3 steps government should take to save jobs in tourism

The Prime Minister’s speech on June 30 coincided with the inauguration of Unlock 2.0. This is the phase when government policy should gradually be making the transition from relief to repair – repair of the economy from the ill-planned lockdown. Unfortunately, the speech had little in terms of economic foresight and planning. It is not that the government is without funds. Raising petrol and diesel prices, and accessing the Rs 8,000 crore saved following the suspension of the MPLAD scheme, has given the government room to spend. We had suggested that this money be used to transfer Rs 10,000 directly to the accounts of each worker in the unorganized sector, who comprise nearly 90% of our workforce. But this government has decided to ignore workers and has chosen not to upfront help small businesses, especially in those sectors that generate enormous employment, both direct and indirect.

One such industry is hospitality and travel. To tell you its plight, and to explain how some of this could have been anticipated, let me take you back to March 5, almost four months ago. India was in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a country, we had only 30 positive cases. Even so, it was apparent to some of us that the danger was coming. The government continued to be in denial, but in neighbouring and regional countries, the panic was starting and the numbers were mounting. Six days later, the World Health Organisation formally declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a “pandemic”.

Why am I referring to March 5? On that day, in my capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Travel, Culture and Tourism, I wrote to the chair of the Committee. I urged the Committee to take suo motu cognizance of the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation and tourism industry, and meet as early as it could.

My letter was ignored. The BJP is never in a mood to listen to constructive suggestions made by an opposition MP. In March, the party’s attention was on another MP – Madhya Pradesh – where defections were being organized and a state government was being toppled. The Committee finally met on March 18. It was a desultory effort. Few took the pandemic seriously, even though the number of cases was nearly 200 by then and calls for a lockdown had begun to be heard. The rest is history.

Tourism has been knocked out cold by COVID-19. It will be among the last industries to recover. People will regain full confidence to travel only when a vaccine is developed, and the impact can be imagined. Tourism accounts for nearly 10 per cent of India’s GDP and employs 12.75 per cent of our workforce (2019-20 figures). A Business of Travel Trade survey estimates 40 per cent of companies in the travel and tourism sector are at risk of closure over the next six months.

A massive 81 per cent of travel and tourism companies have lost 100 per cent of their revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A further 15 per cent have lost up to 75 per cent. According to the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality, between 38 and 50 million jobs are at risk. If even large, homegrown, well-funded players like MakeMyTrip, Yatra, Goibibo and Oyo are struggling, imagine the plight of the smaller players. As COVID-19 numbers keep rising, the risk to livelihoods will also continue to rise. The aviation industry is likely to suffer a loss of US$ 11.2 billion due to COVID-19. This could claim 2.9 million jobs.

Even before the pandemic, the travel and tourism sector was the step-child of the government. Budget allocations this year were low, despite the promise of making India an “incredible” destination. The optimists had hoped that tourism would be recognised as an export industry and get tax benefits, but the Finance Minister made no such announcement. Infrastructure and connectivity gaps were not substantially addressed either.

There were expectations that the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package would provide some relief to travel and tourism. Sadly, this Rs 20 lakh crore package – more a rebranded loan scheme than a genuine stimulus – offered very little for travel and tourism stakeholders. As I wrote earlier, the travel and tourism industry is critical for jobs and livelihoods. The airline pilot, earning a handsome salary, and the guide at a heritage monument, living off what he gets from tourists who engage him, are part of the same ecosystem. We can’t forget them.

Here is a wish list for this industry:

– Provide a tax holiday to all MSMEs, including travel and tourism companies, till the end of financial year 2020-21. If necessary, this can later be extended to the next financial year.

– Incentivise Indian citizens through income tax benefits (like tax deductions on expenses) for holidaying within India. Also incentivise Indian companies that hold meetings, conferences and events at venues in India by providing tax rebates.

– Extend the RBI loan moratorium from three months to twelve months, while ceasing the classification of loans as NPAs during this period. This will support many travel and tourism companies that are suffering a big drop in business. For some of them, and their employees, such a move will be a life saver.

I hope somebody is listening.

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

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Wednesday, July 1, 2020]

The government imposed a flawed lockdown. It has caused immense suffering

June 25 marked exactly three months since the initial 21-day lockdown that began as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Announced at four hours’ notice, without consultations with chief ministers, the lockdown was Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s big solution to the greatest public health challenge of our times. The lockdown, however, has proven to be the biggest fiasco of our times.

Let me explain with numbers — not opinions, but hard numbers. As the lockdown began, there were 86 new cases reported in India on March 25. By June 1, the date of Unlock 1.0, the transition to a post-lockdown phase, the number of new daily cases was 7,723.

Three weeks later (June 21), it was 15,140. And rising. Far from flattening the curve by the end of May — or whenever this had been promised at the evasive union health ministry briefings — the number of cases is only rising. India is now expected to reach a peak in cases towards the end of July or even August. Nobody can say anything with any certainty or credibility.

The implementation of the lockdown left a lot to be desired. The period was wasted and not used to ramp up testing and other capacities. India is now number four among all countries when it comes to the Covid-19 caseload, but, at the beginning of this week, was ranked at 139 when it came to testing per million population. Initially, the Centre did not supply an adequate number of testing kits to the states. The kits that were then sent to the states were faulty and unusable.

