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A Missing Government in Dreadful Pandemic Crisis

Systemic failure due to massive privatisation push during Modi’s regime, especially in healthcare, has reduced India to a laughing stock in the world today.

Representational use only.

On May 8, I got a call from one of my state cadre (Himachal Pradesh) IAS officers posted in Delhi. The call was mainly to check each other’s well-being owing to the present pandemic. One of the points the person narrated is the extremely precarious situation prevailing in the country. The officer said despite being in such a high position, it was extremely difficult for even people like him to help a colleague’s (IAS officer) parents find a bed with oxygen as they were infected with COVID-19. I know this is not unusual in Delhi and around.

Here is another story.

This one pertains to another friend’s trauma. He is a senior officer in a public sector undertaking but was unable to find a place in a cremation ground in Noida for the body of his boss. He had to pay Rs 55,000 -- Rs 35,000 for the mortuary van as the hospital in which he died did not have a mortuary and Rs 20,000 for a so-called ‘free afterlife service’ for cremation. There is a law in Uttar Pradesh, passed by the previous Akhilesh Yadav government, that there will be no charge for cremation.

If this is the plight of the ‘privileged’ sections in the country, the condition of the common people can easily be measured.

There are gory stories from across the country, where frantic calls are being made for oxygen, beds, and even cremation and burial spaces. Commoditisation of services in the health sector has taken place for a long time in India. But, during the Narendra Modi era, one of the principal modes of accumulation of capital happens to be rampant privatisation of services. Education and health happen to be top sectors where humongous capital is generated after fleecing the people. Big players have entered the for providing health services, and under the guise of better healthcare services, people are being fleeced and huge amounts of profits are being reaped.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, and Modi are known for their strong opposition to ‘state intervention’ in the field of social development. Since 2014, with a strong political mandate for Modi, this is being followed more aggressively. I remember meeting Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance, in an ‘Urban Age Conference’ in November 2014. His rabid views on any state intervention were quite evident in the discussion, as he was nakedly supporting free-market principles in most social sectors, including health. One can deduce where this government is headed. So, it is not just the ideological moorings of the BJP and Modi, but the entire team that has systematically dismantled the already paralysed public health sector and its institutions, making way for large-scale privatisation, rather commoditisation of health. But how is this important in the present era?

In the ongoing pandemic crisis, the private sector is virtually absent in meeting the challenges, whereas before the pandemic, nearly 80% of outdoor patients and almost 60% of indoor patients were directed toward the private sector.

The private sector grew post-1990s, and has a clear motive of extracting surplus from health, which is being treated like a commodity. This piece does intend entering the domain of how systematically the public sector was dismantled in healthcare, but once again we can hear voices being raised to bring health under the ‘public good’ and nationalise it. This reflects the complete failure of the private sector to meet the challenges of the present pandemic.

But what this article focuses on is the way Modi and his cohorts in the bureaucracy have jeopardised our system. The systemic failure has exhibited itself in one of the worst forms in the present pandemic. A question often asked is:  Where is the State? What is the State for, if it cannot protect the lives of the people?

Let us again revisit the scenario of last year’s four-hour notice given for a national lockdown announced by none other than the ‘supreme leader’, Modi. The stories of long journeys of migrants workers back to their homes still haunt us. But the point that needs to be stressed is that despite the fact that some countries crouch in front of international finance capital, they doled out massive relief to their people in the form of cash transfers, remitting their rents, and even ensuring that tenants are not evicted. But, in India, despite the IMF suggesting that it should not worry about the fiscal deficit, the Modi government was one of the least supporting systems in the world.

Action Aid, an international civil society group working in India, did research on migrant workers, which pointed out that of all the migrant's surveys, and the database is of more than 10,000 workers, 89% workers did not get any relief from the government. Only a little more than 10% were provided benefits. The remaining were supported either by civil society groups, trade unions, individuals, and/or other social groups. Interestingly, an affidavit filed by the government of India in the Supreme Court, mentioned that of the total relief camps being run, 65% were in Kerala alone.

‘State’, is a bad word in the vocabulary of BJP and RSS and worse still is ‘state intervention’. They consider it as Nehruvian economics and are against such policies in the social sector. This is why India landed in a deep abyss now in just seven years of BJP rule at the Centre. “Minimum government, Maximum governance,” was the so-called mantra of the Modi government. While explaining this in an interview to a news channel in 2019, Modi said: "Till now, I have cleared projects worth around Rs 12 lakh crore in just an hour. ……….. I maintain that it's not the government's responsibility to run a hotel, you might have seen that we are doing disinvestment slowly.” 

From not running a hotel, Modi extended his mantra to not running hospitals and even the entire health system. And, hence, he relied more on insurance-based health systems, rather than universalisation and strengthening of the public healthcare system. What we are witnessing at the end of the day is least governance and complete abdication of responsibilities of the government.

Modi, true to any other despotic and authoritarian ruler, instead of proactively intervening in providing relief to the people, is more concerned with the construction of the Central Vista in Delhi.  “Rome was burning and Nero was playing the fiddle”, is perhaps too old a proverb for Modi. He has advanced it in this form: India was burning and burying and Modi was busy constructing his palace and a new Parliament building, the central vista in Delhi.” Despite near-universal criticism of Modi for his utter failure in handling the pandemic, he is going ahead with such a waste of money on a wasteful project. What’s more shameful, he has declared it an “emergency project”, perhaps more than the health emergency in the country, than producing vaccines in the country and even more than providing oxygen to suffering citizens.

Whereas all ongoing projects have been put on hold, the Central Vista continues, risking the lives of hundreds of workers who are ferried every day from Sarai Kale Khan labour camp to the worksite and then taken back. Workers are reportedly being forced to work at the site by holding their wages so that they cannot run away from the worksite and, above all, putting them at extremely high risk because of the raging pandemic.

Going back to the phone calls from my bureaucrat friends, it is not a surprise that the era we are living in demands extraordinary churning and realignment of forces to ensure that people live with liberty, fraternity, and independently as citizens and not as ‘ruler-ruled’ dictum. The State, which may wither away at some point of time, as Karl Marx points out, in a higher form of society, cannot be allowed to just serve the interests of large corporates and wither away for the common people.


The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.

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