First step in right direction: Rahul lauds Centre's COVID-19 financial package

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New Delhi: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi welcomed the financial package announced by the Centre on Thursday, saying it was the first step in the right direction.

The comments come after the government unveiled a Rs 1.70-lakh-crore economic package involving free food grain and cooking gas to the poor for the next three months, one-time doles to women and poor senior citizens, higher wages to workers and measures to boost liquidity of employees, as it looked to contain the impact of unprecedented nationwide lockdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"The Govt announcement today of a financial assistance package, is the first step in the right direction," Gandhi tweeted. "India owes a debt to its farmers, daily wage earners, labourers, women & the elderly who are bearing the brunt of the ongoing lockdown."

Sonia writes in support to PM

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday, supporting the lockdown announced in view of the coronavirus outbreak, while suggesting steps like protecting doctors and seeking deferment of loan recovery.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping the world had caused serious public health concerns, anguish and apprehensions in India, she wrote in her letter to the prime minister.

"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," Gandhi added.

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She noted that the 21-day nationwide lockdown announced by the prime minister as a measure to fight the coronavirus was a welcome step.

"As President of the Indian National Congress, I would like to state that we will support and collaborate fully with every step taken by the Union Government to ensure the containment of the pandemic," Gandhi said.

At this challenging and uncertain time, she said it was imperative for each one of us to rise above partisan interests and honour our duty towards our country and indeed, towards 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 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," the Congress chief said.

She stressed on the need to arm doctors, nurses and health workers with personal protection equipment, including N-95 masks and hazmat suits.

Announcing a special "Risk Allowance" for doctors, nurses and health workers for a period of six months retrospectively from March 1 was imperative, she added.

The Congress chief also called upon the Centre to immediately commission and begin construction of temporary facilities with large numbers of ICUs and ventilators in areas where the outbreak is expected to be concentrated in the near future.

She also said a dedicated portal for sharing all necessary information was a way forward.

Gandhi said disseminating all essential information, including the locations of the designated hospitals and their emergency phone numbers, was essential to facilitate the management of the pandemic.

Noting that many businesses and companies were laying off and retrenching large numbers of regular and temporary employees, she said, "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."

Gandhi also sought a deferment of all loan recoveries up to six months, including for the loans given to farmers and the salaried class.

She pointed out that the 21-day lockdown comes at the peak of the harvesting season, as the crop is ready for harvesting in most states by March-end.

"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," the Congress president said.

She also called for implementing the Minimum Income Guarantee Scheme i.e the "NYAY Yojana" proposed by her party.

Alternatively, she said an amount of Rs 7,500 should be transferred to every Jan Dhan account holder, PM Kisan Yojna account holder, those receiving old-age, widow, differently-abled pensions and MGNREGA workers as a one-time measure.

Gandhi also suggested distributing 10 kg of rice or wheat per family member to every ration card holder through PDS for free.

For the salaried class, she said the Centre might consider deferring all EMIs for six months, adding that the interest charged by the banks might consequently be waived for this period.

"Similarly, all loan installment deductions from the salaries of government employees may also be deferred for six months," Gandhi said.

She said the 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," Gandhi wrote to the prime minister.

(With inputs from PTI.)

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