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.


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.

Centre’s special sinister attention for Bengal

At 10:10 am on April 20, a cargo plane landed in Kolkata carrying government officials from Delhi. These were the Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs), allegedly sent on a monitoring mission to assess the COVID-19 situation in seven districts of Bengal. On paper, that would appear to be an above board, routine public health exercise. In reality, it was part of a sinister political move.

Three hours after the plane and the IMCTs landed – yes, three hours – at 1 pm, the Union Home Minister phoned the Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, and told her the IMCTs had been sent. The IMCTs were supposed to work in conjunction with the state government with logistical support from local authorities. However, they hit the ground without so much as corresponding with the state government.

Cooperative federalism? Constitutionalism? States’ rights? Forget it. None of this mattered. The states, including Bengal, are busy fighting the novel Coronavirus. The BJP government at the Centre is busy fighting opposition-run states. This is not just disappointing, it is downright irresponsible. Can’t we postpone politics to the winter? Or is the BJP so worried about the 2021 Bengal assembly elections which are a full year away?

IMCTs have been sent to seven districts in Bengal – Kolkata, Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Medinipur, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Kalimpong. These seven districts have 224 cases. Bengal has four notified hotspots but seven districts are being visited. Of the seven districts, Darjeeling has only three cases. Its last positive case was detected on April 14. The last positive case in Kalimpong was detected on April 2 and in Jalpaiguri on April 4. What logic is the IMCT itinerary following? What parameters and criteria were used? I humbly request Messrs Modi-Shah to answer.

As Mamata Banerjee put it in a tweet (and I’m quoting verbatim): “We welcome all constructive support & suggestions, especially from the Central Govt in negating the #Covid19 crisis. However, the basis on which Centre is proposing to deploy IMCTs in select districts across India including few in WB under Disaster Mgmt Act 2005 is unclear.”

The provisions of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 have been grossly misused to trample on a state government’s rights. To top it all, this IMCT invasion has coincided with the Indian Council for Medical Research crippling Bengal’s efforts by despatching faulty test kits that it now says must not be used. It seems the BJP cares for Bengali votes, not Bengali lives.

Why is Bengal complaining, you may ask. IMCTs have also been sent to other states, haven’t they. Yes they have, but Bengal has been singled out for unfair treatment and special attention. Bengal has about 300 COVID-19 positive cases but seven districts are seeing IMCT visits. Madhya Pradesh has 1,500 cases but only one district merits an IMCT. In Maharashtra, the equivalent statistics are 4,700 cases and two districts; and in Rajasthan, 1,600 cases and one district.

Consider another bunch of numbers. Gujarat has five hotspots and 1,900 positive cases. Tamil Nadu has 22 hotspots and 1,500 positive cases. Uttar Pradesh has nine hotspots and 1,200 cases. Telangana has eight hotspots and 900 cases. Andhra Pradesh has 11 hotspots and 700 cases. Delhi has 11 hotspots and 2,100 cases. The percentage of deaths among total cases is 3 per cent in Bengal. In Punjab it is 6.5 per cent, in Karnataka 3.9 per cent and in Gujarat 3.6 per cent.

Of all the states I have mentioned in the paragraph above, only Bengal has had IMCTs inflicted on it. Not one other state.

Do note that in all the other states, assembly elections have just got over or are several years away. Tamil Nadu votes in 2021 but it has a BJP-friendly government. Bengal is being harassed. And to emphasise that, our state’s Governor living in Kolkata Raj Bhavan shakha has been on television all day, criticising the Trinamool Congress government and politicising his office.

The people of Bengal are watching this sordid drama. They will remember.

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

[This article appeared on | Wednesday, April 22, 2020]

Please, no politics at the time of COVID

Ever since the COVID-19 crisis acquired a serious dimension, many of the discussions and efforts have been on a unified, coordinated strategy against the pandemic and much of the political scoring has been left for another day.

There have been a few exceptions here and there. One of the exceptions, unfortunately, has been the Bengal unit of the ‘world’s largest political party’. They have continued a series of attacks on the Bengal government, based on fake news and rumours. Senior leaders and ministers in Delhi have not joined in. Have they blessed this disappointing and irresponsible campaign? You decide.

We in Bengal are too busy to care and are carrying on with our work. It is this work that has ensured Bengal’s COVID-19 numbers are better than most other states. We have worked hard and prepared hard to keep these numbers low. There’s still work to be done and there is no room for complacency. Nevertheless, the rumours and mischief have to be responded to – with facts, figures and public health logic.

Overall there are four charges the political riff-raff have flung at Bengal:

– The state government woke up late to the challenge of COVID-19

– Bengal is unprepared for a potential massive outbreak

– There is not enough testing of suspected patients

– COVID-19 related deaths are being hidden in Bengal

So let’s take on these charges, one by one.

Did Bengal wake up late? In reality, we were urging steps on the COVID-19 front well before the Centre got into the act. On March 6, a full week before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Mamata Banerjee held a press conference and announced the setting up of quick response teams. She even asked for travel restrictions at international checkpoints, crucial for Bengal, which touches three neighbouring countries and has numerous land border crossings. The Bengal government also set up isolation wards in all major hospitals in every district.

