"White Paper on COVID-19 has constructive suggestions; it's also signal that govt actions are being observed"

Prof Rajeev Gowda, Chairperson, AICC Research Department talks about the significance of a detailed assessment of the government's functioning and need for the White Paper on COVID-19

Prof Rajeev Gowda, Chairperson, AICC Research Department (Photo COurtesy: Twitter/@rajeevgowda)
Prof Rajeev Gowda, Chairperson, AICC Research Department (Photo COurtesy: Twitter/@rajeevgowda)

Sanjukta Basu

When was the last time a political party came out with a White Paper on an issue of national importance? The Bharatiya Janata Party had done something similar on Black Money when it was in the opposition. But it was a more political and rhetorical exercise than the White Paper on the management of COVID-19 by the Government released by the Congress last week.

Congress MP and former president Rahul Gandhi had said on the occasion, “the purpose is not to point fingers but to help the nation prepare for the third wave of coronavirus that is going to come.”

The comprehensive document covers the time period of December 2019 when the virus was first notified by WHO to the present day. It outlines what the government has done, what it should have done, and what the Congress party has been telling the government to do.

The 150-page long document covers the government’s early inaction and policy responses during the first wave, ignoring warnings that led to the second wave, the vaccine mismanagement and the ways ahead.

Prof Rajeev Gowda, Chairperson, AICC Research Department, which prepared the White Paper addressed questions put to him by National Herald. Excerpts:

What purpose does the White Paper serve?

India experienced unprecedented death and devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of this could have been avoided if the government had paid attention to inputs from scientists and experts. For example, Prime Minister Modi prematurely declared victory and chose to prioritise political agendas over preparation to deal with the second wave.

One purpose was to create a detailed record of the government’s acts of commission and omission so that the government learns from its mistakes. Another purpose is to suggest constructive steps that the government needs to take to tackle the pandemic more effectively. In the absence of detailed assessments from other institutional bodies, it was imperative for the leading opposition party to step forward. We owed it to the people of India.

What impact do you expect the White Paper to have?

The White Paper sends a signal to the government that its actions are being observed carefully. Now the Supreme Court has also started examining the government’s track record. You can see that its pronouncements are in line with many of the White Paper’s conclusions and recommendations.

This increased scrutiny has forced the Union Government to provide more realistic numbers in its affidavit about vaccination. It is no longer inflating numbers about vaccine production and availability, as it did to manage headlines.

As the White Paper suggested, Supreme Court has also asked the Union Government to grant ex gratia compensation of Rs. 4 lakh to families of COVID-19 victims. As Rahul Gandhi had explained we also need a minimum income support programme from the Union Government to take care of large numbers of vulnerable families whose livelihoods have been badly affected.

What has been the response from the Government to the White Paper?

The second half of the White Paper consists of letters from the Congress party’s leaders to the Union Government along with Congress Working Committee resolutions, right from when the pandemic began. However, the Union government has chosen to not respond to our suggestions in the same spirit. Union Ministers have reacted in a terrible manner and sometimes have blatantly lied. But right after these tantrums, the government has gone ahead and implemented our suggestions. So at least better policies have resulted.

Overall, the Union government has prioritised optics over constructive action. It still does not do things in a transparent manner and tends to play politics over even vaccine distribution.

Are more White Papers in the offing on subjects like Centre-State relations, Centre-State finances, taxation etc.?

It would be a healthy practice for both political parties and various institutional bodies to conduct detailed assessments of the government’s functioning. Parliamentary panels, independent commissions, committees of inquiry, Court-appointed audit committees, all of these need to be constituted. But under this government, we have not seen enough scrutiny from such bodies. In fact, because many of these bodies have not done enough in terms of holding the Union government to account, it is vital that we have more such White Papers.

For example, we need a White Paper to examine how the GST regime has functioned. Similarly in the context of taxes, excise duties and cesses on petroleum products. All these have a huge impact on the economy, on inflation, on the difficulties faced by our poorer sections.

It would be helpful if the media were to examine White Papers in greater detail and provide more coverage so that people are better informed.

As for the health sector, the pandemic has exposed the extraordinary scale of the challenges involved. Multiple White Papers on the different dimensions are certainly needed. Governments have to seek out the best possible inputs, whether from experts or the opposition. We must ensure that rural India is not left behind and we have to invest also in people, because we need more doctors and paramedics to cope with current and future waves.

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