August 28, 2022

The Week in Parliament

CPI(M) Parliamentary Office


IN the first week of the Monsoon session, both Houses of Parliament witnessed adjournment as the Left and other Opposition MPs demanded suspension of listed business to discuss issues such as spiralling inflation and enhanced GST rates on many essential commodities, the Agnipath scheme and growing autocracy. But the government carried out unprecedented assaults on Parliament with its refusal to discuss any substantial motions on burning issues of the people and the suspension of 27 members of Parliament from both Houses.


In the second week, Lok Sabha took up a discussion on price rise. Speaking on the subject, A M Ariff said the government cannot escape just terming the issues of price rise, currency depreciation and inflation, and unemployment as global phenomena every now and then. The BJP reminds us about worshipping the gomata(holy cow). I would like to get an answer from my colleagues belonging to the BJP on why they are dishonouring the gomata by levying a five per cent GST on products such as milk and curd. This government has been arguing for the past few days that the decision to levy five per cent GST on products such as packaged rice was taken unanimously in the GST Council. In the GST Council, it was informed that it would be applicable only for sales in big shopping malls. But this government has tried to make it applicable to all kinds of shops through the backdoor. Rice is the staple food of Kerala and, on behalf of the people and the government of Kerala, I express my strong protest on the charge of five per cent GST on rice and rice products. The price of a domestic LPG cylinder has become Rs 1,083 now from just Rs 263 in 2014. The government started giving subsidy amount to bank accounts saying that subsidies will reach the real beneficiary. But for the past year, the government has not been paying even a single paisa as a subsidy. Now the real beneficiary is none other than the central government. This government introduced the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana to provide free gas connection to poor households and large hoardings of the prime minister were put up in almost all petrol pumps praising him. What is the current status of this scheme? Since 2021-22, not even a single penny has been spent by this government on the Ujjwala Yojana. So, I request the government to remove such hoardings. In modern India, thousands of households have switched to traditional fuels because they are not able to bear the price of LPG. This government has come to power by giving a false promise to the people of the country that it will reduce the price of all petroleum products including petrol, diesel, kerosene, and LPG by half. India’s LPG cost per litre is the highest in the world, third in petrol. May I read one speech of Narendra Modi ji on May 23, 2012? He said: “Massive hike in petrol prices is a prime example of the failure of the Congress-led UPA government.” Regarding the value of the rupee, Modi made a spectacular speech a long time back and I quote him. “When the currency of a country is depreciated, it means that the country has become weak.” In that speech, our prime minister exhorted that the value of the Indian rupee against the US dollar went down the most during the UPA regime. What is the situation now? If the exchange rate against the US dollar was Rs 63.33 in 2014, now it is Rs 80. So, I request the prime minister to rewind that news clip available on social media and publicly offer an apology to the people of this country for his remarks.

If the government wholeheartedly wishes to control price rise, there are so many alternatives. Please look at Kerala. If Kerala can become a model, why not the whole of India? It just needs the government’s sensitiveness to the wishes of the people and political will. I am proud of the decision taken by our LDF government not to increase the price of 13 essential food items sold through the Maveli store in every nook and corner of the state. Let me just read out the prices of some essential items with no change in prices for the past six years: The price of sugar in the open market is Rs 40 per kg and we are giving it at Rs 22. The price of red chilli in the open market is Rs 116 and we are giving it at Rs 37 only. The price of coriander in the open market is Rs 72.50 and we are giving it at Rs 39.50 only. Now we have decided to give 14 essential items free of cost to eighty lakh ration cardholders. This is the real model of India. The central government can use this model to keep the price rise under control.


Speaking on rising prices of essential items in Rajya Sabha, Elamaram Kareem said, “We are discussing a very important issue which is confronting the vast majority of the people of this country. There has been a constant price rise of essential commodities ranging from vegetables to gas and other items in the eight-year rule of the Modi government. In the past five years, prices of rice and wheat, the two most important cereals for Indians, have increased by 24 per cent; wheat flour by 28 per and pulses by 20-30 per cent, according to data put out by the department of consumer affairs. Pulses are an important source of protein in India and their exorbitant prices have put them out of reach for most poor families. This has had a dire effect on the nutritional levels. Cooking oil prices have zoomed up uncontrollably -- groundnut oil by 41 per cent, mustard oil by 71 per cent, vanaspati by 112 per cent, sunflower oil by 107 per cent and palm oil by 128 per cent. Every Indian family uses cooking oil and these hikes have led to a severe dent in the family spending because it is impossible to skip using cooking oils.”

Price rise is not restricted to foodgrains and cooking oils alone. Prices of potatoes have increased by 65 per cent, onions by 69 per cent and tomatoes by 155 per cent in the past five years. These are seasonal ups and downs in these and other vegetables which only go to show a policy paralysis about vegetable supply. Various other essential items are also showing severe inflationary pressure. While milk prices have gone up by 25 per cent, loose tea leaves prices have risen by 41 per cent and even iodized salt price has increased by 28 per cent in this period. According to the agricultural ministry's data, Indian farmers have produced record food grain harvests for the past several years. Cereal production was 234.87 million tonnes in 2014 when the NDA government took over and since then it has increased to 285.28 million tonnes last year, an increase of nearly 22 per cent. Pulses production was 17.15 million tonnes which increased to 25.46 million tonnes last year, an increase of nearly 49 per cent. It is tragic and a testimony to this government's policies that despite this abundance, farmers are fighting to get better prices and consumers are weighed down by high prices. What could the government have done to ease the foodgrains prices? Instead of sitting on huge stockpiles of foodgrains, if the government had expanded the public distribution system to include more families that are currently excluded and to include their essential items of consumption like cooking oils, pulses, salt, and milk, then not only would the needy families get these items cheap but even open market prices would have been reduced. But this government is so committed to the 'free market' concept that they refused to expand the PDS, even when sufficient stocks existed in the government warehouses.