While such determination was being shown in Kolkata, the government of India was not taking this threat seriously. Their focus was on toppling a government in Madhya Pradesh. We raised the issue of the impact of novel Coronavirus in parliament as early as March 5. A few days later, I submitted a Zero Hour notice in the Rajya Sabha, seeking permission to demonstrate the 20-second handwash technique that doctors were recommending. My request was denied. Then, again in mid-March, as a precautionary measure, a few of my colleagues and I wore masks in parliament. This was mocked as a “gimmick”.

Meanwhile in Bengal, we continued to build capacity, and did not wait for the problem to arrive. In the month of March itself, the state government set up 582 Institutional Quarantine Centres. Proactive steps were taken to identify and isolate at-risk people at an early stage. This slowed the spread of infection.

The focus in Bengal has been on testing, isolation and treatment besides the humanitarian handling of the lockdown to ensure the economy is not permanently damaged. To date, over 68,000 people have been kept in quarantine. This includes those kept in home, hospital and institutional quarantine (we prefer the term safe homes). These 68,000 people either flew in from affected countries or came into contact with COVID-19 positive patients.

Now we come to point three – testing. The states were told they could not order testing kits on their own. Only the Indian Council of Medical Research, under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, could import and dispatch kits to states. In the initial days, kits were in short supply and ICMR prioritised the worst-affected states. Bengal was not among the worst-affected because it had done its homework. That is why it did not receive testing kits. And that is why certain other states have higher testing numbers. Bengal was disadvantaged because of its preparedness!

Subsequently, the central government ordered seven million testing kits from abroad. Only now have they begun to arrive in the country. Because of the delay in ordering and procurement, the Centre has been unable to supply the states. Till March 31, guess how many testing kits Bengal had received? Just 40.

Another issue that slowed down the testing process was that ICMR issued very stringent guidelines allowing testing of only symptomatic patients. This limited the testing pool. Much later, the guidelines were changed to include asymptomatic patients. But Bengal used the lockdown period – and the ICMR-enforced limited-testing period – to equip itself. More testing facilities were opened and more lab technicians and clinical staff were trained. From an initial two, the number of Centre-approved testing labs in Bengal has risen to seven.

Finally, we come to the number of cases and deaths. There is total transparency in Bengal on COVID-19 information. From organizational structure to best practices, everything is in the public domain. It is true that an expert committee has been set up to determine the exact cause of a patient’s death, whether it can be attributed to COVID-19 or not. It is important to note that this expert committee consists of doctors, not politicians or bureaucrats. It is a technical committee and has been set up in keeping with the established principle of ascertaining co-morbidity. This is standard practice in an epidemic and used to generate accurate fatality rates. Only an expert committee of doctors can do this, only they can decide if a patient has died of COVID-19 or some other underlying condition. Not taking into account co-morbid diseases can skew medical statistics. It can lead to misleading mortality rates in a general population, and misleading fatality rates for an individual disease.

Let me explain with an example from another state – Haryana. About a week ago, an elderly Italian tourist who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in a hospital in Gurugram. State health officials said she had recovered from COVID-19 and actually died of a heart attack. The health officials and doctors are the specialists. I believe them. If one can believe them in BJP-ruled Haryana, why not in Trinamool-ruled Bengal?

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

[This article appeared on | Friday, April 17, 2020]

Life after pandemic: 10 examples from everyday life that will become part of the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing us as individuals and as a society. The implications will be far-reaching and some of them are still beyond our comprehension. But some practices we have either adopted or avoided in the past few days will become part of this new normal.

Here are 10 examples from everyday life. They are a combination of my observations and my tentative hopes.

One, public hygiene will get better. Spitting in public should stop. It is the mother of all droplet infections. Authorities are discouraging and warning against such practices as part of the COVID-19 response and people are desisting from spitting much more consciously. In the days ahead, political, community and religious leaders should condemn public spitting and discredit it. This is an opportunity to exile this filthy habit from India for good.

Two, #WFH will become more than just a hashtag. Work from home offers many advantages to white-collar professionals and companies in the services sector. If so many of us — but admittedly not all of us — have found it possible to work from home in the past three weeks, then why not at other times as well? That question will seriously be asked as individuals and families strive to improve work-life balance. Companies could reduce overheads and find it convenient and cheaper to give employees a good laptop, high-speed internet access and a reliable, paid-for video-conferencing account.

Three, daily commute patterns will change. As an add-on to point two (above), people will become more and more aware of the uselessness of a long daily commute or a flight to another city for just a single meeting of an hour or two; or for a 10-minute hearing in court. People will think twice or even thrice before agreeing to get on an airplane.

More and more meetings — even board meetings of blue-chip corporations — will take place on platforms such as Zoom. The government and judiciary should also be open to such innovations. Driving less and flying less will be eco-friendly and reduce one’s carbon footprint.

Four, social media will not automatically equal idle gossip and silly jokes: Political debates on family WhatsApp groups, humour in the middle of the day from a school WhatsApp group, an endless stream of memes and gifs popping up on one’s cell-phone. All this is so BC (Before Coronavirus). The bulk of my social media messages in the past few weeks have been serious — about the pandemic and its course.

