Trust in Government? Not With This Record, We Can't

The standard practice of this government has been to ask people to trust it and give its decisions a chance – be it the note-ban, GST or the farm laws. When it comes to Covaxin, can we follow the same logic?

Those questioning the rushed approval of Covaxin, the COVID-19 vaccine indigenously developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech, are being shamed. They are being asked not to bring politics into matters of science. A fervent plea is being made to trust the government as it would not be so crazy as to put the lives of its people in danger.

Even if we have a pathological aversion to the current regime, at least we should show some respect towards the Indian bureaucracy, doctors and scientists!

Akhilesh Yadav has been targeted and the Congress party criticised for questioning the government’s move to grant unduly speedy approval to Covaxin. Akhilesh Yadav might have put it clumsily but the substantial part of his refusal to accept the vaccine promoted by this government is being deliberately missed.

He is a political leader and he also represents the Indian people. He has every right to examine the decisions and policies of the government. Other political parties also have the right to put to test the claims of the government.

What is Akhilesh Yadav saying? He says that this government has shown that it takes decisions without following any kind of due process or taking into account their full implication for the concerned people. Many of these decisions political, economic, social have damaged the lives of citizens and hurt their interests. So, he finds it difficult to go by the word of the same government, especially in a matter of health.

The standard practice of this government has been to ask people to trust it and give its decisions a chance. It is repeating the same argument in the matter of farm laws. Give them two years and then we will see. Is Akhilesh not right to say that with this vaccine we cannot follow the same logic!

Also read: All You Need to Know About Bharat Biotech and Covaxin During the Pandemic

Government’s messaging around COVID-19

Since we are being asked to trust the scientists and those involved in researching the vaccine, why not pay attention to what Dr. Gagandeep Kang, one of India’s top vaccine science researchers is saying. She is not a politician, nor is she a compulsive critic of this government. She is a respected expert. When she, in her measured and professional way, says that she is confused by the claims and the decision regarding the vaccine, we need to take her seriously and ask questions to the government.

It is possible that the vaccine may ultimately turn out to be safe but that does not make the criticism redundant. It is about the casual approach of the government while dealing with life and death issues. The government includes the bureaucrats and scientists too who serve it.

It has become a habit to say that emergency situations demand emergency decisions. It gives a blank cheque to the government and turns it into an unaccountable master of the people.

Yes, ideally we should trust our administration, police, doctors and scientists. Ideally! Because it is assumed that they are answerable to the Constitution and their peers. They should be at an arm’s length from the government. But to get that respect you have to be like Dr. Fauci, who had the courage to tell the American people, that the claims of the US President on COVID-19 were wrong and this, while the President was in attendance.

But in India we read Dr. Anil Kumar claiming in a research paper that the COVID-19 pandemic would leave India by mid-September 2020. Dr. Kumar is no small fry. He is the deputy director general (public health), directorate general of health services of the ministry of health and family welfare. Should we not have trusted his word? After all, even if he was wrong, maybe he was only expressing his wish that India becomes free of the pandemic as early as possible!

Even before him was Dr. V.K. Paul, a respected health professional, and a member of the NITI Aayog. He made an astounding claim in April last year that in India the COVID-19 curve had been flattened. He assured people through an interview in the Indian Express that “the effect of the first three weeks of the nationwide lockdown was becoming clearly visible. India has succeeded in flattening the curve.” We know he was not right. All he was trying to do was to justify the severe lockdown.

Then appeared on the scene the ICMR. It startled us last year by setting 15 August as the deadline for the vaccine. When this caused an uproar within the scientific community in India and world at large, the ICMR rushed to modify its position to save its face. It said that it only intended to have the vaccine developed by 15 August which did not mean that it would be ready to be used.

A healthcare takes a swab from a migrant worker in Delhi August 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The ICMR is a body of scientists. But its role has not been exemplary in the times of the current pandemic. The Indian way of dealing with authorities has ensured that it did not face the kind of criticism it would have faced had it been in some other country. It cared more for the masters than the masses, one must say.

What does it really mean when one hears that at least the government would not endanger the lives of its people? It was the health secretary who emphatically asserted that the Tablighi Jamaat was responsible for spreading the COVID-19 virus in India. Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the health ministry, told the press, “The main reason for increased number of cases is that members of the Tablighi Jamaat have travelled across the country.”

The bureaucrats of the central government and Delhi government maintained a separate count for the COVID-19 infected who belonged to the Tablighi Jamaat, implying that they were the main source of spread of the virus in India. What did this do? Across India it put all Muslims at risk. They were attacked physically, at least two died, one of them by suicide. Muslims faced social boycott, it ruined their livelihood and  alienated them socially. Who was responsible for it? Were not Muslims the people of this government?

Also read: India’s Vaccine Approvals Had One Problem. It Gave Rise to the Other Two.

Functioning in a monarchical way

When the government announced a complete lockdown with just four hours’ notice, we were asked by people like P. Chidambaram to fall in line, to be the soldiers of the commander-in-chief prime minister. It was said that he was doing it to save the lives of his people. As we know now that this decision which devastated the lives of lakhs of the migrant workers, over a hundred of whom died, did not help arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The state governments were left to deal with the fallout and implications of this decision but the central government had not even cared to consult them before taking such a monumental step.

Later, people called it cruel, insensitive as lakhs walked in intense heat and the government informed the court that all was well. The government stood aloof and kept watching as people died after obeying its orders.

Even before the pandemic, two “historical” decisions were taken by this government demonetisation and introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) system. Both moves proved to be a curse for the masses, small businesses and independent entrepreneurs, and the government relished their plight. People have not been able to recover from these blows even now.

People standing in long queues to exchange their old Rs 500 and 1000 notes and withdraw cash from the ATM in New Delhi. Credit: PTI/Subhav Shukla/Files

Demonetisation caused a cash crunch lasting for about six months. Photo: PTI/Subhav Shukla/Files

Similarly, the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the declaration of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has made the lives of crores of people without the required documents uncertain and has put legally Muslims in an unequal situation in their own country. Does it endanger lives or not?

By downgrading the status of Jammu and Kashmir, its bifurcation and the reading down of Article 370, this government has made it very clear that it has little regard for the lives of the Kashmiri people, again, especially Muslims.

The most recent example of the monarchical way in which the government functions is the enactment of the three farm laws. Farmers see their complete ruin in these laws but the government claims that it knows best.

The demand for trust in our bureaucrats is laughable. They have shown that they see themselves as the servants of the government and not the people. How far they can go in serving their masters was revealed when the district magistrate (DM) of Hathras acted roguishly while first burning the body of the Dalit woman who had been gang-raped and murdered and then threatened her family members, pressurising them to withdraw their complaint.

The attitude of the bureaucracy in critical moments has always remained apathetic to the people, the weak, Dalits and Muslims. It is hostile to them, even treating them as ‘non-people’.

The poor DM is a lowly officer! What about those sitting in the Election Commission and Information Commission? What happened to the souls of those adorning the chairs in the NHRC? Why are the most powerful officers in the ED and NCB doing the hatchet job for this government? After all, they are the most powerful officers of India!

Then there are scientists. Those who fudge data, remain silent when the government is lying to the people are known as objective professionals and those who speak out are blamed for politicising science.

This government has always been cavalier in its politics and policies. It is dangerous to the people. People if they have to be safe and alive, alive as humans need to look at each and every move of this government with a critical if not suspicious eye.