May 23, 2021

The Missing Govt in Dreadful Period of Crisis

Tikender Singh Panwar

India Burning
How rampant privatisation led India to a massive disaster
The Indian Nero
Leaders leave Indians to die in hands of private sector
The Indian Disaster
Neo-liberal policies leave citizens gasping for breath

TODAY(May 8th), 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 get a colleagues’ (again IAS officer) parent’s to find a bed with oxygen as they were infected with Covid. I know this is not unusual in Delhi and around.

Here is another story.

This one pertains to another friends’ trauma who is a senior officer in a public sector undertaking, was unable to find a place in the cremation ground in Noida for the body of his boss and had to pay Rs 55,000 just for a night - 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’, who are supposed to do the cremation free. There is a law existing in UP passed by the previous Akhilesh Yadav government that no charges will be made for cremations.

These stories do not emerge out of imagination, it is the truth. If this is the plight of the ‘privileged’ sections in the country, the condition of the common people can easily be measured. It is horrendous, to say the least!

There are gory stories that we are witnessing from all 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, since the Modi era, one of the principal modes of accumulation of capital happens to be rampant privatisation of services. Education and health happen to be the foremost ones where humongous amounts of capital get generated after fleecing the people. Big giants have entered this field for providing health services and under the guise of better health care services huge amounts of profits are reaped.

The BJP, RSS, and also Modi are known votaries of their strong opposition to ‘state intervention’ in the field of social development, and since 2014, with a strong political mandate, they did it all the more vociferously. I remember meeting Sanjeev Sanyal, the ‘Principal Economic Adviser’ to the ministry of finance, government of India in one of the ‘Urban Age Conference’ in November 2014. His rabidly intolerant views of any state intervention were quite evident in the discussion as he was nakedly supporting free-market principles in most of the social sectors, including health. Now, being an adviser to the government, one can deduce where this government is headed. So, it is not just the ideological mooring of the BJP and Modi, but the entire team that systematically dismantled the already paralysed public health sector and its institutions and made way for large-scale abject privatisation or we can say commoditisation of health. But how is it important in the present era?

It is because the private sector is completely absent from meeting the challenges of the present pandemic, whereas before the pandemic struck, nearly  80 per cent of outdoor patients and almost 60 per cent of indoor patients were directed towards the private sector. The private sector developed post-1990s, has a clear motive of extracting surplus from health and this is being treated as a large commodity. This piece does not allow entering into the domain of how systematically the public sector health was dismantled, but we have a stark picture where voices are once again being raised in the country to bring health under the public good and to nationalise it, because of the failure of the private sector to meet the challenges of the present pandemic.

But what we are focussed on here is the way Modi and his cohorts including various ‘Sanyals’ at different levels have jeopardised our system and now it is a systemic failure that has exhibited in one of its worst forms, unable to deal with the present pandemic. A question may be asked; Where is the State? I mean not the state governments, but the State as a structure, which is governed by a constitution and has certain duties to perform and safety of lives and livelihood of people, which is a quintessential part of its functioning. Otherwise, what is the State for, if it cannot protect the lives of the people?

Let us once again revisit the scenario of last year’s four-hour notice given for a national lockdown announced by none other than our ‘supreme leader’, Modi. Those stories of long journeys of migrants workers back to their homes still haunts every one of us. But the point that needs to be stressed is that despite the fact that some of the nations’ who couch far closer to international finance capital doled out massive relief to their people in the forms of cash transfers, remitting their rents, and even ensuring that the tenants are not evicted from their houses. But here in India despite the IMF suggesting not to worry about the fiscal deficit, the government provided one of the least supporting systems in the world. We were laughed at.

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

‘State’, is a bad word in the vocabulary of BJP and RSS and worse is ‘State intervention’. They term it to be Nehruvian economics and are blatantly against such policies of State intervention in the social sector, and now we find where we have landed. In just seven years of BJP rule at the centre the ugly forms of governance are more vivid than ever in the past. “Minimum government, Maximum governance,” was the so-called mantra of the Modi government at the centre. While explaining what this means, in an interview with 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 relied more on insurance-based health systems, rather than universalisation and publicly strengthening of health care systems. But 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 of any other part of the world, has similar genetic material within himself. Instead of proactively intervening in providing relief to the people, he 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 a near-universal criticism of Modi of his utter failure to tackle the pandemic and in such a background wasting money on a wasteful project, the leader has declared it an “emergency project”, more emergent than the health emergency in the country. More emergent than producing vaccines in the country and even more emergent than providing oxygen to the countrymen.

This is linked to the psyche of any authoritarian leader, who wants to leave an imprint in history ensuring that it be called an era of thyself- ‘Modi’. Whereas, all the projects have been put on hold, but 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 to the camp. This is akin to the gas chambers built by the Nazis in Germany where people were killed en masse. Here is another era where workers are 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 pandemic.

Hence, going back to the calls that I received from my top bureaucrat friends, it is not a surprise that the era we are living in demands extraordinary churning and realignment of forces to ensure that the most civic part of our ongoing civilisation and that is to live with liberty, fraternity, and independently as citizens and not as ‘ruler-ruled’ dictum, is not robbed by such zealots. The State which may wither away at some point of time, as Marx points out, in a higher form of society, cannot be allowed to just serve the interests of the large corporates and wither away for the common people.

Hoping that we all survive and fight back this pandemic and the present discourse.