I wish the PM had reached out but that's not his style: Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh
The Congress had announced it would “support and collaborate fully with every step taken by the Union government to ensure the containment of the pandemic”. That said, party leaders have alleged the government is not doing enough for migrants, its aid package is too small, it is being niggardly with assistance... So, is the Congress supporting the government or not?

As a responsible political party that has been part of governance for decades, we have unhesitatingly and unreservedly expressed our solidarity with the prime minister as the government of India leads the national campaign to deal with this extraordinary crisis. At the same time as the principal Opposition party, it is our duty to be responsive to the situation on the ground and bring to the government of India’s attention, the sufferings, hardships and distress of lakhs and lakhs of people who are being affected by the lockdown. The fact is that the government was ill-prepared and ignored all warning signs. In my view, the fact that Parliament was allowed to function so that the Madhya Pradesh government could fall is symptomatic of how the prime minister approached the crisis initially.

Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM Cares) fund is another example of how he is using the crisis for needless self-promotion when there is already a Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. The prime minister’s well-known acronymitis affliction is showing even in the time of coronavirus. It is obscene that the Central Vista Redevelopment Project that may end up costing over Rs 30,000 crore at the very minimum is given the final go-ahead even as the country enters lockdown.

The Congress’s leadership has written to the prime minister extending full support and making a number of constructive suggestions. Unfortunately, these suggestions have been implemented half-heartedly. Congress chief ministers have written to the PM too and are awaiting action on their suggestions.

It is not the Congress but the prime minister who is the jagadguru of political grandstanding. So this question is totally off the mark. The Congress has been restrained and dignified. It has not criticised for the sake of criticising, but actually offered numerous suggestions based on years of experience. I wish the prime minister had reached out to leaders of all political parties. But that is not his style.

In the states run by your party, we have not seen any shining examples of management of the crisis. In fact, in states where your party is a partner in power, we have seen the worst outbreak of the pandemic. The Congress has managed many national calamities. Why hasn’t it got this one right?

I am afraid you are badly misinformed. I am closely associated with the Chhattisgarh government and I can tell you that it is very proactive and responsive. It requires support from the Centre and the CM has approached the PM. Follow what the CM has been saying and doing and you will not be asking me this question. The health minister of the state too has been providing effective leadership. I can tell you about Chhattisgarh since I am monitoring the state closely, but a similar response has been there in Punjab, Rajasthan and Puducherry. Had the BJP, aided and abetted by (Jyotiraditya) Scindia, not brought down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, a similar response would have been there in the state.

Sooner or later, the epidemic will end and then it will be time to pick up the pieces. What is the Congress’s view on what the government should do?

It cannot clearly be business as usual. We are entering a whole new world more than the usual quota of risk and uncertainty. Historians refer to the ancient period as BCE (Before the Common/Currenr Era). Now that BCE must denote Before Corona Era because we are in a totally transformed era. Most urgently, public expenditure priorities have to be ruthlessly re-examined. Health is true Wealth. And there are social determinants to health as well which have been become so painfully obvious and which we have ignored for far too long.

The economic model which we have followed needs a hard relook and I hope this crisis will sensitise us more to the imperative of maintaining ecological balance. Our lifestyles may also undergo a change. A little less triumphalism would do us all a world of good and speaking personally, I hope politics becomes far less toxic so that a collective endeavour is possible in crucial national areas like health. Social safety and security systems are also of paramount importance and our efforts in this area have been too fragmented and at sub-optimal levels.

In this situation, what makes more sense: A massive stimulus to jump-start manufacturing and industry, inject growth and revive the economy through that route? Or continue with mitigating measures like allowances, cash transfers and other ways to support the low-income population in the hope of reviving demand, however incremental?

Obviously, both will be called for. What the precise mix will be will become clearer in a few months, I hope. A new Budget may well be called for perhaps in July since the Budget that was presented on February 1 has clearly become totally obsolete. That Budget was based on rosy and cosy assumptions that have all fallen by the wayside. Both the strategy and the arithmetic have to be completely reworked. But whether that will happen, I cannot say.

For India, the defining and sobering image of Covid-19 will be the massive movement of migrants after the economy shutdown. Their absence from centres of commerce and industry will render recovery, even after the epidemic, extremely slow. In the light of fresh research that suggests policies like MGNREGA and domicile requirement laws by states have prevented mobility, do think it is now necessary to have a coherent policy on migration?

Indisputably, yes. One in three Indians is a migrant and the famous sociologist, M N Srinivas, once wrote that India is a nation of migrants (actually he wrote that India is nation of immigrants!). We have focussed on international migration because of the $ 70 billion of remittances annually. But domestic migration is also very important. The last figure I recall is from 2014 when domestic remittances were about a sixth of external remittances but their socio-economic impact is tremendous given the nature of the migrant population. Internal migration will only increase as population stabilises and begins to decline in peninsular and western India and continues to grow in northern and central India. We are already seeing this shift taking place in construction, plantation and service economies in southern states. I am all for this migration proceeding apace since we are one country. But it presents many social and political challenges, not the least because of differences in language and cultural traditions. MGNREGA was designed to prevent distress migration which indeed it has. It is a social safety net, the value of which has been recognised even by its greatest critic, our prime minister. It needs continuous reform, no doubt but that does not mean it has no place.

State domicile laws are a political reality that cannot be wished away. Even my good friend Kamal Nath had been forced to introduce it in MP when he was the CM.

I find it appalling that we moved with alacrity to bring relatively better-off Indians back from abroad, but we did not show the same degree of sensitivity, care and speed for dealing with the ‘long marches back home’ within the country. The class character of the Indian state was very apparent and as an Indian I was ashamed of those images that were the result of government inaction and lethargy.

Ayushman Bharat is held up by the government as a signature initiative. Although data is yet to come about how many Indians actually used the scheme when they needed it most, what changes do you suggest in the health social security net?

I have always believed that what India needs is health assurance, not health insurance which sadly is one of the main pillars of the Ayushman Bharat programme. I have spoken about this in Parliament and in the Standing Committee as well. After the present crisis is mitigated, I think we should sit down calmly and take stock of it.

The problem with this government is that it is positively hostile to any form of independent audit or concurrent evaluation. As minister of rural development, I had made this an integral part of all programmes like MGNREGA or NRLM (National Rural Livelihoods Mission) or PMGSY or Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the precursor to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Unfortunately, now whatever the PM wants us to believe about swachch Bharat is gospel.

Like many countries across the world, India’s dreams and ambitions are in tatters. Where should we look for hope? And what is the one thing that the government shouldn’t do?

This is a government led by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent one. If it shows some humility and reaches out genuinely, perhaps some of us can give ideas on what to do and what not to. But it is important not to fall prey to panic, fear, defeatism and pessimism. Undoubtedly the setback is severe, far more severe than the Tughlakian demonetisation imposed on us on November 8, 2016. But we must persevere and learn the right lessons as we rebuild. 


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