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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, June 5, 2021

Opposition Must Unite to Fight the Step Motherly Treatment of the Centre | Arun Srivastava

Friday 4 June 2021

by Arun Srivastava

While the Supreme Court has been consistently seeking a candid clarification from the Modi government as to why it failed to meet the challenges of covid effectively, the government has been busy beating the bush around and not coming up with the plausible reply.

The Supreme Court in its hearing during the last three-four days has been trying to seek a positive reply from the Modi government as to why the Covid vaccine policy has been ’arbitrary and irrational’. While the Centre is not bearing the cost of the jabs for those aged between 18 and 45, some state governments are offering them free at their own expense. The apex court also asked the Centre to explain its preparedness to meet children’s possible needs if there’s a third wave that affects them.

But the Modi government has not preferred to come out with the detail programme and priorities before the court. What was really a matter of concern that the court agreed with its amici (friends), senior advocates Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora, that the central government’s current vaccination policy was flawed.

Modi government’s approach on fighting the pandemic makes it explicit that it lacks sincerity. A government adhering to the norms of good governance and with a positive approach would prefer to lay bare every bit of information before the court. This also underlines that the government does not treat itself to be accountable to the people. Decision-makers prefer to be accountable to the public and to the institutional stakeholders. This is the basic difference between an autocratic leadership whose style is characterized by individual control over all decisions and virtually no input from any other individual. He makes choices based on notions and imaginations which is seldom rational. Autocratic leadership often impair the morale of the group.

It is usually said that an autocratic leadership takes hard decision. This is not correct. In contrast good governance which is based on the strong foundation of democratic values is more capable than an autocratic rulers. Good governance is perceived as a normative principle of administrative law, which obliges the State to perform its functions in a manner that promotes the values of efficiency, no corruptibility, and responsiveness to civil society. It is therefore a principle that is largely associated with statecraft.

No doubt health is the state subject. But this is an extra ordinary situation. It is the government of India that has to wage the war against corona ably supported by the states. But unfortunately Modi government had left the states to act according to their own sweet will. The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat agreed with the amici that the states had been left in the lurch because of the Centre’s refusal to procure for them their entire vaccine requirement. Surprisingly many states and municipal bodies had floated tenders and tried to negotiate with foreign vaccine manufacturers, but largely without success as overseas companies prefer negotiating with Union governments.

The situation has come to such a stage that the Supreme Court had to ask the Modi government to provide clarifications on several issues: The Centre must place on record a projection of vaccine availability till December 31, and give details of vaccination trials and regulatory approvals; whether its policy allows the states or local bodies to import vaccines; Centre should provide the number of crematorium workers vaccinated in Phase 1. A targeted drive can be conducted to vaccinate the remaining crematorium workers; reports say some states are vaccinating over-45s with doses they have bought from manufacturers for younger adults, all because of a shortage of supply from the Centre. How will the Centre factor this in while deciding subsequent allocations to the states?

What is really a matter of concern is the centre is not willing to disclose the nature of its intervention with respect to the final, end-user price that is being charged by private hospitals. The centre must let the states know how the Centre would monitor the disbursal of vaccines by private hospitals, specifically those that have pan-India hospital chains? What is the mechanism to ascertain whether private players are indeed administering a state’s quota of vaccines solely to its residents? Will centre place on record any written policy in relation to this? And the Centre must explain the manner in which it and the states will ensure an equitable distribution of vaccines across sections of society.

While the centre has been abdicating its responsibility to vaccinate crores of people, irrespective of their age, it is found to be encouraging the “stupidity” from Ramdev; who has been denigrating the doctors relentlessly fighting the pandemic and sacrificing their lives. The doctors have hit him with a defamation suit for Rs 1,000 crore but ironically they are not getting the moral support of Narendra Modi or his colleagues. The fact of the matter is the saffron swathed frauds have been making huge money by resorting to various machinations.

Some people say that subaltern resistance to modern medicine is an open secret. The matter of fact is these people have been instrumental in making the rural people resist the modern medicine on one pretext or other as these are not within their reach. The vested interest have been using them to further their cause. Those who are acquainted with the life style of the rural people know that they too hanker for modern medicine, but do not have a strong purchasing power to get the benefits of the modern medicine. It is like grapes are sour. The saints, babas and mahatmas exploit the situation to push their products.

It is a known fact that to make the rural people believe what they say it is imperative to subvert their sense of reasoning and argument. Only then the rightist forces led by the saffron brigade will succeed in making them believe their stupid and flawed logics and superstitious logics. They have been trying to weaponise their innocence.