WhatsApp communities and public-service message groups have sprung up in cities and neighbourhoods. They have found a purpose beyond gossip. Some of this will survive into the future.

Five, telemedicine is here to stay. Telemedicine used to mean diagnosing patients in far-flung rural areas and connecting them to city doctors. In the age of social distancing and COVID-19 diagnosis, it has become an urban, middle-class reality, especially for older people. They are using WhatsApp video, FaceTime and similar services to speak to their doctors and avoid going out. This has helped avoid long queues at hospitals.

The potential is immense. I know of a small village in the Sunderbans that does not have physical medical facilities. It now has a digital dispensary where doctors are providing diagnostic and prescriptive services via video conferencing. Moving ahead, I can see doctors giving time slots to patients for in-person consultations as well as video consultations. Think of the savings and the convenience.

Six, personal health and enrichment will be the focus, more than a bank balance. Admittedly, this will be true for only the reasonably well-to-do, but more and more people will spare time for the important things in life — meditation, prayer, exercise and family bonding. There will be a reassessment of priorities post-COVID.

Seven, innovation is coming, and in areas we can’t even imagine. The most innovative and those quickest to adopt change will reap benefits; those stuck in the past will become redundant. This sounds abstract, but what could it mean in real life? The COVID-19 episode will hurt certain businesses and incentivise others (for example, eat-in restaurants versus cloud kitchens and takeaways; or Uber/Ola versus Zoom). It will both create and destroy jobs. Only the most nimble companies and individuals will survive.

Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression lasted over a decade. This period gave rise to the ballpoint point, nylon and the first working helicopter. Some of this was coincidental, some of it connected to needs that arose in the new circumstances. New technologies — from medical services delivery to drone-based delivery, from virus-immune robots that do manual labour to 4D printing of ventilators — could result.

Eight, how will we interact socially? Going to movies or bars, hanging out at the mall, the mithai dukaan, chaat shop or the club, will all decline for some time to come. People will distrust crowds. Large parties will be less likely; small get-togethers may be more popular. For a social people with extended families, what will all this mean for us Indians?

Nine, cleanliness is next to godliness — we’ve finally realised it. People are using masks. They are not sneezing in the open and are covering their mouths and noses. Tissues are being discovered or rediscovered. Cleaning surfaces, wiping containers and washing hands frequently are becoming welcome habits.

Ten, investment in healthcare infrastructure is bound to improve. At 2.5 per 1,000 people, Bengal already has the highest bed-to-people ratio in the country. Fifty hospitals, two to three in each of the 22 districts of the state, have been set up and are being put to good use as part of the COVID-19 response. This is just one example and there are so many nationwide.

There is a serious attempt to ramp up healthcare capacities, including hospital beds and isolation units. Manufacturing of equipment, from surgical masks to PPEs, is being pushed. All this will serve us in the future, as part of the COVID-19 legacy.

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 | Wednesday, April 15, 2020]

9 Examples Of Federalism Power In This Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis is a genuine national crisis. Why do I use the adjective “genuine”? This is because most “national” crises in our country emotionally affect all of India but physically or tangibly affect only a part of it. A case in point could be a cyclone, an earthquake, an insurgency or even a war. The COVID-19 pandemic is different. It has affected every single state. From Kashmir to Kerala, the Northeast to the western coast, every local administration has been galvanised.

An epidemic gives certain policy powers to the central government, but the health infrastructure that delivers services on the ground is that of the states. The specific problems of each state too are different. As such, in this crisis, states have improvised and taken a variety of approaches. They have also learnt from each other. India’s federalism has been in full bloom. Admittedly my examples are limited by my knowledge, and influenced by my deep engagement with efforts in Bengal. Nevertheless, here are nine case studies. Why nine? Well, let’s just say it’s a popular number.

1. Health Insurance | Pathfinder: Bengal

As we stay home during the lockdown, frontline warriors against COVID-19 are out there risking their lives every day. We have a duty to ensure the well-being of these health, emergency and essential services professionals. Bengal was the first state to provide additional health insurance for such brave men and women and their families.

This cover – initially Rs 5 lakh but now doubled to Rs 10 lakh – is provided to doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, sanitation staff, ASHAs, police personnel. They could belong to the state government, the central government or the private sector, but they must be serving in Bengal.

2. Access To Healthcare | Pathfinders: Chhattisgarh and Bengal

COVID-19 has been slowly spreading to rural areas. It is not practical for people from smaller towns and villages to travel to big cities for treatment. The lockdown and fear of spreading infection pose barriers.

To overcome these, Chhattisgarh has provided 100 beds in hospitals in each of its 28 districts for COVID-19 cases. This is creditable given the state is so rural with such vast distances. In Bengal, one hospital in each of the 22 districts has been set aside for exclusive use by COVID-19 patients. Private hospitals are partnering in this initiative. 

3. Care For the Marginalised | Pathfinders: Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Bengal

For so many of our people, getting three square meals a day is a challenge. For daily wagers and those in the informal sector, the lockdown has meant a complete loss of income. To help them, rice for the month of April and May is being given in a lumpsum, free of cost, to ration card-holders in Chhattisgarh. Delhi is providing free lunch and dinner at government shelters.

