Bhubaneswar: Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, and the party he founded and heads, the Biju Janta Dal, have always avoided confrontation with the Central government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state government has refrained from crossing swords with the Centre.
However, an article by a senior minister of Odisha has created ripples in political circles as he has criticised the Modi government for mishandling the migrant workers’ crisis during the lockdown.
Writing an editorial piece on May 27 in the widely-circulated Odia daily, Samaja, food supplies and consumer affair minister Ranendra Pratap Swain said that the central government had announced the lockdown across India on March 24, giving only four hours’ notice. This, he said, had caused unprecedented ripples in the country and resulted in untold misery for poor people.
Swain, a seven-time MLA from Athagarh assembly constituency of the state, is regarded as the enfant terrible of Odisha politics, who often faces rough weather for his direct criticism of leaders.
The minister said in his article that around 10 crore people from backward states had accepted relatively developed states as their ‘karmabhumi’ or workplace. This, he said, had contributed immensely to the growth of the country. As the lockdown was announced around the end of the month, he said, many employers took advantage of it and ended up not paying migrant workers their salary. As a result, most migrant workers’ savings dried up by the time the first phase of the lockdown came to an end. They had no option but to completely depend on food given by the government or NGOs, he said.
“Such mismanagement shook the migrants psychologically and they lost all faith in the government. By the end of the second phase of the lockdown, thousands of migrants started walking to their native places disregarding concerns about food, hunger, the summer heat and the police’s baton with their women and children in tow. They covered hundreds of kilometres by foot, cycles, trucks, milk tankers and even cement mixer tankers,” Swain said.
He added that the heart-wrenching stories and videos of the plight of migrants disturbed everyone and proved that our system had definitely failed somewhere.
The minister further said that only after the plight of the migrant workers was highlighted in the media, the central government arranged for Shramik Special trains but they were not enough to send millions of the poor home. In the meantime, many tragic incidents, including the untimely death of many migrant workers occurred. Some were crushed under the train in Aurangabad and others died in road accidents in Uttar Pradesh, he said.
“What was more painful is the fact that the central government absolved itself of its responsibility by providing two-months’ rations in the form of 5 kg rice per person and one kg dal per family per month,” he said.
Swain said that the large scale movement of migrant workers would have dangerous consequences. When the business or industrial units reopen, they would find it difficult to find workers and their cost of production would increase and the urban homes would have no helping hand either. On the other side, he said, after the return of jobless migrant workers to their native places, the native states will find it difficult to provide them with employment. The unemployment crisis, which was already there before COVID-19, will increase many fold and it will further worsen the socio-economic scenario.
Further criticising the Modi government, Swain said that while many countries of the world came up with different economic packages to cope with a situation worse than the Great Depression following World War II, the central government unveiled its Rs 20 lakh crore package rather late on May 22. “But unfortunately, during the announcement of the package (by the Prime Minister), the plight of migrant workers was not mentioned even once,” Swain said.
He added that the package raised some hope among several sections, but only for a day. “When details were revealed the hope turned to despair because the package included many things announced earlier like the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and steps taken by RBI. Economists termed it a ‘loan mela’,” the minister said.
“When the economic system is frozen, why should anyone take a loan to invest in businesses? The need of the hour was to put cash in the hands of the people, and announce tax reliefs and steps to restructure the loan system, which would have helped recycle the economy,” he opined.
In his article, Swain also pointed out long standing demands of state chief ministers for pending GST dues and fresh funds besides other legitimate claims. He said that owing to the lockdown, many states would lose substantial revenue, which would adversely affect their respective budgets. He said that while the Centre has increased the states’ loan limit from 3% to 5%, it has made it so conditional that apart from a few states, most others including Odisha would not benefit from it.
Many BJD leaders were taken aback by the strong criticism of the central government by Swain, considering the ongoing bonhomie between Modi and chief minister Naveen Patnaik. On March 18, Modi had lauded Patnaik’s COVID-19 efforts in a tweet and asked others to “emulate Naveen Babu”.
BJD leaders refrained from commenting on the article written by Swain. One, however, told The Wire on the condition of anonymity that considering Swain’s temperament, the opinion expressed might be his “personal view”. However, state Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, who are suspicious of Patnaik’s intentions, said that it was unlikely that Swain could be so vocal against the Centre without any backing.
It will be interesting to see how Swain, who has never lost an election since he became a giant killer by trouncing former Odisha chief minister Janaki Ballabh Patnaik in Athagarh in 1990, carries himself in the coming days.