Critical Comments on the Principal Scientific Advisor’s Interview


On April 23, 2021 the Economic Times published a short interview with K Vijay Raghavan, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India.

It is my understanding that the Office of the PSA is tasked with advising the government on scientific matters. This interview, however, would lead one to think otherwise: when the PSA’s responses are not factually incorrect, they are vague, incoherent, and indistinguishable from government propaganda.

I note below some of the most blatant inconsistencies in his interview.

In his response to the question of whether the second wave of Covid-19 has caught us by surprise, the PSA seems to suggest that the blame falls squarely on the people for letting their guard down. No mention is made of the disastrous nationwide lockdown implemented by the government, which is directly responsible for the widespread immiseration that forced working people to venture out for work even in the midst of the deadly pandemic. It was a necessity for them, aggravated by the inadequate economic support provided by the government, and not the product of a cavalier attitude, as the PSA seems to indicate. He also overlooks the state-sponsored public events (some attended by the Prime Minister and Home Minister) that took place in Gujarat [1], Uttarakhand [2], and West Bengal [14] which have exacerbated the crisis we are seeing now. Most importantly, he fails to mention the public statements made by top government officials earlier this year where they declared victory over Covid-19 pandemic [8, 9, 10, 11]!

As far as our preparedness for the second wave is concerned (which the PSA deliberately avoids talking about) it is now painfully clear that the central government has fallen woefully short of expectations, squandering valuable time that could have been used to shore up our defences. There are numerous shortcomings of the central government’s pandemic response, from delaying the setting up of oxygen concentrator plants [3, 4], to not stepping up genome sequencing efforts (and with an only partially vaccinated population) putting the entire vaccination programme in jeopardy [5], to completely mismanaging the universal vaccination programme itself despite India (under previous governments) having a golden track record in such initiatives [6, 7].

When discussing the speed at which vaccination is taking place, the PSA’s response is factually factually incorrect: the percentage inoculated in India is a fraction of that of the USA and China [15], making India a potential breeding ground for immune escape variants [16]. This essentially jeopardizes not only India but possibly other countries’ vaccination efforts as well.

There is little sense in mincing words at this stage of the pandemic: the PSA’s response to the question of why there is a shortage of hospital beds in various parts of the country is plainly dishonest. Both government and private hospitals are swamped in several states [17], and oxygen shortages are now widely reported. We’d like to ask: can the PSA provide a list of DRDO hospitals currently set up since the first wave and what percentage of the entire infected population are these hospitals currently treating? The PSA then says “Now railways will come in, defence will come. They all will come in.” This is as exasperating as it is vague; suffice it to say, I do not believe it is unreasonable to expect more contentful and definite answers from the PSA, especially during such a crisis.

To the question of the utility of a second lockdown, the PSA seems to indicate that it was and can still be useful for the purposes of building up healthcare infrastructure required to combat the virus, neatly sidestepping the fact that (a) healthcare infrastructure was not adequately built up during the months between the first and second waves, and (b) to even obliquely suggest that another lockdown could be useful is cruel and blind to the hardships it will force upon crores of working people and the havoc it will once again cause in the lives of large population of migrant workers.

I also find it terrifying that the Economic Times would think it proper to ask questions like “Name a few great innovations that have come out of our scientific community working on Covid-19.” This sort of softball journalism is irresponsible and serves no purpose other than to affirm the central government’s narrative.

The PSA’s callous responses are cause for significant alarm, both for the scientific community and for our country at large. They betray, at best, a thorough cluelessness, and at worst, a complete lack of empathy and concern for the Indian people. The interview makes abundantly clear that he is woefully ill-equipped to carry out the tasks required of the high office he occupies.

The use of the Office of the PSA for recycling and legitimising government propaganda, and the efforts to rationalise the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic using bad science, should be roundly condemned.

In fact, the PSA’s responses are just one example of a now well-established trend of scientists abandoning all integrity and using the crisis to further their careers and enhance their profiles by producing results based on poor modelling that teach us nothing, and only serve to legitimise the brutal policies of the state. There are now scientists among us with no experience or expertise in disease modelling but have, almost overnight, become “leading disease modelling experts” in the country. I sincerely hope that members of the scientific community in the country take note of this dangerous trend and confront their own colleagues regarding their intentions.

Malhar Dandekar is an independent researcher and activist based in Bangalore, India.



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