In Bengal, rations are being given free of cost to 78 million people for six months and mid-day meals are being home-delivered to school-children (this is happening in Kerala as well). Food is being provided even to those without ration cards including migrant workers and the homeless.

4. Safety Net for the Welfare-Dependent | Pathfinders: Karnataka, Bengal, Odisha and Delhi

How do people with inadequate or no income survive beyond just meals and food rations? Karnataka and Bengal have given two months’ advance allowance to beneficiaries of various social security schemes. Odisha is paying social security pension for three months in advance. Delhi has doubled the pension for widows, the differently-abled and elderly citizens. 

5. Keeping the Wheels Going | Pathfinder: Delhi

Autorickshaw, e-rickshaw and taxi drivers are often owners of vehicles they drive. They depend on daily earnings to support families and pay EMIs. In our big cities, this cohort is critical to public commutes and economic life re-starting quickly post-lockdown. The Delhi government has given grants of Rs 5,000 to each of these drivers.

6. Caring For Those in the Informal/Unorganised Sector | Pathfinders: Rajasthan, Odisha and Bengal

People in the unorganised sector – such as daily wage labourers – do not have a safety net, no pensions and no provident funds. The lockdown is taking a massive toll on them. Odisha is allocating Rs 1,500 each to 2.2 million construction workers. Rajasthan is transferring Rs 1,000 to families below the poverty line. In Bengal, under a new scheme called Prochesta, Rs 1,000 is being given to workers in the unorganised sector.

7. Guest Worker First Responders | Pathfinders: Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

The first 48 hours after the lockdown announcement were confusing. Many systems had not been set up. States like Bengal, which contribute migrant workers, reached out on phones and even social media to host states. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were the fastest to respond, taking charge of guest workers. In Tamil Nadu, not just the state government but even opposition DMK workers got into action. Odisha reached out to Bengal and sought help for Odiya workers in Bengal, promising to take care of Bengali workers in Odisha. It was touching.

8. Ensuring Flow of Essential Goods | Pathfinders: Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal

In Kerala, essential commodity kits worth Rs 1,000 each are being home-delivered to families in quarantine. Maharashtra has permitted shops selling essential goods, groceries and medicines to remain open 24×7 (Delhi has a similar provision). In Bengal, cells headed by senior IAS officers are ensuring long-distance transport of essential goods. Locally, the police is monitoring supplies of essentials, including medicines, to citizens and particularly the elderly. 

9. Raising Awareness | Pathfinders: Too many to list 

Almost all states have issued detailed advisories and lists of “Do’s and Don’ts” to combat COVID-19. Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has led by example. She has been communicative, holding press conferences almost daily and highlighting simple preventive measures. She has been on the ground, visiting markets and hospitals and speaking to people. At one market, she drew circles on the street with a white chalk, to indicate how far apart shoppers should stand – a telling demonstration of social distancing. The video went viral.

Best practices of various state governments showcase our federalism and establish the real strength of India. It is for the centre to study them and scale up and roll out those that deserve to go national. This is not the time for chest-thumping; every state is trying its best and we are all in this fight together.

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

Why Centre should listen to Bengal CM’s call for giving states fiscal room in fight against Covid-19

The number of COVID-19 cases in India has risen sharply in the past week. The ongoing lockdown has disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions. This is a national battle, but it is also a battle being waged by individual states, districts and cities. In Bengal, for instance, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee – she is the state’s health minister as well – has taken a proactive, “people first” approach to the pandemic challenge.

When faced with such a crisis, preparation is key. Mamata Banerjee read the signs early. In early March, she was warning that the novel coronavirus could lead to a health emergency. She set up a Rs 200 crore emergency fund, making Bengal the first state to take such an initiative. We ordered 400,000 masks, 400,000 CPU machines and 300 ventilators. We also ordered new ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines, which play a crucial role when a patient’s heart and lungs begin to fail.

More than stockpiling, it was crucial to distribute essential medical items and get them to the districts. Some 110,000 PPE (personal protective equipment) kits, 50,000 N95 masks, 18,000 litres of hand sanitiser and 3,000 thermal guns have been distributed across the state. These numbers will go up in the coming days, as and if need arises.

Among the most at risk from COVID-19 are health and emergency workers. They are working day and night, risking their lives to save the lives of others. They have their anxieties, as well as families and dependents. They need to go to the frontline with as little stress as possible.

For such professionals – doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, ASHAs and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers, sanitation workers, couriers, police personnel, and their families – the Bengal government has introduced a Rs 10 lakh health insurance cover. Benefits are not limited to state government employees. Central government and even private sector employees working in Bengal can avail this insurance scheme. As Bengal CM put it, anyone working for the welfare of Bengal’s people is our responsibility.

Medical facilities are being seriously ramped up. The 2,200-bed Calcutta Medical College and Hospital – among the oldest in Asia, with a two-century legacy – is becoming an exclusive COVID-19 hospital, with the number of beds increased to 3,000. A new, 500-bed hospital in Rajarhat, just east of Kolkata, has been set aside exclusively for quarantine. Howrah’s Dumurjola Indoor Stadium has also been converted into a quarantine centre. At R.G. Kar Medical College and Hospital, another well-known Kolkata institution, a 50-bed isolation ward is being set up on a temporary basis. The M.R. Bangur Hospital has been geared up for COVID-19, with an additional 150 beds.

