The Congress Consultative Group, formed on April 18, to deliberate and formulate the views of the party on the coronavirus pandemic met for the first time on Monday. Party leaders claim that the objective of the group is to offer constructive suggestions to the government in dealing with the crisis.

In its first meeting, the group formulated a series of suggestions for the government. One of the most significant suggestions was an immediate cash transfer of Rs 7,500 to all Jan Dhan and pension accounts of widows, disabled and old age persons.

Lok Sabha MP and member of the group Manish Tewari spoke to India Today TV on how Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government can implement these suggestions.

Q. The Congress Consultative Group has advocated direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 by the Union government to Jan Dhan Account holders and three types of pensioners under the rural development ministry – elderly poor, disabled and widows. How many families do you expect will be covered under this scheme and how much money will be required to implement this?

A. We believe 11 crore families at the bottom of the economic pyramid will be benefitted by this. The estimated cost will be about Rs 1 lakh crore. We have passed a budget of over 30 lakh crore. If you add the budgets of the state governments, the total amount will be Rs 80 lakh crore. All that needs to be done is rationalise government expenditure.

Q. Could you suggest some ways how the government can do what you have proposed?

A. By now, the government should have set up an expenditure rationalisation commission. It should have looked at expenditure across the government space and enacted a 20 per cent cut in non-essential expenditure. There are multiple avenues to generate that resource. For instance, a recently published article estimated that 15 top PSUs, minus their requirements over the next six months, are sitting on a cash reserve of around Rs 95,000 crore.

Q. The government has already asked over 30 departments to restrict its expenditure to just 20 per cent of the budgetary allocation in the first quarter and over 50 departments to restrict the same to 15 per cent.

A. If the government has done that it should have no problem of liquidity and can very well implement our suggestion.

Q. The Union government has also initiated several austerity measures such as a reduction in salaries of top executives and parliamentarians. While you have welcomed that move, your party is opposed to another move – the suspension of the MPLADs fund. Why?

A. The MPLADs fund could have come in handy in implementing customised solutions on the ground to alleviate medical and economic distress. The total amount saved — Rs 7,900 crore — is a drop in the ocean compared to the Rs 80 lakh crore of state and Union budgets.

Besides, the discretionary fund of the MLAs has not been withdrawn. So this act seems to be motivated by political factors.

On March 24, the Union government gave permission to the MPs to buy essential Covid-19 equipment. On March 28, the BJP MPs were asked to donate Rs 1 crore of MPLADs to the central relief fund to fight the coronavirus pandemic. And on April 6, the fund was suspended.

It was not an appropriation from Parliament. It was a line item in the budget. How could the Union government arbitrarily suspend it by an ordinance without really going back to Parliament and getting it re-appropriated? This question will be raised at some point in time in the future.

Q. What’s the political factor?

A. It seems someone’s ego got hurt. When a substantial number of MPs did not release the Rs 1 crore they were asked to, it seems to have hurt the hubris of the powers that be.

Q. PM Modi has claimed that India has performed better than other countries in fighting Covid-19. Critics claim that India’s numbers are better because we have not done enough tests. How practical is the idea of mass testing in a country of 1.3 billion?

A. Obviously we are testing less. Let’s take the example of two highly affected countries — the US and Italy. Both have a combined population of 380 million. The total number of tests done in these two countries is 4.8 million. India has a population of 1.3 billion and we have conducted only just over 380,000 tests.

Without mass testing, how are you going to come out of this lockdown? Insofar as performing better than other nations is concerned, we are not competing in the Olympics. We are fighting a pandemic. For me, one single person dying in far off Chile is as tragic as someone succumbing to the virus in my constituency. These claims are egregious.

Q. Do you expect any paradigm shift in India’s electoral and political landscape after Covid-19 crisis?

A. We will have to wait and see how the politics of the country pans out.

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