It is imperative for us to rise above partisan interests: Sonia Gandhi

Congress President Sonia Gandhi. (Photo: PTI)
The Covid-19 pandemic, sweeping across the world, has caused serious public health concerns, anguish and apprehensions across our country. It has imperiled lives and put at risk the lives and livelihoods of millions, particularly, the most vulnerable sections of our society. The entire nation stands as one in solidarity in the fight to halt and defeat the corona pandemic.

The 21-day nationwide lockdown announced by you as a measure to fight the coronavirus is a welcome step. As president of the Congress, I would like to state that we will fully support and collaborate with every step taken by the Union government to ensure the containment of the pandemic.

At this challenging and uncertain time, it is imperative for each one of us to rise above partisan interests and honour our duty towards our country and indeed, humanity. It is in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation therefore, that I would like to suggest some measures that I believe will help us to address the massive health crisis we are about to face and ameliorate the immense economic and existential pain that vulnerable sections of our society will soon be subjected to:

It has been announced that the Union government has allocated Rs 15,000 crore to fight the coronavirus, including meeting the requirements of doctors, nurses and health professionals. I would like to re-emphasise the urgent need to arm our doctors, nurses and health workers with personal protection equipment (PPE), including N-95 masks and hazmat suits.

Let us ensure the opening and scaling up of manufacture and supply of these items so that not a single health professional faces the predicament of contracting or passing on Covid-19 owing to unavailability of the PPE. Announcing a special “risk allowance” for doctors, nurses and health workers for a period of six months retrospectively from March 1, 2020, is imperative.

Health professionals and their support teams risk their lives to work at the front line of the battle against the Covid-19. I believe we owe it to them to provide protection and incentive.

Over the last few weeks, there has been much uncertainty about designated hospitals and their locations, number of beds, isolation chambers, ventilators, dedicated medical teams, supplies etc. This has been caused by a paucity of information.

Disseminating all essential information, including the locations of designated hospitals and their emergency phone line numbers is essential to facilitate management of the pandemic. A dedicated portal for sharing these and all other necessary information is one way forward.

Given that even the most advanced and developed health care systems in the world are facing an overload of patients and crumbling under the weight of the sheer numbers of affected persons, the Union government could immediately commission and begin construction of temporary facilities with large numbers of intensive care units and ventilators in geographical areas where the outbreak is expected to be concentrated in the near future.

Daily wagers, workers under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA), factory labourers, construction and unorganised sector workers, fishermen, farm labourers and many more form the most vulnerable sections of our society. It has been recently reported that many businesses and companies are laying off and retrenching a large number of regular and temporary employees. It would be in order for the Union government to immediately put in place broad-based social protection measures including Direct Cash Transfer to these sections to tide over the period of difficulty. I have suggested some such measures in the succeeding points.

The 21-day lockdown comes at the peak of the harvesting season. Crop is ready for harvesting in most states by the end of March. With nearly 60 per cent of India’s population being economically dependent on agriculture, it is imperative that the Union government should take necessary steps to enable harvesting and procurement of crops at MSP. This is also the right time to suspend all recoveries from farmers for a period of six months and consider indebtedness relief liberally.

I sincerely believe that implementing the Minimum Income Guarantee Scheme, that is, ‘Nyay Yojana’ proposed by the Indian National Congress is the need of the hour. At this time of immense distress for the poor who are going to weather the major economic fallout of this pandemic, it will give them a basic economic resource to fall back on.

Alternately, a cash transfer of Rs 7,500 to every “Jan Dhan” and PM Kisan scheme account holder, old-age/widow/differently-abled person’s pension account and MGNREGA worker’s accounts, as a one-time special measure to tide over the 21-day lockdown period should be considered.

May I also suggest distribution of 10 kg of rice or wheat per family member to every ration card holder through PDS free of cost as a special measure to tide over the difficulty...Salaried class is also bearing the brunt of the harsh measures required to contain the spread of the disease. The Union government might consider deferring all EMIs for a period of six months. The interest being charged by the banks for this period may consequently be waived. Similarly, all loan installment deductions from the salary of government employees may also be deferred for six months.

All businesses, particularly micro, small and medium, have been facing unprecedented distress from before the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic has increased their distress multifold. The Union government must consider announcing a comprehensive sector-wise relief package including necessary tax breaks, interest subvention and deferment of liabilities.

Mr Prime Minister, if implemented, these measures will reaffirm our commitment to each and every one of our citizens when they most need support and protection. We in the Congress party stand with the people of India at this time of national crisis and we extend to the government, our full support and cooperation.

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