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Framing an agenda for the Opposition – analysis


Already battling coronavirus disease (Covid-19), West Bengal has been battered by Cyclone Amphan. While the preparatory arrangements and the evacuations of five lakhs of people by the state government ensured that loss of life was minimized, the devastation suffered by families and damage to public and private property, as well as the ecology of Bengal have 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, must come together to bring relief and comfort to those who suffer.

It is in this context 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 opposition parties in the Center. They will share experiences. They will also compare notes on the Center’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 emerge.

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It is important to note that all parts of the opposition were not always on the same page. In early March, the Trinamool Congress, and some others, were aggressive in urging the suspension of Parliament and taking coordinated action. The government of the National Democratic Alliance did not want to listen. Some parts of the opposition decided to trust his judgment. Meanwhile, in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee began preparing, regardless of New Delhi’s views.

When the 21-day national shutdown was announced, with just four hours notice and without consultation, opposition parties and their state governments continued to support. They complied with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s request to avoid politics at this hour. It’s another matter that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to politicize the response to Covid-19 in the United States, with most of the party-sanctioned online fight reserved for Bengal.

The BJP and the Center have shown their efforts. They have taken over advertising, but left the states to handle the crisis. I will illustrate with two sets of examples: Tests 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 patients with Covid-19 in private hospitals requisitioned by the state. The government assumed the cost. On April 30, the Maharashtra government imposed a price limit on Covid-19 treatment by private hospitals. He took a sheet from the West Bengal book and extended the free treatment to all residents of the state under the state health insurance scheme.

This is how states learned from each other. What did the center do? He confused everyone on the test protocol and was six and seven years old when it came to providing general guidance to states, both before and after March 24. Testing labs could only be approved for Covid-19 by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). The Union Ministry of Health and ICMR took their time. In states where 20 labs were required and available, only two were approved.

Once the authorizations arrived, the states went to work. The labs have been working double and triple shifts to increase testing. Bengal is testing about 9,000 samples a day, one of the highest in India. If we could not try so many before, it was because the authorizations and kits from the Center did not arrive. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. The governments of Bengal to Chhattisgarh and Kerala to Punjab have complained about such overcentralization. While many states have gradually increased their test numbers over two months, I must point out 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 Center has been talking about Ayushman Bharat and his role in the Covid-19 fight. How credible are those claims? Let me give you some numbers. Of the 2.5 million tests performed, only 3,000 – 0.12% – have been covered by Ayushman Bharat. Of the 100,000 people who tested positive, only 2,000, about 2%, have been treated under Ayushman Bharat. Make your own evaluation.

Now I come to the stimulus package. We are in a crisis and standard macroeconomic principles say that the government should immediately stimulate demand. Of the Indian workforce of 500 million people, 93% work in the unorganized sector. Many have lost their livelihoods, without savings or any safety net. A massive infusion of direct cash, one can debate the exact amount, is inevitable. But the Center has carefully avoided this.

The Center has placed the burden on state governments, telling them that it has raised the debt limit under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Law from 3% of the State’s Gross Domestic Product to 5%. States would have appreciated this, if it weren’t for the fine print. The increase is only from 3% to 3.5%, after which it becomes conditional on impossible benchmarks that include a nation’s ration card; reform of the electricity sector (a stream in the middle of an economic crisis); or increase the income of the local urban body (at a time when the city’s economies are reeling).

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

Derek O’Brien chairs the Trinamool Congress at Rajya Sabha

The opinions expressed are personal.

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