The lockdown has come at an immense economic cost. In March — as the coronavirus crisis began to become obvious, with the government in denial for weeks on end — $16 billion of foreign capital left India, an all-time high. In April, the unemployment rate rose to 23.8%, another all-time high. In April, exports dropped by 60% as well.

About two of every five micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and self-employed businesses have started shutting down for good. As per the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India, there was an 84% dip in textile sales. Overall, the 21-day lockdown cost India an estimated Rs 35,000 crore a day.

An economy is ultimately about people. Left to fend for themselves, ordinary Indians suffered immeasurably during the lockdown. As many as 92 million urban Indians and 89 million rural Indians exhausted their savings within the first 21-day lockdown. By the end of June, 139 million urban Indians are anticipated to run out of their savings .

People were left desperate. The stories of migrant workers, denied even trains till May 1, and forced to buy tickets after that, is well known. But do you know the total number of non-Covid-19 deaths during the lockdown? Here’s the break-up : Exhaustion: 47; starvation and financial distress: 167; absence of medical support: 63; migrant workers trying to walk home: 209; and those who died on shramik trains: 95.

That adds up to 581 deaths — deaths completely unrelated to the coronavirus and deaths directly correlated to a poorly-planned, poorly-executed lockdown. Who is responsible?

An economic stimulus for business and, much more important, a relief package for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens is to be expected after a catastrophe such as Covid-19 and the lockdown. Germany has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 1.5 times that of India’s and El Salvador a GDP that is 100th the size of India. Both these countries, and so many others, have announced generous cash transfers to those who need them.

In India, the government has stubbornly to refused to provide genuine cash transfers to the poorest of the poor, those who have lost jobs and even hopes of an income. Instead, a Rs 20 lakh crore-loan programme has been announced, masquerading as a relief package .

Three months after that dramatic 8 pm announcement, this is where India stands. Was a lockdown of some sort needed to tackle the pandemic? Without a doubt, it was. But did the government give us the lockdown we needed, with the preparations and the in-period systemic upgrades and capacity enhancements that we deserved? The answer to that is a resounding No.

The result is that an economy that was already sinking by the beginning of 2020 has now been knocked down. India is facing not an ordinary slowdown but the deepest recession in post-Independence history. This is the unfortunate legacy of the past three months.

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

[This article appeared in Hindustan Times| Thursday, June 26, 2020]

Neil O’Brien: The ‘Bengali’ Anglo Indian whom Calcutta loved back

A tribute to the quintessential Quiz Master of all seasons in the form of, what else, a quiz

It was on this day four years ago that my father, Neil O’Brien, left for the Big Library in the Sky. As a man always surrounded by books – as an author, a publisher, an educationist, an unceasing, unresting and inquisitive reader who converted his formidable knowledge to quizzing success – I like to imagine that Dad’s idea of heaven was a large room filled with shelves and shelves of books!

For four years, I have largely remained silent about my father. I have grieved for him and I think of him – and of my mother, Joyce, who joined him one-and-a-half years ago. – almost every day. Yet, I did not speak at the memorial service, leaving my more articulate brothers to deliver the eulogies. I did not contribute to the wonderful book of stories and remembrances, with lovely pieces by Neil’s friends and family, that we released soon after he left us.

I was fortunate that my father was well-known and well-loved in our city. Neil loved Calcutta as few have, and his city loved him back. Part of the problem in writing about him is that he is such a familiar figure to just so many people in the city, and in the rest of the country. There is very little I can say about him that others have not already said. Nevertheless let me make an attempt, and give you five facets to Neil O’Brien that you probably didn’t know. Let me also do something typical of him, and frame each of these as a quiz question.

This is doubly appropriate because he was among the founding columnists of TheTelegraph. The Sunday quiz column that began in July 1982 was a passion for him, with Neil going through hundreds and hundreds of postcards and inland letters sent by readers across the city, across Bengal and further afield, with questions to share or something to ask.

1. Which calling was Neil contemplating till he met the woman in his life?

As a shy young lad, Neil had a nerdy, bookish existence, with occasional excitement on the hockey field. He was a regular at church though and frequently did duty as an altar boy. At St Xavier’s, a Belgian Jesuit priest, Father John Biot, became a mentor – on the sports field, on the stage, and in offering spiritual guidance.

Father Biot was particularly impressed by Neil’s learning of Latin, so much a part of Catholic ceremonies, and encouraged him to consider entering the clergy. Neil was strongly inclined till one day, at the age of 21, he met Joyce at a party. It was love at first sight and God helped him make up his mind. Father Biot attended the wedding and blessed the couple.

2. How did a lightning call to Madras (now Chennai) change Neil’s life?

It was 1977, and a new government had just come to office in Bengal. Neil was in the city we now know as Chennai for a business visit when two of his close friends, both associated with the new ruling party, dropped in and asked Joyce where Neil was. It was an urgent matter and couldn’t wait; the chief minister wanted to see him.

She shrugged her shoulders and said he was travelling and would be back in a couple of days. Those were times before mobile phones. In fact we didn’t even have a landline at home. Joyce would only hear from Neil when, as had been pre-arranged, he would dial a neighbour’s landline from his hotel, late in the evening.