Many of the facilities described above are in the Kolkata metropolitan area and in southern Bengal. While this region is particularly susceptible to COVID-19, due to proximity to airports and national and international travellers, the lockdown is affecting people across the state. It is not possible for patients, COVID-19 patients or otherwise, to travel long distances to city hospitals for treatment. In any case, a long commute risks greater spread of infection. Therefore, one hospital in each of Bengal’s 22 districts has been dedicated to COVID-19 patients. To ease the pressure of regular patients on hospitals, free TB medicines have been given in bulk for a month to ensure patients do not have to travel daily.

The COVID-19 crisis has both a health and a social impact. Incomes have been affected, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid. Bengal CM is conscious that no person should go hungry. A safety net is required. In Bengal, social security pensions and allowances are being paid for two months in advance. About 80 million people are being given free rations for six months and two million people – the poorest of the poor – are getting five kg of rice extra a month.

Since schools are closed, midday meals are being home delivered to children under the ICDS programme. Food rations are being provided to even those without ration cards, including migrant workers and the homeless. Twenty-seven night shelters have been set up to house the homeless and feed them.

Those worst hit by the lockdown are construction workers, labourers, roadside vendors and daily wage-earners. The Bengal government has started a new programme, “Procheshta”, whereby Rs 1,000 will be given as a cash grant to those in the unorganised sector. About six million people, including domestic and migrant workers, will benefit.

The plight of migrant workers has been a major concern for the Bengal CM. The state is both a host to and a source of migrant workers and acutely conscious of their precarious predicament. Mamata Banerjee has written to chief ministers of 18 other states urging coordinated efforts to shelter and take care of migrant labourers. She has assured them that 40,000 guestworkers from other states, currently in Bengal, are being looked after and provided adequate assistance.

Smooth transport of essential goods and commodities is key to the lockdown’s success. Special cells have been set up for long-distance transfer and movement of commodities. Each cell is headed by an IAS officer at the level of secretary to the state government. At the local level, police stations are monitoring smooth supplies and, in particular, helping deliver essential supplies, including medicines, to homes of senior citizens.

The measures I have just described have been extensive. They have involved substantial human and financial resources of the Bengal administration. Each state has a similar experience. The net result is a huge burden on state finances. It is obvious that the lockdown and its impact will lead to GST collections plummeting. GST revenue given to the states will also fall, in absolute terms.

In a state like Bengal, already battling a debt trap that is the legacy of three decades of financial mismanagement, COVID-19 poses an unforeseen challenge. It risks compromising the fiscal prudence of the last ten years. In this context, the Bengal CM has written to the Prime Minister requesting an increase in withdrawal limits for states under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act – from the current three per cent of GDP to five per cent. This will give the states more fiscal room, imperative when facing a situation unprecedented in Indian history.

I hope the Bengal Chief Minister’s suggestion is taken in the right spirit. State governments have put their best foot forward in the battle against COVID-19. Their response has been free of politics and part of a truly national effort.

I appreciate you taking about half of nine minutes to read this article! Enough said.

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

[This article appeared on | Saturday, April 4, 2020]

What Covid-19 will change about us

From our engagement with family and faith to our empathy for migrant workers, a lot will transform

Every crisis changes us, as individuals and as a society. The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) will also do so. It is too early to make defining predictions, but the initial days of the national lockdown have given us some indications. Here are 10 thoughts about what can potentially change.

One, this experience is changing how we pray and worship. Sunday morning would unfailingly have found me in church. Yet, for two Sundays now I have missed out, as advised by bishops across India. I am praying at home, “doing church” at home. This is the period of Lent, leading up to Easter Sunday. In a season of enormous religious significance for Christians, I am not part of a congregation. My loneliness is shared by countless others — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists. Faith is common. Will worship become individual?

Two, many of us are beginning to appreciate and tell apart serious journalists from the usual motormouths, those who sit in television studios — and these days, in cosy drawing rooms — and hold forth before a camera or with tweets that have no relevance to real life. There is greater respect for reporters on the ground. We need less-pompous punditry. We need more of those who are diligently relaying facts as they unfold, especially the troubling scenes from the Delhi border; those who walk with the migrant families and tell their stories with feeling.

Three, how do we view health professionals and doctors? In normal times, we may be critical of long waiting lines and costs. Today, we value our health professionals as frontline warriors. Yes, there have been unfortunate incidents of violence against doctors — by the odd policeman or by ignorant neighbours. But overall, doctors and nurses are our favourite people today. We should not forget them and their needs when this is over.

Four, how much do we spend on public health? Take ventilators. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are only 40,000 ventilators, and just 8,500 of these are in government or public facilities. The rest are in private hospitals. This is not tenable. Public health specialists are getting their moment in the sun; I trust their warnings will lead to something more lasting. Journalists on the health beat tell me that they are now being taken more seriously.

Five, Indian federalism is being strengthened. State governments and chief ministers are being put to the test and, across party lines, they are performing. State governments as far apart as West Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab are rising to the lockdown challenge. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has written to her counterparts in 18 states seeking coordination.

