June 14, 2020

The Myth of ‘Gujarat Model’ and its Implosion - II

Nilotpal Basu

IT is estimated that more than 6000 NRIs had come to attend the ‘Namaste Trump’ event. Nobody has gauged. Only on March 5, the screening at the airport started.  The large number of private health facilities was refusing to cooperate with the government. While the state health secretary informed the media that there is no epidemic and the Epidemic Act has only been invoked for legally empowering the administration, this was not invoked to address this problem. The testing was low; the frontline health workers were denied PPE and other necessary gear to insulate them from infection. On the question of test, the ineptitude was explicit.

It is because of the pointed scrutiny of the Gujarat High Court and the subsequent scathing order that the pathetic mismanagement and the high mortality rate in the main Covid frontline facility, the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital was exposed. The order pointed out that the government was trying to ‘artificially control’ the situation and the hospital is “as good as a dungeon, may be even worse”. It has now been reported in the media that an anonymous letter by a young resident doctor had led to the searching questions which left the state administration completely exposed.

It is difficult to hold back tears to read through his lament “the hospital management is just concerned that if residents would get tested and if they turn out to be positive, then who will work. No senior professors are coming for rounds or emergency”. In case the junior residents showed a sense of fear, they were being dubbed as cowards and lazy. Neither had they been provided with PPE kits or N95 masks or proper gloves.

It was also clear that the pandemic was raging in highly congested and poor localities populated by the poor where physical distancing was impossible. The situation was further aggravated by the spread of the rumour that the testing for Covid-19 was a cover for the NRC exercise. Unlike in the post Godhra situation, important sections of the mainstream English and vernacular media have come out with vivid pictures of the mismanagement and discriminatory practices perfected over the last two decades coupled with the sharp intervention of the Gujarat High Court. All these are now out in the open. Perhaps, there is a connection between the acute embarrassment of the state government and reconstitution of the concerned High Court bench. Subsequently, the new bench has now handed out a good conduct certificate.

Finally, there is a very meticulously compiled evidence directly from the burial grounds and crematorium to suggest that there is a major underreporting of death counts. Since in combating a pandemic data credibility is an imperative, this can only undermine the efforts to ensure the safety of the people.

A major aspect of Gujarat’s management of the pandemic is associated with extremely damning instances of crony driven scams involving procurement of vital equipments and processes.

In the early days of the lockdown, it was discovered that Cosara Diagnostics of Mohan Karthikeya Sarabhai got the permission from the Indian government to get their testing kits validated on March 19, one day ahead of 18 firms getting the clearance from the Indian government to get their testing kits validated by National Institute of Virology. Their kits were far cheaper than Cosara. However, the catch was that private labs which were allowed to conduct Covid-19 tests at a staggering Rs 4,500 per test had to use kits approved only by the US FDA/European C. The message was clear that kits manufactured by Cosara were solely eligible for testing. So, while clearing 18 other companies only Ahmadabad based Cosara was awarded monopoly over their testing kits.

The more serious scam pertained to the acquisition of ambu bags which were claimed to be ventilators, the most important equipment for serious Covid cases. It is now revealed that Jyoti Sency, the company producing these machines had not gone through the process of validation of drug controller general of India and did not comply with the stipulations for obtaining the license, neither was there a trial of the machine before 900 of them were installed in government hospitals across the states. It has also been revealed that the owner of the company is a close friend of the chief minister and certain shareholders were also close to the PM. The high rate of mortality in Gujarat, particularly in Ahmedabad is linked to the PM. The present situation is that these machines remain dumped in the inventory of different health institutions. Questions have not been answered as to whether these machines have been purchased by funds allocated from the PM Cares.

While the run of the pathogen has been exponential in Gujarat cities particularly Ahmedabad, they seem to have been aggravated by not only near mishandling but also by choice of suppliers whose proximity to the highest levels of government is now well established. The prime minister who speaks to the people from the high moral pedestal should at least order a proper high level independent enquiry to clear the air.