The two gentlemen were in a hurry and asked Joyce to phone them as soon as Neil contacted her, and to get his hotel phone number. Neil’s whereabouts were duly traced late in the evening and a lightning call was booked. His friends told Neil that he had to rush back immediately as he was going to be nominated to the state assembly as the Anglo-Indian MLA. “Me?”, he said incredulously, “not possible. I know nothing about politics. Besides I have my meetings set up for tomorrow and certainly can’t come now. Find someone else.”

It took a lot of persuasion for the gentlemen to convince Neil that they were serious. He reluctantly agreed to change his tickets and come back earlier than planned, but only after he had kept his appointments in Chennai. On his return, he went off to meet the chief minister, a fellow Xaverian. And so began a three-term stint in the state assembly, which ended when he refused a renomination in 1991.

3. Why did Neil sit in a room in a church on Ripon Street three evenings every week?

Neil had friends from all walks of life, all religions and all backgrounds. He never saw himself as limited to the Anglo-Indian community, though of course he had many Anglo-Indian friends and associates. When he became MLA for the community in 1977, he came face to face with the diversity of the significant Anglo-Indian population in Bengal. There were dimensions and challenges he had not experienced or even known. He was now expected to provide solutions.

As he wondered how to go about it, Joyce gave him excellent advice: “Meet and listen to people and their problems. That’s the best way.” There was wisdom in those words. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, after work, Neil and Joyce would go to St Mary’s Church on Ripon Street and meet folks from the community. Senior citizens battling land sharks; a broken marriage; alcoholism in the family; a young man’s quest for a job; a teacher seeking career advice for herself – Neil listened, engaged and tried to help. Joyce and he were the last to leave, after meeting everyone who had come that day.

The interactions formally continued from 1977 to 1991, but actually extended till his very death. They gave Neil an unmatched insight into the community. He made himself useful to literally thousands of families. “I saw Anglo-Indians at their best,” he once told a friend, recalling those evenings at St Mary’s, “and I saw them at their worst.”

4. Why did Neil turn down a chance to enter the Lok Sabha in 1991?

Till recently, two Anglo-Indians would be nominated to the Lok Sabha after each general election. This was a Constitutional provision. In 1991, the lawyer Frank Anthony, who had seen Neil blossom as a leader of the community from Bengal, gradually making his name nationally, decided to step down as long-standing MP. He was getting on and recommended Neil.

Neil spoke to his employers at Oxford University Press. OUP had been virtually family since the mid-1960s. Publishing was Neil’s natural home. He had a degree in economics and an MA in English literature. He was a voracious reader and keen editor. He had begun in sales and knew the commercial aspects of the business as few did. He was the perfect all-rounder and an obvious prospect for the top job. If he became an MP, however, OUP could no longer consider him for the managing director’s position.

That was it. The MD’s role in OUP meant much more to Neil than becoming an MP. He met Frank Anthony and senior people in the government to convey his polite refusal. Frank Anthony was surprised but, I suspect, also proud of his protégé. It was only in 1997, when Neil had retired from OUP, that he finally entered the Lok Sabha.

5. Why did Joyce call Neil her “Bengali husband”?

In very many ways, Neil was very Bengali in his habits and instincts. It was part of his upbringing, brought up in Jamir Lane by his Bengali doctor grandmother who taught him the local language as a child. This middle class Bengali neighbourhood was his home all his life; here he was always “Neil da”, never “Mr O’Brien”.

His food habits were tellingly Bengali. He loved fish but Joyce, the devoted wife, had to painstakingly pick the bones for him. Like so many Bengali husbands, he depended on the Mrs to choose his clothes and pack his suitcase before he left for a work trip. He had no idea what was inside.

Christmas Day saw an open house at Neil’s and Joyce’s. Many dishes were cooked, but the centrepiece of the Christmas lunch was Bengali-style chicken curry, dal and Gobindobhog rice … Maybe that’s what I’ll have for lunch today – rice, dal and Bengali-style chicken curry with that signature aloo. Neil would be happy.

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

[This article appeared in The Telegraph (online edition)| Wednesday, June 24, 2020]

Govt has belatedly realised MGNREGA scheme’s significance

In the media discussions on the novel coronavirus numbers and testing, on public health mismanagement, on the suffering of migrant workers and on the unplanned lockdown, one issue has missed the headlines — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Programme, better known by the acronym MGNREGA.

A prime minister who once, on the floor of Parliament, dismissed MGNREGA as a scheme for “digging holes” is today, banking on it to rescue distressed rural citizens. This realisation is belated, but worth it. MGNREGA is, perhaps, the world’s largest social welfare programme, with about 120 million beneficiaries. With unemployment figures at a 45-year high, and with the added economic destruction caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, MGNREGA numbers are set to rise.

Migrant workers (I’d prefer to call them guest workers) returning home to their villages are seeking work under MGNREGA. Since April 2020, 3.5 million new workers have enrolled under this programme. This is greater than the number of new workers in the previous year. It speaks volumes of the gravity of the situation.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the BJP government at the Centre was attempting to weaken and dismantle MGNREGA. In 2015, the Prime Minister even disparaged it as a “living monument of failure”. Further, both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets reduced MGNREGA allocations in comparison to actual expenditure in the previous year.

From mechanising work that could have been undertaken by manual labour as part of MGNREGA, to not clearing the wage bills of state governments, the central government has done much to undermine the programme. In the financial year 2019-20, 95 per cent of the MGNREGA outlay had been spent by January, with two months still remaining: The ministry of rural development sought an additional Rs 20,000 crore. It was given only Rs 5,000 crore.