Six, how do we judge our public representatives? To lead by example is to be responsive and purposeful. Most critical has been driving home the message of social distancing. A chief minister walking around in a local bazaar, as she drew circles on the road with white chalk, to show how people should stand away from each other, was a powerful piece of communication.

Seven, we are bonding as families. Four or five people cooped up in a flat, being forced to interact and engage multiple times a day — every family is coping with this. Children are doing online classes, parents are working from home. They all meet for lunch, which is far from normal, but welcome. Families are playing board games when they can. For those not having to worry about where their next meal is coming from, this period can be fun and fulfilling. I hope some of this survives the lockdown.

Eight, we are learning of the hard life and enormous value of our guest workers. As per the Census 2011, 453 million Indians — 37% of the population — are internal migrants. Of these, about 10%, or 45 million, migrate for work and employment. Thirty million among this group are men, and nearly all of them are part of the unorganised sector. Twenty million migrants come from just two states: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Ten million migrants go to just two cities: Delhi and Mumbai.

Harrowing visuals of migrant workers suddenly out of a job and trying to get home — attempting to walk impossible distances of up to hundreds of kilometres — have shaken our collective conscience. These guest workers are a treasure; without them, our urban economy will collapse. This crisis must awaken us to their needs and vulnerabilities. Each host state owes them a lot.

Nine, in the time of Covid-19 and the lockdown, perceptions about charity and doing good have changed. Charity is no longer about signing a cheque for a worthy, but abstract, cause. Charity is now much more do-it-yourself. Organise food for daily-wagers living in a nearby slum, buy more than you need from your neighbourhood grocery store only to ensure that the shop owner has some working capital respite. It’s simple really.

Last, there’s a changing notion of privacy. Mobile phone signals are being used to track those in home quarantine. Three months ago, this would have begun a debate on privacy. Today, it is accepted as unavoidable. Phone numbers, addresses and passport details of 722 Delhi residents, recently returned from abroad, were made public on WhatsApp.

The list included a one-year-old child. In the heat of the crisis, we may overlook all this. After it’s over, we need to calculate the cost-benefit ratio of privacy breaches.

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

Mr Prime Minister, Wrong To Have Kept Parliament In Session

It’s not easy to turn down an invitation from Rashtrapati Bhavan. Earlier this month, I was mortified at having to do this not once but twice. I was invited by the President of India for breakfast meetings with groups of MPs on March 13 and then, on my polite refusal, on March 18.

I was nonplussed when I received the invitations. The COVID-19 wave was already upon us. Government and public health officials, doctors and concerned citizens, had begun to advocate social distancing. Crowding was being discouraged. The Prime Minister and the President had announced cancellation of Holi festivities. So why where these grand breakfast meetings continuing? I was left very confused by the grandstanding.

Finally, what I feared happened. A BJP MP, fresh from social events in Lucknow, was found to have met a COVID+ person, then attended parliamentary meetings and even the breakfast at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I had sat next to him at one of the meetings and immediately I went into self-isolation. I trust Rashtrapati-ji is taking similar precautions and wish him a long and healthy life.

Why had the breakfast meetings continued till a crisis point was reached? Was the highest office in the land taking its cues – or being forced to take it cues – from the government’s stubborn refusal to not adjourn parliament in the face of an unprecedented health emergency?

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government is mocking parliament that much more by discussing every matter under the sun but not COVID-19. It has found time for legislation on the status of Sanskrit universities and even a BJP MP’s private member’s bill to remove the word “socialism” from the Preamble of the Constitution. But in the Budget Session, it has not found time to pass the Finance Bill. This should have happened 10 days ago. Also, it has treated the biggest public health disaster of our times casually. Since March 2, 2020, parliament has sat for 110 hours. In this period, it has discussed the COVID-19 outbreak for about four hours – three per cent of the time.

A senior minister admitted on the floor of the house that the decision to keep parliament running was not because of any pressing bills but to “show confidence”. If the government really wants to project confidence, why does the Prime Minister broadcast a pre-recorded speech? And why does he not take questions on the COVID-19 epidemic and its social and economic implications? This what heads of government across the world are doing.

The government has failed to act on its own health advisories urging people to avoid large gatherings. Parliament is a congregation of about 800 Members under one roof. I am not counting the 6,000 others – officials, support staff, security persons, media professionals and visitors – who come to parliament each day. If we as parliamentarians continue to flout government advisories, what example are we setting? Moreover, as representatives of the people, our constituents expect us to be with them in our constituencies and in our states in this time of grave crisis. Why are we being forced to stay in Delhi?

The government has asked those above 65 years of age to stay home. About 44 per cent of MPs in the Rajya Sabha and 22 per cent in the Lok Sabha are above the age of 65. What should they do? Ignore the advisory? Are they different from normal human beings? Far from “leading by example”, MPs are being made to set the wrong example.

To equate MPs with health professionals, doctors, security personnel and other frontline workers is a faulty argument. Those on the frontline of the war against COVID-19 are doing an outstanding job and I salute them – but they have their roles and MPs have their roles.