The unprecedented rise in the prices of petroleum products and cooking gas has already resulted in the price rise of all items in the market and the current decision to tax essential commodities will aggravate the people's misery. Independent India abandoned the policy of the colonial British government's tax on food items. In these last 75 years, food items like rice, wheat, pulses and other daily essentials like curd, paneer, meat, fish, and jaggery, were never taxed. All these exempted items have come inside the purview of GST now. The range of items on which GST has been increased also includes crematorium charges, hospital rooms, writing ink, etc. Even to withdraw one's own savings from a bank account, people have to pay 18 per cent GST on bank cheques. These decisions have been rolled out when there is a runaway price rise with the Consumer Price Index ranging above 7 per cent and the Wholesale Price Index above 15 per cent, soaring unemployment, a tumbling rupee, unprecedented trade deficit and stumbling GDP growth. These hikes will further ruin people's livelihood. To raise revenue, the government must tax the super-rich and not impose any burden on the people. The government is giving further tax concessions and loan waivers to the corporates. Many of the luxury goods that should have been taxed heavily are having a modest levy. Gold purchases are taxed at only 3 per cent, diamonds at 1.5 per cent, while food items like rice and essential commodities have 5 per cent GST. From July 18, 2022, all items would attract GST when 'prepackaged and labelled'. Also, through this move, the government has removed the distinction between branded and unbranded. There is no reference to branding in the new system.  A high-value brand and "pre-packaged and labelled" commodity would equally attract tax. The Union Finance Minister tweeted that in the GST Council, the sub-committee unanimously recommended this 5 per cent tax. It is not true. Kerala Finance Minister was one of the members. Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Karnataka governments were also there. There was no unanimous decision to impose 5 per cent GST on foodgrains and other essential items. So, this is an arbitrary statement. She has to withdraw that statement.


Speaking on the National Anti-Doping Bill in Rajya Sabha, John Brittas raised concerns about the structure and who all will be part of the board, the independence of such bodies, what could be the rules, what could be the criteria, and all sorts of things actually are kept vague. Kerala has a social eco-system whereby it promotes sports. In July, two of our brilliant athletes were debarred. This bill should be providing us with a window out of the situation that is existing now. In India, everyone loves sports. Everyone wants Indian sportspersons to excel. The sports minister should use his political clout to increase the allocation, which he is not doing. Actually, the budgetary allocation has gone down -- from Rs 25 crore to Rs 16 crore. And, Khelo India programme currently accounts for nearly 30 per cent of this sports budget. We need to have an absolute increase and specific allocation to enhance sports in this country. “There are small countries like Romania, Latvia, etc., which allocate more funds. Please ask (P T) Ushaji, please ask her, how much the sportsperson requires. And, I would request that you should consult her. Don’t make her sit here alone. You should consult her on sports. You should use her talent also,” he said. The minister should take interest in such a way that a portion of CSR earnings is demarcated for sports. That should be propagated and promoted. There is too much politics in sports bodies. Fifty per cent of sports bodies are headed by politicians. Do you want to have that much politics in sports bodies? Think about those people who don’t have any knowledge about the domain of sports presiding over sports with bias only for narrow, parochial interests. We should develop sports medicines as a counter to the doping that is happening, counter to the drugs.


P R Natarajan raised the issue of the Agnipath scheme for short-term recruitment in the armed forces. According to the annual report of the department of expenditure, out of more than 40.78 lakh sanctioned posts, about 8.72 lakh posts are vacant in central government departments itself as of February 3, 2022. Most of the vacant posts are in Group B & C categories. Short-term contract workers and temporary modes of employment are increasing in all the central/state departments. In this present unemployment scenario, a similar design of contractual employment proposed by the government under the name 'Agnipath Scheme" is nothing but inducting low-cost jawans in the place of regular employment opportunities. According to this scheme, 40 to 50 thousand soldiers in the age group between 17.5 to 21 will be recruited annually. After four years in service, one-fourth of them will be included in regular defence services. The rest of the persons selected for Agnipath will be dropped. This will over a period of time reduce the permanent service personnel within the armed forces. Most importantly, this might breed feudal loyalty often soaked in preference relating to religion, caste and ideology instead of professionalism and impersonal commitment to the norms and discipline of the defence services. Hence, I request the union government to restrain from giving approval to this Agnipath scheme.


In Rajya Sabha, V Sivadasan raised concerns over problems being faced by people living in eco-sensitive zones. Thousands of common people in the remote areas of our nation are worried about their land and shelter. In the name of ecologically sensitive zones, people are being forced to leave their homes. They are facing the threat of eviction from their own homeland. The land where they are living is their own land. Not only them but also their forefathers were born and brought up in these areas. But the recent developments in our country are creating a painful situation for them. Lakhs of people will be evicted from these areas. This will be a large humanitarian crisis. They are unable to build or develop schools. All citizens of India should be facilitated with proper healthcare institutions. But in this region, they will be unable to build or maintain the hospital buildings, labs and other essential healthcare facilities. The development of this region will be stunted. The real estate mafia is misusing this uncertainty. They are purchasing the land at cheap rates. The people living near the forests are in extreme psychological distress. Most of them are Adivasis and poor peasants. Whatever the cost, the people should be protected. Their lives and livelihoods should be preserved. I request the immediate intervention of the government in the matter.