And now, suddenly, the Narendra Modi government has taken a U-turn. It claims to have bolstered MGNREGA. But, here again, the numbers hide more than they reveal. Take three examples: First, in March, the minimum daily wage was enhanced by Rs 20 to reach Rs 202. This is lower than the minimum wage in 31 states and union territories.

Second, the Centre makes claims of a Rs 2,000 increase in annual household income. This calculation presumes 100 days of work. Actually, MGNREGA has generated employment for only 45-50 days in the last few years. Third, the finance minister has announced Rs 40,000 crore extra for MGNREGA. However, Rs 11,500 crore of this is payment for previous dues. With the remainder, the Centre talks of generating 300 crore, or three billion person-days of work. But the April-May 2020 period shows that MGNREGA employment was less than half of what it was during the same period in 2019.

Such grandstanding is disappointing. But the fact is, common citizens in our country are facing a life and death situation. In the national interest, the Centre and the states should work together and we in the opposition must offer constructive suggestions.

On MGNREGA, there is a four-fold path that the BJP government needs to adopt. First, it should ensure that each registered worker receives the full 100 days of work. This is critical after the pandemic. Second, wages need to be further revised and linked to the rural consumer price index. The current MGNREGA wage of Rs 202 a day is 40-50 per cent lower than the average unskilled daily wage in India. An expert committee had suggested in 2019 that it be revised to Rs 375 a day.

Third, all wages need to be cleared within 15 days from the day work is done as stipulated in the Act. This is far from the norm on the ground. And fourth, the unemployment allowance period of 15 days should be extended to provide states and workers with some relief. The Centre should also increase its share of payments for raw materials to ease fiscal pressures on states. This is not the time to haggle.

The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has been alive to the utility and efficacy of MGNREGA. For the past three years, the state has won the award for best implementation of the programme. Between 2011 and 2019, during the Trinamool years in office, the annual expenditure on MGNREGA has gone up 200 per cent. The annual generation of person-days has risen from 150 million to 330 million. In April 2020, Bengal featured in the top three states in terms of person-days of work.

It is ironic that while India celebrated Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in October 2019, the fate of an employment guarantee programme named after him hung in the balance. “Poverty,” Gandhi once said, “is the worst form of violence.” As things stand, MGNREGA is a key instrument to prevent violence and suffering in rural India in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus. The Centre must take note.

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

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Thursday, June 11, 2020]

Modi-Shah and Railways Minister have a lot to answer for

Perhaps the most tragic and disheartening aspect of India’s battle against the novel Coronavirus pandemic has been the fate of migrant workers – those stranded in another state, suddenly without a job, a livelihood or even a roof above. It was clear from moment one that migrant workers had to go home. This was an economic and emotional necessity. They needed to feel secure in their native villages and with their families. Since a lockdown was announced with only four hours’ notice, this was not done. And a summer’s sordid tragedy began to play itself out. It was so avoidable. MPs were given 48 hours to fly home from Delhi – but guest workers, at the bottom of the pyramid, were given only four hours!

Consider an alternative scenario. Indian Railways has the capacity to carry 23 million passengers a day. About half its passengers undertake suburban travel in cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Long-distance passenger traffic, therefore, carries approximately 12 million passengers a day.

When the lockdown was imposed, all passenger trains were shut down. So this entire 12 million passenger capacity was available. Imposing norms of social distancing and halving capacity, Indian Railways could still have moved six million passengers per day – from one state to another, from distant cities to near the workers’ villages.

By this calculation, 30 million passengers could have been transported in five days after the lockdown. If one presumes that there would have been heavy traffic on some rail tracks and routes travelling east – where most of the migrant workers would have headed – this five-day window could have been extended to a week. That’s all we needed.

In this period, the Ministry of Railways chased mirages. It set aside 5,000 non-airconditioned coaches for isolation beds for coronavirus patients. Where are these coaches and how many, if any, have been used? And how would patients have survived in non-airconditioned coaches in the first place? Was anything thought through beyond aiming for headlines?

On May 1, amid much fanfare and publicity, the special trains for migrants finally started. To add to the callousness, passengers, out of work for weeks, were asked to pay for tickets. The central government claimed the migrant workers were not paying, it produced some bogus and technical calculations to show that it is paying 85 per cent of the cost.

Two or three digital platforms have been tracking migrant workers and their stories on the ground for several weeks. Most migrant workers they have spoken to have bought their train tickets and some have even taken loans to do so. Since the fares were benchmarked against premium trains like Shatabdi and Rajdhani, migrant workers paid between Rs 700 and 900 for a ticket. Plus there was the cost of taking buses to and from stations.

While the centre has ignored its responsibility, states have shouldered the burden. Bengal, for instance, has paid for the transportation of all migrant workers it has welcomed home.

While the central government actually runs the trains, the background work is done by state governments. States have to screen passengers when they come in. They have to monitor migrant workers during home or institutional quarantine. They have to ensure symptomatic passengers are sent to hospitals and treated. It is therefore absolutely essential to reach perfect coordination between the state of departure, the state of arrival and Indian Railways. Trains should run only when the states are ready.