The Modi government laments that it has no sufficient fund to purchase the vaccine and oxygen. But it continues to spend massive fund on the construction of Centra Vista, the dream project of Modi. He desires that people of India should remember him as the creator of modern India. What a paradox he does not want to build large number of hospitals for reaching out health service to the people at the end of the road, he does not intend to take education to the door steps of the poor people, he has no desire to two time meal to the labourers and daily workers, but he is hell bent of constructing the Vista, on the line of constructing Taj Mahal by Shahjahan in memory of his beloved queen.

From the beginning this project is being opposed but Modi is reluctant to listen to any argument. True to the nature of an autocrat he treats himself to be the best brain in the world. In fact this he has claimed onmany occasions too. This is being built to help modern rulers to rule and dictate the destiny of 138 crores pauper and hungry people.

It is worth mentioning that at least 76 world-renowned academics and authors, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have called for the suspension of the Central Vista project and use the money in fighting corona. But it has failed to move Modi. Yet another group of 100 retired bureaucrats have written to him about the “manifestly casual approach” of his government to the pandemic, the cornering of funds by the Centre to the disadvantage of states and the wasteful expenditure on the Central Vista project at a time of extreme agony.

The letter is particularly scathing about the manner in which funds have been managed since the pandemic began. “Right from the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, your government has never systematically assessed the funds that state governments would need to tackle the pandemic. The PM CARES Fund was set up when there was already a Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund in place.

“At the same time, your government has incurred unnecessary expenditure on the Central Vista redevelopment project; these funds could well have been more gainfully used to tackle the crisis. On top of this, the harsh restrictions imposed on NGOs, especially those obtaining foreign contributions, have hampered their efforts in providing relief during the pandemic.”

The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre for data on the number of people vaccinated, volume of vaccines procured and ordered, and the timeline for inoculating the remaining population, directing that all relevant “file notings” be attached with the affidavit. This directive came in the light of the Centre’s argument that its refusal to fund the states’ entire vaccine requirement would not hurt citizens since a large number of states had announced free vaccination anyway. The court, however, clarified that it believed it was the Centre’s responsibility and not the states’ to ensure free vaccination for all Indians.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday raised “serious boubts” about the Modi government’s “liberalised” vaccine policy of “fixing higher prices as a competitive measure” and said it’s the responsibility of the Centre and not the states to provide free vaccination. The court underlined that this year’s annual budget had set aside Rs 35,000 crore exclusively for vaccine procurement.

The court’s rebuke comes at a time several states, including Bengal, have demanded that the Centre provide free vaccination to all and underlined the country’s policy of free universal immunisation since Independence. The Centre is buying at Rs 150 a dose half the vaccines produced in India. The states are charged Rs 300 per Covishield dose and Rs 400 per Covaxin dose while the private hospitals pay Rs 600 for Covishield and Rs 1,250 for Covaxin.

The court nevertheless questioned the Centre’s argument that having the states and private hospitals buy half the vaccines would “attract more private manufacturers that could eventually drive down prices”. The court rejected the argument that the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech (BBIL), the manufacturers of Covishield and Covaxin, respectively deserved to charge higher prices to the states because they had borne the risk of manufacturing the vaccines with their own money. The bench stressed that this year’s budget had earmarked Rs 46 crore as initial payment to the two manufacturers under the private-public partnership model.

The audacity of the Modi government could be gauged from its assertion that court should keep away from executive decisions. Nevertheless the court made it abundantly clear; “ Our constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are violated because of executive policy.” The court however sought to know from Modi government how the ₹ 35,000 crore earmarked in the Union Budget for procuring vaccines have been spent so far and why they cannot be utilized for vaccinating persons aged 18-44 years.

The bench however ordered; "In a national crisis, the central government should procure vaccines for the entire country. You should tell them that we will negotiate globally and procure vaccines for them so that there is clarity". Justice Chandrachud said the absence of specific guidelines will lead to ad hoc decisions across the country. “We want an enforceable policy that can be applied across the country. The policy should be clear-cut, dealing with issues. If new issues arrive, then it should be amended,” he said, adding, “We make one appeal: Please make sure your policy is flexible.”