Let me offer you an example. I gave a Zero Hour mention to send out a public awareness message about how we could prevent the spread of coronavirus. I wanted to demonstrate how to wash hands correctly, with soap and water for 20 seconds. As an MP, if I had been in my state, Bengal, I would have been demonstrating this on various platforms, online, on television and in real life, in various languages, to various audiences, from a safe distance of course, being careful not to draw crowds. This is standard public service and best practices communication, and part of any politician’s and any MP’s mandate. I sought to do this in parliament to attract media and public attention – not to myself but to the act of safely and correctly washing hands. I was advised against making hand gestures, as if I was planning to do something unparliamentary and insult the House. So I ended up doing the demonstration with my hands locked behind my back. (There were other examples, but never mind). If we as people’s representatives can’t use Parliament to spread an important public awareness message, then how relevant is parliament?

In the light of all this, and particularly in the light of the BJP’s own MPs ignoring advisories and attending social soirees where potential COVID+ people are partying, it would be advisable to defer parliament at the earliest. Trinamool have been saying this for the last 2 weeks.

Mr Prime Minister, this is no time for egos. Our constituents and our voters and our people need us. Enough time has been wasted. Act now. Defer parliament from today. You’re already 10 days late.

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

Fight for democracy: Opposition must discover innovative ways of speaking, in a climate meant to suppress it

Less than a year into the BJP government’s second term, even veteran opposition MPs are learning new lessons about Parliament. A bigger majority has only made the governing party more arrogant and the government less tolerant of genuine debate and discussion. In fact, there seems to be a systemic plan to make Parliament irrelevant.

Important subjects are not discussed. Requests from the opposition to debate key events, events of national relevance, are denied or delayed. Bills are sprung upon the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha and passed hurriedly. An atmosphere is built inside and outside the House – using certain media networks – to suggest that opposing such legislation, or even seeking a sober discussion, is somehow anti-national.

Camera angles have been changed in Parliament so as not to focus on disruptions. This is a clever move, because much of the disruption these days is undertaken by the Treasury benches. They are bullying the opposition, but with the cameras tilted it is not easy for somebody outside the House to immediately realise that.

Obviously all this is frustrating for the opposition, and the search is on for a solution. The solution does not lie in further disruption, in snatching and tearing up papers from the Speaker’s desk, publicly challenging the presiding officers or, as has happened in the past, using pepper spray canisters. All this just plays into the BJP’s hands and allows it to claim a spurious moral superiority. The solution lies in being innovative in Parliament.

Such innovations are not unknown internationally. Some years ago, the government of Poland signed the highly controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, the European Union’s online piracy legislation. There were widespread protests in Poland. About 30 MPs were part of a silent but visually telling protest in Parliament. They held up paper replicas of the Guy Fawkes mask, made famous by the Anonymous hacktivist group and separately by the “Occupy” movement.

In 2018, as President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address, Democrat Congresswomen wore black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement. In India, something similar happened earlier this year, during the President’s Address to the joint sitting of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Some MPs resorted to a dignified but effective protest. They wore white – kurtas or shirts – with the simple slogan emblazoned in red: “No to CAA; No to NRC”.

Opposition protests in India during parliamentary sessions have followed two templates – raising issues and at a pinch rushing to the Well of the House; or gathering at the meditative Mahatma Gandhi statue in the Parliament Complex at 10.30 in the morning, half an hour before the two Houses met, carrying posters and raising slogans.

There are clear limitations to both such approaches. In the House, the government is using its brute majority and capture of the chair to nullify opposition attempts. The gathering of opposition MPs at the Gandhi statue, usually a precursor to raising an important matter in the House 30 minutes later, is also not as novel as it once was.

As such, in the past six months, the opposition has become more innovative. On Constitution Day, November 26, 2019 – the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution – the opposition decided to boycott the prime minister’s address to the joint sitting of the two Houses. This decision was taken with some thought. True, it was a solemn occasion. Yet, it was a joke that the prime minister would pay lip service to the Constitution while his government pushed through legislation such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which violated the spirit of the Constitution, and as his party tried to form a government in Maharashtra without enough MLAs.

We, the opposition, had to do something that made a point but upheld the dignity of the Constitution. Opposition MPs gathered near the statue of Babasaheb BR Ambedkar, who headed the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. They did not raise divisive slogans; they simply read out the Preamble – the embodiment and the essence of our Constitution.

The Preamble was read out in English and several Indian languages. This gave the impression of every Indian coming together, and of the federalism inherent in the opposition’s efforts. All of us who were there that day were enveloped in a warm emotionalism. We left with a sense of satisfaction and with a silent tribute to Ambedkar and the other giants of his generation. An idea thought up by MPs was appreciated in the media and inspired many citizens, including college students, to read the Preamble at public protests.

I delivered a 10-minute speech just a few days ago, last Saturday, on the Delhi riots in the corridor of Parliament. I felt I had no choice. For five successive days, the opposition parties had served notices demanding a discussion on the killings in the capital – but the chair had not permitted it. It was very disappointing; the issue was raw and current, my speech was drafted, I had the right to have my say. Finally, I did.

Another innovation is the use of social media to crowdsource issues and questions from the public that can be raised in Parliament. To be sure, some of the suggestions are silly and the MP has to use her discretion. But some of the suggestions are brilliant and very thoughtful. They leave me impressed –- and confident that in our democracy, the people know best.