Here, too, the Ministry of Railways has tried to undermine federalism and suit its convenience. It has rammed through schedules. Maharashtra was keen to send migrant workers home and Bengal was happy to receive them. The two state governments were negotiating a staggered schedule to ensure all safety protocols were maintained. In the middle of this, Indian Railways announced a schedule of 37 Maharashtra-Bengal trains, one after the other, rapid fire. The state governments were not even notified and there was an attempt to create a misunderstanding between Mumbai and Kolkata.

Other pinpricks emerged. The Aarogya Setu app is not mandatory for migrant workers, and the Ministry of Home Affairs has not asked Indian Railways to force migrant workers to download it. But confusion reigned. Railway zonal offices were told verbally, not in writing, to get passengers to download the app before boarding trains. This was done just hours prior to departure. Unthinking policy making put already harassed migrant workers through hell.

The upshot of this is states such as Bengal, which have managed the pandemic fairly smoothly, are being penalised. Today, Bengal is conducting an average of 9,000 tests daily, with a manageable confirmation rate of 2.5 per cent. If migrant workers had been allowed to come back at an earlier stage, when fear of infection was lower, or been sent gradually, it would have been fine. But Indian Railways is forcing a surge of arrivals. And things are becoming unpredictable.

Mo-Sha and their rail minister have a lot to answer for. Let parliament reconvene.


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

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Monday, June 1, 2020]

Wrecked by Amphan, Bengal gets no real assistance from Centre

Cyclone Amphan is simply the biggest natural disaster seen in this lifetime for many. It is believed to be the most devastating cyclone to hit Bengal since 1737, almost 300 years ago and well before the Battle of Plassey. The damage the cyclone inflicted upon Kolkata has been well recorded. Human lives have been lost and families and communities disrupted. Property has been destroyed. Key infrastructure has been crippled. Tall, proud trees, decades or even a century old, have been uprooted brutally.

While each death is regrettable, the government had managed to evacuate 800,000 people at short notice. This ensured that the Cyclone Amphan death toll was limited. Authorities and disaster response teams are working 24/7 to reach, with relief supplies, people who are marooned. It’s been a gruelling week.

While Kolkata has got a little national media attention, the situation is more serious in the rural hinterland of Bengal. Cyclone Amphan has affected 60 per cent of the state’s population. 18 of Bengal’s 23 districts have been jolted, and the blow to agricultural Bengal has been incalculable. Assets of farming communities, whether humble houses or harvested crops, nurtured over months of back-breaking labour, have been reduced to nothing. The tragedy is beyond description.

A high tide results in coastal areas being flooded by saline water. This makes fertile, cultivable land unsuitable for cropping. When saline water overruns lakes and ponds, it chokes animal and aquatic life (like fish) that seeks potable water. Initial assessments tell us over a million hectares of farmland and 58,000 hectares of fisheries have been inundated by saline water. In the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, 17,800 hectares of mangrove forests have suffered damage. Four million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood – whether in agriculture, fishing, wildlife tourism or honey collection. They now contemplate a troubled future.

District after district paints a familiar and tragic pattern. Let me give you a few examples:

– North 24 Parganas: About 190,000 hectares of agricultural land flooded

– South 24 Parganas: Agricultural damage estimated at Rs 2,500 crore

– East Medinipur: Some 47,000 hectares of farmland destroyed

– Hooghly: 810 of 857 hectares of land set aside for grain cultivation now unusable

– Nadia: Crops across 150,000 hectares damaged

– Murshidabad: Destruction stretching to 175,000 hectares of agricultural land, valued at Rs 1,140 crore

– East Burdwan: A massive 42,000 hectares of bodo paddy land destroyed with a financial implication of almost Rs 400 crore

And this is not just an issue for Bengal, it has consequences for national food security. Bengal produces 20 per cent of India’s rice and a third of its potato crop.

As can be imagined, the rebuilding of Bengal will be a monumental exercise. Immediately following the cyclone, the Trinamool Congress government set up task forces at the state level and for individual districts to implement and monitor relief and rehabilitation ops. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked officials to send district-wise reports on agricultural losses. This was priority.

One million homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the cyclone. Important steps have begun to be taken. The Bengal government is sending Rs 20,000 to each affected family. A sum of Rs 5,000 is being sent to each betel leaf farm that has been damaged. Scientists and researchers have developed varieties of rice that can be grown in salt water. Arrangements are being made to distribute such seeds. Salt water fish that can thrive in ponds inundated by salt water are being pushed.

As per the National Disaster Management Plan 2016, Cyclone Amphan is fit to be classified as an L3 category disaster: “A catastrophic situation or a very large-scale disaster that overwhelms state or district authorities”. This classification was accorded to the Kerala floods of 2018. But till date, the central government has not classified Cyclone Amphan as an L3 category event.

An L3 category classification means the disaster is judged big enough to have overwhelmed state and district authorities and their financial resources, including the State Disaster Relief Fund. It obligates the centre to support the state. In the absence of an L3 classification, the central government is under no compulsion to help. It is quizzical that the European Union has pledged an initial €500,000 to assist India in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan – but the centre has offered Bengal only Rs 1,000 crore so far.

I may add here that Bengal has not received a rupee in assistance for the damage done by Cyclone Bulbul in 2019. Over 200,000 hectares of farmland was wrecked and the Mamata Banerjee government used its own resources to help affected farmers and their families. There is also the issue of the Rs 53,000 crore the centre owes Bengal under various heads – central schemes, devolution of funds, GST, and so on.

