments from Bengal to Chhattisgarh and Kerala to Punjab have complained of such over-centralisation. While many states have gradually increased their testing numbers over two months, I must point to the curious case of Gujarat. It showed a jump from 3,000 to 10,000 tests in a single day. Is there something more than meets the eye?

The Centre has been talking about Ayushman Bharat and its role in the Covid-19 fightback. How credible are such claims? Let me give you some numbers. Of the 2.5 million tests done, only 3,000 — 0.12% — have been covered by Ayushman Bharat. Of the 100,000 people who have tested positive, only 2,000 — about 2% — have been treated under Ayushman Bharat. Make your own assessment.

Now I come to the stimulus package. We are in a crisis and standard macroeconomic principles say the government must immediately stimulate demand. Of the 500 million-strong Indian workforce, 93% work in the unorganised sector. Many have lost livelihoods, without savings or any safety net. A massive direct cash infusion — one can debate the exact quantum — is unavoidable. But the Centre has carefully avoided this.

The Centre has placed the burden on the state governments, telling them it has raised the borrowing limit under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act from 3% of the Gross State Domestic Product to 5%. The states would have welcomed this, if not for the fine print. The increase is only from 3% to 3.5%, after which it becomes conditional on impossible benchmarks that include one nation-one ration card; power sector reform (a pipedream in the midst of an economic crisis); or augmenting urban local body revenues (at a time when city economies are reeling).

Then, there is the abandonment of guest (migrant) workers. Clearly, there’s much on the Covid-19 response to discuss at today’s Opposition meeting.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on Hindustan Times | Friday, May 22, 2020]

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