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

[This article appeared on Times of India | Thursday, March 12, 2020]

Preserve parliamentary supremacy

Changes in rules must not undermine legitimate legislative tactics and free speech of MPs.

Parliament’s Budget Session has resumed and will last a month. Usually, this phase is extremely productive in terms of deliberation and discussion, debate and legislation, and for the conclusion of the budgetary exercise. Unless there are exigencies, the government and the Opposition, and of course the Chair, approach the session with sobriety and purpose.

This year may be different. The primary reason will, no doubt, be the aftermath of the pogrom on the streets of Delhi. After the carnage, the government has a lot to answer for. However, two days into the session, it seems that the ruling party has decided not to allow Parliament to function. Another reason, almost surreptitious, is that a radical process for rewriting the rules of the Rajya Sabha has begun. This will have serious implications for Parliament and our democracy.

The story began in 2018. In that year, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, M Venkaiah Naidu, constituted a committee of two retired civil servants to look into the rules, and suggest possible amendments. The suggestions of the two-person committee have been placed before the General Purposes Committee (GPC) of the Rajya Sabha.

Recently, a meeting of the GPC was called for this purpose. The GPC usually consists of leaders of all parties and groups in the Rajya Sabha. This specific GPC meeting, however, did not have representation from the Nationalist Congress Party, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India. The chairman, thankfully, gave his assurance that these parties would be represented in future GPC meetings.

As a member representing the Trinamool Congress, the third largest party in Parliament, I am conscious that reforms to the rules of the Rajya Sabha cannot be brought about in a hurry. These rules were written by our Constitution framers after much thought. Amendments, too, require serious analysis and discussion. The two-member committee of ex-bureaucrats had several rounds of consultations. I expect the GPC, too, will meet on several occasions. After the GPC concludes discussions, its report will be forwarded to the Committee of Rules in the Rajya Sabha. Eighty percent of the members of the Committee of Rules belong to the ruling dispensation. It will then offer its view. The final report, shaped by the Committee of Rules, will be laid on the floor of the House, and put to vote.

This is the process. What is the content of the reforms? The government is advocating changes to make the House more orderly, its conduct smoother, and disruptions less frequent. On paper, these sound unexceptionable. In reality, are they an attempt to silence the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha? Are they an attempt to defang the Opposition from asking hard questions and holding the government accountable in Parliament?

The late Arun Jaitley, a distinguished member of the Rajya Sabha, advocated the right to disrupt, calling it “a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command” in case “parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability”. He said this in August 2012. The following month, his colleague, the late Sushma Swaraj, another stalwart of Parliament, said, “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy like any other form.”

What Jaitley and Swaraj were suggesting was that parliamentary discussion and debate were not just a function of time but also of quality of discourse. Parliamentary proceedings cannot be measured in minutes and hours. They have to be measured in terms of the quality of subjects. How many issues raised by the Opposition are allowed for discussion by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government in the first place? In 2012, the BJP scuttled an entire session of Parliament demanding a discussion on the coal scandal. Today, the ruling dispensation wants to make such protests and such legitimate parliamentary activism impossible. They want to deny the Opposition opportunities — and want to protect the government from interrogation even though it had itself availed such opportunities when in Opposition. 

Let me cite another example. “Parliamentary strategy” is usually decoded by parties before the session starts, whereas “tactics” have to be made on the floor of the House by the leaders of the parties. A crucial tool available to members of the Rajya Sabha is Rule 267. This allows Opposition members of Parliament (MPs) to highlight an important issue, by suspending all other business for the day by taking up the “hot subject” for discussion. I came to the Rajya Sabha in 2011. One of the members of the Opposition at that time is now a high-profile minister. He was known to use Rule 267 notices very effectively. Within a year, we joked and called him the “king of 267”. 

What is the status of Rule 267 now? It has been virtually abolished. The last instance of admission of a notice under Rule 267 was in November 2016. Since then, members have repeatedly raised demands for admission of notices under Rule 267, but, always, absolutely always, such demands have been rejected. 

Rushing to the well of the House is another useful parliamentary tactic. It is used by members to intervene effectively, especially when denied the right to other tools. Moving to the well of the House and using Rule 267 are well-established practices of the Rajya Sabha, used throughout parliamentary history by members of all political backgrounds. Any attempt to curb or remove such instruments is not just a violation of long-standing parliamentary conventions but fundamentally anti-democratic.

Neither is it necessary for the rules of the two Houses to mirror each other. The Constitution envisions distinct roles and functions for the two Houses of Parliament. The rules have to support their independent character. The GPC has to preserve the unique character of the Rajya Sabha by enshrining provisions independent from the Lok Sabha. As Dr S Radhakrishnan, speaking as the first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, said, “There are functions which a revising chamber can fulfil fruitfully. Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body.” 

The onus is on the GPC to balance the freedom of expression of MPs while ensuring the smooth functioning of the Rajya Sabha. We must reject any changes in the rules that attempt to abridge freedom of expression of members and the rights conferred on them by the Constitution. The GPC cannot use the process of changing rules to manacle and muzzle the Opposition. 

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