Why is the centre holding back? Has the BJP taken the cynical view that it is okay for Bengal to suffer for the next one year so as to help the party with its 2021 assembly election campaign? I hope I’m wrong.


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

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Thursday, May 28, 2020]

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]

Accountability can’t be placed under lockdown

The BJP government at the Centre owes the country many answers on its handling of the pandemic

As it moves from a stringent nationwide lockdown to disaggregated and differentiated lockdowns, India has much to think about. It is coming out of a gruelling, bruising two months. This experience holds lessons for the rest of the long battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reveals a lot about governance and planning, Centre-State relations, and the care and dignity that government policies accord citizens.

The hardest questions will, of course, be for the Bharatiya Janata Party government in New Delhi. It declared a total lockdown giving just a four-hour notice to the citizens, without consulting State governments. How should we judge it?

Language provides a clue. Any institution — a company, a cultural organisation, a political party or a government — is identifiable by its trademark vocabulary, by the words and phrases it uses most often. For the BJP government, these are “masterstroke”, “surgical strike”, “shock treatment” and “secrecy”. It thrives on sudden, dramatic moves — never mind the absence of planning.

A little over a decade ago, the author-activist Naomi Klein wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It was a warning against ill-conceived shock actions for restructuring society, and how these could lead to disaster. Those promoting the “shock doctrine” take advantage of a crisis situation and of a benumbed population desperate for answers and trusting of those in charge. Yet the trust is never really repaid. Ever since that 8 p.m. lockdown announcement on March 23, I have thought so often of Ms. Klein and her book.

Delayed response

And it need not have been this way. The first three weeks of March were wasted by the Central government. On March 5, the Trinamool Congress wrote and urged that parliamentary committees be convened for emergency meetings to plan for COVID-19. On the same day the West Bengal government began creating isolation wards for future COVID-19 patients. The following day, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set up quick response teams.

The Centre did nothing. It spoke perfunctorily about social distancing but ignored its own warnings. Repeated appeals to adjourn Parliament were ignored. After two weeks of trying, an exasperated Trinamool Congress finally withdrew its MPs from both Houses. In West Bengal, Ms. Banerjee had already initiated a partial lockdown when the Central announcement came.

The issue of guest workers

Since the BJP government acted so late in the day, it was expected that a detailed blueprint was in place. The issue of guest workers, for example, was an obvious one. In fact, on March 26 itself, Ms. Banerjee wrote to counterparts in other States requesting that they take care of stranded guest workers from West Bengal and promised reciprocal treatment for workers living in the State. In the following days, West Bengal sent ₹1,000 to each of the 4,00,000 stranded workers across the country, without noise.

What did the Centre do? On guest workers, it remained in denial. It used the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 to override State governments but ignored key provisions of the National Disaster Management Plan. The Plan clearly emphasises the critical importance of social inclusion during a disaster, to ensure the well-being of vulnerable groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the differently abled, the elderly, women and children, and of course migrant workers (many of whom are covered by the other categories).

The Union Finance Ministry held three press conferences displaying insensitivity to human dignity. The Supreme Court has held that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely a physical right; it includes the right to live with human dignity. The treatment extended to many underprivileged citizens, especially guest workers, was in complete violation of human dignity. The Central government told the Supreme Court that there were no guest workers on the roads and highways. This was at the very time that social media (and only one or two brave television channels) were full of visuals of workers trudging miles and miles. Guidelines for inter-State travel of guest workers were issued almost a month into the lockdown. It was all very callous.

We all know of the tragic Aurangabad incident that saw a goods train mow down 16 migrant workers. They, like millions of others on highways, were walking to their villages and collapsed in exhaustion on the railway tracks — too exhausted to hear the train coming. The Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Railways Minister have been all but absent during this monumental crisis during which millions of poor guest workers have been abandoned. All this while the Minister was presiding over the Indian Railways with its daily ferrying capacity of 23 million people.

On May 1, the migrant worker trains began with much fanfare. Here too the Centre showed a cold heart. It sought to charge migrant workers, passing on the responsibility of collecting the fares to State governments. The State governments showed greater responsibility. West Bengal paid to bring home those stranded in Kota, Vellore, Chennai, and other parts of India. We welcomed back 1,50,000 of our people and did so ungrudgingly. All along the Railway Ministry was quibbling and haggling over money, blaming the State governments and sanctimoniously declaring that matters should not be politicised. It was surreal.

One would have thought the Centre was short of funds and State governments were awash with money. That is far from true. The sudden lockdown didn’t give the States a chance to prepare, and their revenues collapsed. In addition, the Centre, which already owes the States money, has been unwilling to help. The Central government owes West Bengal ₹61,000 crore, ₹36,000 crore of which is backlog dues. There is no sign of any money coming; only empty press conferences. How are States expected to pay for the re-opening and repair of their devastated economies?

The examples I have cited have been focused: the Centre showed delay in waking up to the COVID-19 situation and preparing for it; remained oblivious to the suffering of migrant workers; valued money over lives; did not support the States for even basic and essential welfare programmes; and ignored the dignity of ordinary, decent, hard-working and troubled people. The Centre has also not procured equipment such as test kits and not allowed States to do so. It finally sent test kits that didn’t work and needed to be withdrawn; bullied States and mangled federalism; and introduced a contact-tracing app without explaining it, without wider consultation, and without an ordinance or enabling legal provision. On all of these the Central government has to provide answers and has to be held to account. After all, in a democracy, accountability cannot be placed under a lockdown.


