Never before in the history of independent India has the government failed so spectacularly in its primary duty of protecting the lives and livelihood of its citizens, as this government has done twice in the last one year both by acts of commission and omission.
First was the complete disruption of over a billion people’s lives from March 24 to June 30, 2020 when the country was put under a nationwide lockdown for almost 100 days within about four-hour notice. The images of thousands of migrant workers – men carrying their entire household on their heads and women carrying thirsty and starving children in their arms walking back home over a thousand kilometres – remain etched in the nation’s collective memory.
At that time a callous prime minister had lectured a hungry, hopeless and tired population as to how to be “Atmanirbhar”. There was no promise nor any hope in his speech. They were told not to depend on the state but to be self-reliant. It seemed a mockery, a cruel joke on the poor who were completely “Atmanirbhar” but whose jobs and livelihoods were taken away in one fell swoop.
Complacency and callousness
Today as the second wave of coronavirus rages like hellfire as seen in the images of hundreds of pyres burning inside and outside the ghats, Modi, who was recently elevated to the position of a Yug Purush by his doting followers for having conquered the pandemic as early as February this year, seems clueless on how to tackle the second phase of the dreaded disease.
As COVID-19 returns with a vengeful lethality punishing the reckless behaviour of the people and their leaders who encouraged such behaviour by holding massive electoral rallies, the prime minister and his government are caught unprepared and complicit. The 100-day lockdown was meant precisely for this preparation. Yes, we started manufacturing masks, PPEs, sanitisers and ventilators at a feverish pitch, plenty enough for local needs and even for export, but then were we not aware of its second coming?
Certainly, some agencies of the state, such as the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Family Welfare (H&FW), seemed to be fully aware of the dangers of the second and third wave. Around the time the Yug Purush was declaring a glorious victory over the coronavirus, the Parliamentary Committee’s 123rd report, tabled in both the houses on February 2, 2021, warned not only of the second wave of COVID-19 but also of a possible shortage of oxygen cylinders in hospitals.
Here are a few excerpts from the Committee’s report:
“The Committee observes that after a steady increase in the number of Covid Cases across the country, there has been a downtrend in Covid Cases. However, the Committee strongly feels that the threat of Covid-19 is still looming large on the country keeping in view the second and third wave in European countries and spike in Delhi. The Secretary, Department of Health and Family Welfare also expressed concern over the possible spike in the incidence of the Covid cases due to super spreading forthcoming festive events in the country and the advent of the winter season. The Ministry should, therefore, take effective measures to control the scale of incidence of Covid-19 in the country. The Committee also recommends the States with high case load to adopt robust strategy for containment and mitigation of Covid-19.”
On increasing demand for non-invasive Oxygen Cylinders:
“The Committee agrees with the Department that the pandemic has led to an unprecedented increase in the demand of non-invasive Oxygen Cylinders and instances of lack of Oxygen Cylinders in the hospitals had also been reported. The Committee, therefore, strongly advocates National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to take appropriate measures for capping the price of the Oxygen Cylinders so that the availability as well as affordability of the Oxygen Cylinders is ensured in all hospitals for medical consumption. The Committee also recommends the Government for encouraging adequate production of Oxygen for ensuring its supply as per demand in the hospitals.”
This was said in the report handed over to the chairman, Rajya Sabha on November 21 and to the speaker of Lok Sabha on November 25, 2020. It clearly showed that all agencies of the state were not in such an arrogant stupor as the Yug Purush and his Cabinet, but were diligently doing their duty and trying their best to alert the government of the impending danger.
But then who reads such reports? Maybe, a handful of officials in the concerned ministry, for they have to prepare a synopsis for the minister. Did the health minister read it? Could he have brought it to the notice of the prime minister or the home minister who heads the National Disaster Management Authority? Did he ask them to release funds for plants generating oxygen?
Having declared a premature victory over the pandemic the two great leaders in the government, the only ones who matter, the prime minister and the home minister, got busy with elections in Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. It would have been utterly impudent and imprudent on the part of the health minister to remind them of the forthcoming health disaster.
A leadership that has always been obsessed with power and more power in every state of the union, by hook or by crook, would obviously have no inclination to be bogged down with disasters. Their default option, when faced with a problem, would be to deny it or silence those who talk about it. But then there are certain problems that just don’t go away, such as pandemics. They test a leadership’s mettle and competence, both of which are in as much a short supply as are the oxygen cylinders in Delhi hospitals.
“In the interests of the prosperity of the country, a King should be diligent in foreseeing the possibility of calamities, try to avert them before they arise, overcome those that happen, remove all obstructions to economic activity and prevent loss of revenue to the state,” said Kautilya in the Arthashastra. And on that singular count of preventing loss of revenue to the state, this government has failed colossally and twice over.
Perhaps the country is better off with ordinary mortals than with a Yug Purush. Besides, our constitution was framed for ordinary mortals who follow the norms laid down in it and respect other statutory bodies such as the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, etc., which have their own mandate other than the popular vote but equally sacrosanct.
A Yug Purush believes that it was his destiny to lead the country to greatness or towards a Hindu Rashtra and that he has crafted his own destiny; hence all these constitutional niceties, the checks and balances are stifling and curtailing his style or slowing down the pace of his mission.
The self-belief becomes a delusion as everyone surrounding him repeatedly affirms this self-belief of destined greatness. With no dissenting voices around him, the Yug Purush rides roughshod over all organs of state or they crumble under his perceived power, and the nation suffers grievously for it. So grievous that it is difficult to keep track of the dead, today.
Ravi Joshi, formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat, is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.