Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today urged the government to reconsider its Rs 20 lakh crore package for the coronavirus-hit economy and warned the government of a "catastrophic problem" if it did not, instead, put money into the bank accounts of people worst affected by the outbreak and lockdown.
Addressing reporters via a Zoom video call, Mr Gandhi expressed "serious reservations" about what he said was a "package of loans" that did not provide immediate on-ground relief for farmers and migrants.
"Our people need money. Prime Minister should reconsider this package. Modiji should think about direct cash transfer, 200 working days under MNREGA, money for farmers, because they are the future of India," Mr Gandhi said.
The Lok Sabha MP from Kerala highlighted the NYAY scheme proposed by his party while campaigning for general elections last year - which offered annual income support of Rs 72,000 to the poorest sections of society - and urged the government to come up with a similar plan.
"The migrant labourer walking on the street needs money, not debt. The farmer who is suffering needs money, not debt," Mr Gandhi said, adding, "If we do not, this will become a catastrophic problem".
Rahul Gandhi's critique of the Prime Minister's stimulus package was echoed by this week by a family of three migrants trying to cycle over 500 km from Uttar Pradesh to their village in Chhattisgarh.
"What is there to be happy about… we did not even get ration where we were. It would have been better if they arranged for buses for us to go home," Lakshmi Sahu, the mother, said.
Mr Gandhi made the same request of PM Modi earlier this week too, asking for direct transfer of "at least Rs 7,500" to the bank accounts of migrants left jobless by the lockdown. Earlier this month Nobel Prize-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee, in a discussion with Mr Gandhi, also made that point.
Mr Banerjee said: "I would say bottom 60 per cent of the population, we give them some money, nothing bad will happen in my view", adding that a similar practice was being followed by the United States.
The coronavirus outbreak - India has reported nearly 86,000 cases and over 2,700 deaths so far - has affected lakhs across the country, with migrant labourers and daily wagers among the hardest hit.
Distressing visuals have emerged over the past weeks of men and women left with no choice but to walk hundreds of kilometres home in punishing weather, often without money, food, water or shelter. Mr Gandhi has been particularly vocal about the crisis, repeatedly urging the government to ensure they are fed and allowed to get home safely.
The government this week announced a fiscal relief and stimulus package that had some measures for stranded and struggling migrants, including food rations and affordable housing.
However, the Congress said this was a "jumla" (false promise) package that had no direct benefit for farmers or migrant labourers. Similar concerns were raised by other opposition leaders, including NCP chief Sharad Pawar and CPIM leader Sitaram Yechury.
In his video call today, Mr Gandhi said that unless the government ensured a significant level of demand from consumers across all economic sections, the country would struggle to recover from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, ratings agency Moody's said the impact of the outbreak would exacerbate the material slowdown in India's economic growth, with the country expected to see 0 per cent expansion in the current fiscal year.