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

[This article appeared on The Hindu | Tuesday, May 19, 2020]

For migrant workers, BJP has neither heart nor conscience

Earlier this week, all of us woke up to a nightmare – to the horrific news of 17, at last count, migrant workers being run over by a goods train in Aurangabad. They were walking home, hundreds of miles, from Maharashtra to their villages in Madhya Pradesh. Exhausted, they had dropped to sleep on the tracks and hadn’t heard the train coming.

This tragic episode was the culmination of weeks of apathy shown by the centre towards stranded migrant workers. The heart-wrenching visuals of migrant workers and their families walking down highways, with hunger in their eyes and blisters on their feet, were enough to shake any conscience. The central government, however, offered only a blind eye.

Between the time parliament was adjourned and the restrictions began, MPs were given two days to board flights and return to their home states. But for the rest, a 21-day lockdown was announced with just four hours’ notice. Whodunit? Somebody must be answerable. The sudden firman led to panic for millions, and a mad scramble to find any means to get home. Jobs dried up overnight, leaving workers destitute. With no respite in sight, the only request such workers had was to be allowed to go home.

But for weeks, such pleas fell on deaf ears. The centre was so far removed from ground reality that on March 31, the Solicitor General told the Supreme Court there were no migrants on the streets and highways. This at a time when reports and pictures were flooding in from across the country – of thousands of migrants trudging desperately.  

For the Trinamool Congress, it has really hurt. We have been flagging the issue of migrant workers – or guest workers, as we prefer to call them – virtually from Day One when the lockdown began. Our party has done many digital press conferences in the past few weeks, both at the national and state levels,  on a variety of subjects including the plight of migrant workers. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was the first to write to 18 other Chief Ministers requesting that migrant workers from Bengal be looked after in their states. She assured them that guest workers from other states in Bengal would be taken care of adequately.

The Trinamool government in Bengal started the Sneher Porosh scheme to provide financial assistance of Rs 1,000 each to around 100,000 guest workers stranded in other states. Two trains carrying Bengal’s guest workers back reached the state a few days ago. Over the next few days, many more are boarding trains from different states to return home. In total, approximately 80,000 people have been brought back to Bengal. As Mamata Banerjee has assured some weeks ago, she will personally oversee welcoming back our heroes.

The centre has arranged chartered flights to bring back Indians stranded in other countries. This must be appreciated, but when it comes to millions from the poorest and weakest sections of society, the BJP government has no solution and no heart. After being called out for its callous attitude by opposition parties and by civil society at large, the central government finally decided to start trains to send migrant workers home. Not one to give up on a gimmick, the trains started on May 1, Labour Day. Do note this was five weeks after the lockdown was initiated.

Alive with hope, the eyes of migrant workers turned to despair at the railway stations. They realised they had to pay for their train tickets. Besides the full sleeper class fare, an additional charge of Rs 50 per passenger was levied. Train tickets averaged between Rs 700-800, plus there was the bus fare to reach train stations. Workers also had to get a medical certificate, clearing them to travel. Each migrant worker had to spend about Rs 1,200. And a majority of them had not earned a rupee for weeks.

The central  government has tried to spin it by saying it is paying 85 per cent of the cost of the ticket. What does this mean? The Railways always offer a notional subsidy – 45 per cent – on a passenger ticket. This is cross-subsidised by freight traffic. That notional subsidy has gone up to 85 per cent for the migrant workers’ tickets due to social distancing and limited passengers per compartment. But there is no concession on the actual ticket price. Instead, the centre  has tried to shift the burden and the actual collection of fare to state governments. On May 2, the Ministry of Railways issued a letter that clearly said: “The local state government authority shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways.”

Indian Railways is a public sector undertaking. It has both an economic mandate and a social responsibility. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, it arranged special trains for evacuees and gave them free travel facilities. What happened this time? The PM CARES fund was set up on March 28, apparently dedicated to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Conveniently, it has been kept out of the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General, but let’s discuss that another day.) What has been done with the funds collected under PM CARES? Why could some of this money not be used to support train journeys of migrant workers?

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said COVID-19 is a national effort and this is no time for politics. Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee entirely agree and have participated in the challenge to overcome the pandemic by delinking it from partisan politics. We are all equal stakeholders and we have to work together. These are noble thoughts, but frankly the BJP has let us down. The central government has shown this propensity of taking credit every time something good happens, and blaming the states for any mishap or failure. The migrant workers’ issue is only one such. Please Mr Prime Minister, can you show more leadership? Or are you only a Prime Time Minister!

P.S. As I send this piece to press, I am picking up news that the Home Minister has surfaced after 45 days. What’s the first thing he does in the middle of a national health emergency? Leaks a letter written by him (riddled with lies) attacking his favourite foe: Bengal. That will be the subject of my next column.

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

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Sunday, May 10, 2020]

Bengal CM’s letter to the Governor dated April 23, 2020

Here is the letter written by the Bengal CM to the Governor in an easy-to-read format.

Makes for fascinating reading.

When you have facts in your favour, you don’t need to scream.Students, here is a benchmark for powerful communication.

