Sewa Bharati, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, has been appointed as the Ayush Ministry’s nodal agency for distribution of its highly publicised Ayush-64 ayurvedic medicine. Though a statement by the Ayush Ministry on May 7 mentioned Sewa Bharati as its ‘main collaborator to ensure the medicines reach the needy’, it has not revealed the details about the deal.
All that we have are scrappy reports from faraway states like Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, Lucknow, Ranchi and Guwahati. The mainstream media, in tune with the official line, dumbed down the special role assigned to the RSS outfit. However, state prabharis of Sewa Bharati proudly talk about the Centre’s bonanza.
Awadh prant Sewa Pramukh Devendra Asthana told reporters that 1.5 lakh tablets have already been received for distribution. "More tablets will be provided if needed," he said in Lucknow. An Excelsior report from Jammu said the RSS outfit will open 29 distribution centres in the Union Territory. Ayush Ministry’s officials were also present. At Ranchi, prantiya sachiv Rishi Pande revealed that the Ayush Ministry has given training to the Sewa Bharati workers on how to handle the Ayush-64 kit. He said his district prabharis were setting up the distribution centres in their areas.
In Kerala, distribution of the government medicine by the RSS workers have caused much bitterness between the saffron workers and local government authorities. In many places, panchayat officials refused to part with official COVID-19 registers as Sewa Bharati had no authority to undertake such work. The Kerala government or any state authority had not given recognition to Sewa Bharati for such work. Neither has the state government got any intimation from the Centre. In some cases, people refused to provide signed papers and private documents to the Sewa Bharati workers.
There is also much confusion as to who will distribute the tablets in Kerala. The ministry had sent the consignments of Ayush-64 to the National Ayurvedic Institute at Cheruthuruthi and Thiruvananthapuram. Simultaneously, Sewa Bharati also got their consignment directly from the Centre. Ayurveda doctors in the state have decried the ministry’s decision to authorise a political outfit to undertake the distribution. Instead, they said only qualified Ayurvedic doctors should be allowed to do the work.
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The decision also evoked angry reactions from the ruling LDF in Kerala. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that Oushadhi, a Kerala government initiative with a network of outlets in the state, was the right agency for the work, not RSS workers. Left MP Elamaram Kareem wrote to the health minister protesting against giving government ‘bonanza’ to RSS. In a letter to PM Modi, John Brittas MP said the Centre was mixing politics with the COVID-19 fight.
Loktantric Janata Dal MP M.V. Shreyans Kumar commented that instead of political workers, Ayurvedic doctors should be assigned the handling of a COVID-19 drug like Ayush-64. This is because the medicine should be taken as adjunct to the standard of care (SoC) in mild to moderate disease when the patient is under home isolation. Under the guidelines, it should only be used as per the advice of a qualified Ayush practitioner.
The most serious objection to assigning the distribution of COVID-19 medicine to an RSS outfit like Sewa Bharati has been that it automatically excludes large sections of minority population as also the political rivals of the RSS from its purview.
When their workers with their saffron banners and publicity materials visit minority areas, the local residents tend to view them with hostility. There can even be suspicion that the medicine being given free by those who had hated them through the years might be harmful to their health. In a politically divided polity — frequent elections widen the antagonism — rival groups might take objection to such RSS outreach. This has happened in many places when Sewa Bharati workers distributed relief material earlier during natural calamities.
The second objection is to providing government funds and materials to an organisation run by the ruling party. This amounts to the misuse of official machinery and government funds for political purposes and using it for its political outreach. Why Sewa Bharati was singled out for this bonanza? There are many other NGOs and civic organisations with better track record.
There were allegations that in many places, Sewa Bharati workers were distributing Ayush-64 claiming that it was their own initiative. In Kerala, there were complaints that the saffron workers told the patients that the medicine was sent to them by ‘Modi’.
HOW SEWA BHARTI’S FORTUNES ROSE
Sewa Bharati’s fortune, like that of other RSS affiliates, brightened soon after Narendra Modi became prime minister. During the lockdown, the government had enlisted as many as 736 NGOs under the Sewa Bharati umbrella for relief interventions. That was the kind of official patronage given to the RSS outfits under the Modi government.
This single action made the Sewa Bharati affiliates eligible for funds from the State Disaster Relief Fund. Also, this enabled them to get subsidised food grains from the Food Corporation of India for distribution. On April 25 last year, SP president Akhilesh Yadav accused the RSS of receiving food from the government and distributing it as their own. At many places, relief materials were distributed in Modi bags, he alleged.
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During the lockdown, Sewa Bharati struck another gold mine. The Modi government made all Sewa Bharati affiliates eligible for the lucrative Corporate Social Responsibility funds. During the lockdown, Niti Aayog chairman had made a special appeal to private corporates to provide CSR funds to those registered on the NGO-Darpan portal. Sewa Bharati and its affiliates are on the register. Soon the Corporate Affairs Ministry also gave the formal sanction.
Within the RSS family, there is a rush to move over to the more lucrative Sewa Bharati. Following the decline of the labour movement, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (the RSS-affiliated trade union) officials are trying to join Sewa Bharati which operates large godowns filled with relief materials. This reporter who visited several Sewa Bharati distribution Centres during the Kerala floods was privy to whispers about missing packets and relief materials ending up in shops. But that is a different story.
(P. Raman is a senior journalist and is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model is Changing Political Narratives, Ecosystem and Symbols. The views are personal.)