New Delhi, Jun 29 (PTI) The Congress on Monday launched a countrywide agitation against the government for raising prices of petroleum products 22 times in the past 23 days, with party president Sonia Gandhi accusing it of setting 'a new example of extortion'.
Seeking an immediate rollback of the hikes, Rahul Gandhi said the decision to raise fuel prices was the 'most ill-advised' at the time of economic hardship being faced by the people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and asked the government to stop 'profiteering'.
Scores of Congress leaders and workers staged demonstrations and took out marches in state capitals and district headquarters across the country and submitted memoranda, addressed to President Ram Nath Kovind, to local authorities demanding immediate rollback of the hikes to ease people's burden in this 'time of crisis'.
Top Congress leaders, including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, put out video messages on the social media as part of the party's 'SpeakUpAgainstFuelHike' campaign.
Sonia Gandhi charged the government with profiteering at the expense of the people and said its duty was to help them in times of crisis and not make profits out of their hard-earned money.
On the one hand the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc and on the other, the rise in petrol and diesel prices was making life very difficult for the people, she said.
'I, along with all Congressmen and others together, demand from the Modi government to immediately roll back the increase in prices of petrol and diesel raised during this crisis due to the corona pandemic,' the Congress president said in a video message.
'I also urge them to roll back the rise in excise duty on petrol and diesel since March this year and give this benefit to the countrymen. This will be a big relief in this period of economic crisis,' she said.
The Congress chief said this in its own was the living proof of taking the hard-earned incomes of the people and filling the government's coffers.
'The government's duty is to support the countrymen in difficult times and not take advantage of their plight and profiteer.
'The government has set a new example of extortion from people through this unjustified increase in petrol and diesel prices. This is not only unjust but also insensitive,' Gandhi said, noting that it directly hurts the country's farmers, the poor, the working class, the middle class and small businesses.
She said the price of petrol in the national capital and other big cities has crossed Rs 80 per litre.
She said the price of diesel has gone up by Rs 11 per litre and that of petrol by Rs 9.12 per litre due to the recent hikes.
The Modi government has raised the excise duty 12 times, which helped it collect additional revenue of nearly Rs 18 lakh crore, she said.
Rahul Gandhi said, 'The biggest ill-advised decision the government took was to hike petrol and diesel prices...not once but 22 times.... This decision has dealt the biggest blow to the vulnerable and the poor.' 'The government should stop profiteering from petrol and diesel and should immediately reduce prices and excise duty on them,' he said as part of his video message.
He said the Congress had earlier said that the government should step forward to help the vulnerable and the middle class, and had made two suggestions.
The first was to prepare a package on the lines of the minimum income guarantee scheme, he said, adding that the scheme could be implemented for three months, if not for a year, and money be put directly into accounts of the poor every month.
With this, the poorest of the poor and the weakest would get relief, Gandhi said.
The second was, the Congress leader said, 'we told the government to secure the micro, small and medium enterprises, which employ 40 per cent of our people'.
The government has to save them from bankruptcy and give them a package, he said.
'But the government did not agree to this also. Instead, it waived loans worth lakhs of crores of 15 crony capitalists and put money into their pockets,' Gandhi said.
AICC general secretary K C Venugopal said the party undertook the nationwide agitation against the 'unmindful, insensitive and unprecedented' hike in the prices of petrol and diesel even though the price of international crude has been at a record low.
He said from June 30 to July 4, the party will hold protests at tehsil and block levels.
Earlier at the Congress briefing, party spokesperson Khushbu Sundar questioned the prime minister's silence on the issue and asked why he was not listening to the people's woes and granting relief to them.
She said prices of petroleum products were increased 22 times in the past 23 days.
She also took on Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry Dharmendra Pradhan, saying 'if the money earned from petrol/diesel is going to farmers, why are they still in distress. Where is the money going?' 'The unjust increase in petrol/diesel prices over last three months of (the coronavirus-induced) Lockdown has inflicted insurmountable pain and suffering on the people of India,' she said.
She demanded that the benefit of low crude oil prices be passed on to people and petrol and diesel be brought under the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala also put out a video as part of the campaign, alleging that the government has collected Rs 1.3 lakh crore through the recent hikes in fuel prices. PTI SKC SMN SMN