Worth a read:

No.30 CM/2020

23rd April,2020



Respected Governor,

This has reference to your letter addressed-to me of 20/4/2020, my letter addressed to you of 21/4/2020 and your further SMS to me at around 7 am of 22/04/2020.

Though these are self-explanatory, I am attaching copies of two letters in the main body of the letter and your letter dated 20/04/2020 is, attached for your ready reference.

Your  last  SMS  of 22/4/2020,  sent  by  you  around 7 am, is so unprecedented in tone, tenor and language that it deserves to be reproduced in full:

“Dear Chief Minister,

Your response yesterday has enormously shocked me.  It is insulting to the office I hold. We both are constitutional functionaries in the state. It is not a fiefdom of an individual to be run in whimsical manner.

Your response makes the position of constitutional head irrelevant. THIS IS NOT SO. I have over the months taken all indignities in a- spirited manner hoping there will be amends. This letter dashes my optimism. My patient mode and accommodating approach has been inappropriately evaluated at your end.

I still find it expedient to give a try in the interest of the people of the State.

So please call me URGENTLY as in this crisis period of immeasurable dimensions I would do my utmost to avoid a formal response to this most unthoughtful unconstitutional communication.

Regards

Jagdeep Dhankhrar”

An uninformed reader reading the above might well think that my letter of 21/4/20, to which the above is, your response, has involved some unspeakable (un)constitutional sin or has used derogatory language qua you. That is certainly what your expostulation suggests. Amazingly, my four line letter of 21/4/20 to you, to which you replied as quoted above, reads as follows:

“Respected Governor,

I would like to thank for your letter dated 20th April, 2020.

You would,  no doubt appreciate that the entire State Government machinery is now engaged to fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

This is for your kind information.

With regards,

Mamata Banerjee”

The above four lines do  not even  remotely or by any stretch of imagination have a whisper which may be construed or misconstrued or twisted  or  distorted  to  be  an  insult to  anyone  or  involve  the  use  of unparliamentary  words  or  use  of  objectionable  language  or  content.

Again on  21/04/2020 you made a statement in audio-visual media in Kolkata itself – an unprecedented event to be organised by a Governor. In that your, inter alia, purported, in your own words, “to warn me” and again, in your own words, warned me “not to do centre bashing every morning.”

You appear to have forgotten that I am an elected Chief Minister of a proud Indian state. You also seem to have forgotten that you are a nominated Governor. You may continue to ignore all advice and inputs given by me and my council of ministers (as you appear to have taken upon yourself to do since the day of your appointment), but at least you should not ignore the wise words of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly on 31/5/1949:

“We felt that the powers of the Governor were so limned, so nominal, his position so ornamental that probably very few would come forward to stand for election.”

On the same day, Dr Ambedkar again said “If the Governor is a ‘purely constitutional Governor with  no more powers than what we contemplate expressly to give him in the Act, and has no power to interfere with the internal administration of a Provincial Ministry,  I  personally do not see any very fundamental objection to the principle of nomination.”

On 2/6/1949, (Dr Ambedkar again repeated: “The first thing l would like the House to bear in mind is this. The Governor under the Constitution has no functions which he cars discharge by himself: no functions at all.”

Just like you, hive consigned such wise Words about our constitutional boundaries to oblivion, you also seem unaware of the Sarkaria Commission’s categorical observations:

• “4.6.12 A Governor so selected may well seek to override the powers of his Chief Minister, leading to friction between them and distortion of the system of responsible government. Such a Governor can hardly be expected to function as a constitutional head of the State. This was the reason why the Constitution- framers gave up the proposal to have an elected Governor.

• 4.2.06 The Constituent Assembly discussed at length the various provisions relating to the Governor. Two important issues were considered. The first issue was whether there should be an elected Governor. It was recognized that the co-existence of an elected Governor and a Chief Minister responsible to the Legislature might lead to friction and consequent weakness in administration. The concept of an elected Governor was therefore given up in favour of a nominated Governor.”

In its specific recommendations, the Sarkaria Commission further said:

• “4.16.02 It is desirable that a politician from the ruling party at the Union is not appointed as Governor of a State which is being run by some other party or a combination of other parties.

• 4.16.03 In order to ensure effective consultation with the State Chief Minister in the selection of a person to be appointed as Governor the procedure of consultation  should  be  prescribed  in  the  Constitution  itself  by  suitably amending Article 15

•   4.16.20 The Governor, while sending ad hoc or fortnightly reports to the President should normally take his Chief, Minister into confidence, unless there are overriding reasons to the contrary.”

In view of above, you have to judge for yourself whether

a) your direct attacks on me ;

b) your direct attacks on my ministers and officers;

c) your tone, tenor and language, which, in the mildest words of extreme moderation, deserve to be characterised as unparliamentary;

d) your holding of press conferences against the state government itself (of which you are Governor!);

e) your repeated and consistent interference in the administration of my ministries and departments;

Make it clear as to who has flagrantly transgressed constitutional dharma and even basic norms of decency between constitutional functionaries.

Your expostulation leaves me with no option but to release these-letters in the public domain to leave it to the people of this state and of this nation to judge foi\themselveS as to ‘who has done what and who is in breach of elementary norms of constitutional behaviour.

With regards,

Yours sincerely

Mamata Banerjee

Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar

Hon’ble Governor of West Bengal

Raj Bhawan,Kolkata-700062.