The biggest faultline in India’s response to Covid-19 has been the way the plight of the migrant workers has been handled. The long marches of poor workers unsheltered and helpless trudging for hundreds if not thousands of kilometres have drawn the most indelible picture during the lockdown. Stung by the abrupt four hours’ notice in announcing the lockdown in most part of the country, they have been faced with a crisis of survival. Left without cash, they have been driven by despair to go back to their homes. Surveys revealed that in Gujarat, 92 per cent of the migrant workers did not receive any wage since the lockdown started with work coming to a grinding halt.

Understanding Gujarat will be incomplete without understanding the specific distress that the migrant workers faced in Gujarat. The epicentre of the migrant distress was Surat where 65 per cent are out of state migrants. The tragedy is that the high profile propaganda of Gujarat model has never acknowledged the invaluable contribution of these hard working men and women. One of the respected Gujarat based sociologists, Achyut Yagnik, has noted that two million of this migrant work force is facing the real threat of death from starvation and hunger, more than that from the virus. It is precisely because of this that Surat has seen massive protests which were often dealt with police brutality which has even led to deaths.

The government initially refused to move the workers by railways and lied through their teeth when they claimed that the central government was bearing 85 per cent of the travel cost. Not only this, the government also claimed that the migrants did not have to pay for their tickets and it was being taken care of by the state governments. It is the Gujarat migrants particularly from Surat who called this bluff.

However, a salutary intervention by the Gujarat High Court has brought out the plight of the migrant workers. The Bench of Justices JB Pardiwala and Ilesh Vora on May 14 brought out “we observe that this is not the time to educate the migrant workers, poor and needy people of the concept of social distancing, etc. They will never be able to understand any such concept.  They are not worried about the virus. They are worried about food. It would be very harsh to say that a person should not die because of Covid-19, but no problem if he dies because of hunger.” And they asserted “the entire concentration should be to provide maximum succour and relief to the migrant labourers.” Similarly, they have urged the government “to arrange for the railway fare for the migrant workers. The state government and the central government during these difficult times must appreciate the major contribution made by the migrant workers in a large number of public projects, as well as, private projects which have contributed to the improvement of the infrastructure in all the state and the improvement of the economy”. Naturally, “when the migrant workers who have made such a huge contribution are facing distress both the central and state governments must come forward to help them to ensure that at the earliest they return to their home state. Ideally no migrant worker should be deprived of the opportunity to travel back to their home state if he wishes to do so.”

More than anything else migrant workers needed such compassion and direction for commensurate action. It is tragic that notwithstanding the empty rhetoric and lip service from the prime minister of the country, administrative action to redeem the distress of the migrant workers during the harshest lockdown has been conspicuously absent.

It is only the compassion shown by some of the High Courts that have underlined the deep distress. Therefore, it is no wonder that the solicitor general of the government who also hails from Gujarat, in the vilest attack on many of the High Courts have charged them of ‘running a parallel government’. The SG has given away that the government was in an operation cover up and ground reports have called their bluff.

When the pandemic is going exponential, and the brunt of the lockdown has been borne by the poorest, the migrant worker being the foremost among them, starvation and joblessness is staring them in their face. Survival is the most critical question at this moment of darkness. The solicitor general, notwithstanding, not to talk of this challenge would be failing our people. The need of the hour is to provide cash in the hands of the people, at least Rs 7,500 per month for the next six months. It is absolutely imperative to provide them food grains so that not a soul goes hungry. No country can afford to push their citizens to starvation death. In order to revive the economy, it is absolutely necessary to increase the allocation for MGNREGA in sufficient quantity and extend similar programmes in the urban areas. In a Covid stricken world, country after country has adopted this course to overcome the demand deficit driven crisis that we find ourselves in. That is the least we can do to acknowledge the hardship that we have subjected the most unfortunate of our fellow citizens.