The pandemic not only exposed the worthlessness of the government it also pulled down the mask of nationalism, theory of social equality propounded by the RSS. It is a fact that no national leader except Babasaheb Ambedkar knew of the true character of the RSS. He knew of the culture of the Marathi Peshwa brahmins. These brahmins have peretrated immense torture on the Dalits. Even today the RSS has been trying to use the Dalits as their pawns. This got manifested in the speech of Mohan Bhagawat who instead of sympathising and asking the Modi government to act and protect the lives of the Dalits and poor, counselled them that life and death goes on. Those who die get emancipated. This unravels the true character of RSS. In 1970 they had tried to convert dalits into Hindus. In 1983 Dattopant Thengdi had launched Samajik Samarasata Manch with the avowed aim to convert Dalits into Hindus. RSS claims that it has been fighting corona. But the fact is during pandemic 55 lakh volunteers are not to be seen.

It is needless to emphasise that the Modi government failed the people by not handling the crisis as desired. The people of the country are paying a heavy price for providing low priority to the public healthcare priority; the annual budget expenditure for it has remained abysmally low (1.29 per cent of GDP in 2019-20). It is indeed a matter of shame that India which claims to the worldguru, as on May 30, remains amongst the world’s worst coronavirus-hit countries – 27,892,629 confirmed cases, and 325,985 deaths (actual figures could be much higher) – surpassed only by the United States.

India’s Covid catastrophe also reveals something more ominous that has so far evaded attention; the age-old socio-economic inequalities continue to plague it even though our rulers have been claiming that it is fast emerging as the best developed country. The vulnerability of the socio-economic empowerment got exposed with nearly 12 crores of the people from neo middle class reverting back to their earlier class of poor. The response of Modi government to the March 2020 crisis turned these people paupers. They are yet to come out of the crisis. A large number of these migrants belong to two marginalised groups – Adivasis and Dalits who constitute 8.6 per cent and 16.6 per cent of India’s population.

Though the government claims that in the past weeks, the new Covid cases in India have declined the fact remains that the virus is fast gaining ground in rural India – over 60 per cent cases were recently reported from rural (35 per cent) and semi-rural (30 per cent) regions – where around 65 per cent of the country’s population lives with inadequate healthcare facilities. While the people in urban areas are yet to be immunised, it is a distant dream in the rural areas. The state governments have been trying to hide the real figures, but their efforts have miserably failed with social activists visiting the crematoriums and graveyards and collecting correct figures.

Bhramar Mukherjee, who holds the biostatistics chair at the University of Michigan calculates that 1.2 million Indians had died and 495 million had been infected by the virus up to mid-May. These fatality and infection totals are vastly higher than the government’s numbers which showed a cumulative 25 million Covid cases and 270,000 deaths on May 15. According to her it got revealed three weeks ago when journalists combing obituary pages in Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat found authorities were concealing Covid-19 deaths that people started asking hard questions about the real number of Indian coronavirus fatalities. Now, epidemiologists and scientists around the world are struggling to solve the question.

Meanwhile a 30-person Dainik Bhaskar reporting team earlier in May photographed over 2,000 bodies along a 1,140km stretch of the Ganges buried in shallow graves and bobbing in the water. Similarly, on deaths, the government reported a total of 270,000 on May 15 when the study calculates there were around 1.2 million fatalities. “Again, that gave us an (overall) underreporting factor of about four to five,” says Mukherjee.

The government’s case and fatality toll are much lower than the actual numbers. The New York Times has already offered best-case and worst-case scenarios that differ sharply from the government. Its “conservative” estimate could have been 404.2 million infections and 600,000 deaths in India.

Similarly, The Economist says undercounting has been rampant in India and that the real caseload could be ten or even 30 times higher and the number of deaths much more too both in India and across Asia and Africa. And the Washington-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reckons that by end-July 1.1 million Indians will have died from Covid-19.

The situation has deteriorated to such a stage that the opposition ought to join hands with Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in fighting the menace. Vijayan has already written to his non-BJP counterparts in 11 states, calling for a united demand that the Centre procure Covid-19 vaccines needed by the states and distribute them free of cost. “If the burden of procuring the vaccine is left to fall entirely or even substantially on the states, their fiscal situation would be in dire straits. Fiscal strength of the states is an essential part of a healthy federal set up. If the finances of the states are hamstrung, federalism itself will be weakened and this will not augur well for a democratic polity like ours. Further, this will impede the efforts for early building of herd immunity,’’ he said.

Vijayan said vaccine manufacturers are looking to make financial gains by exploiting the scarce supply situation. Foreign pharma firms are unwilling to enter into agreements with states for procuring vaccines. India has public sector pharma firms which are capable of taking up the production of the vaccine, he said.

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