When Rome was burning, Emperor Nero was playing violin—it is said. What a coincidence! When India was suffering from Covid-19 our Prime Minister was busy playing with a peacock and photo-shooting for an advertisement film! When India is reeling under second and more dangerous wave of corona, the numbers of people affected and killed by the deadly virus are growing unabated and there is a huge shortage of vaccines, medicines, kits and oxygen cylinders to treat them, dead bodies are being burnt waysides of the capital city of the world’s largest democracy, and many are being thrown in the rivers as their relatives either do not have money or crematories and graveyards are overburdened to burn or burry them, our rulers are busy in constructing the Rs 20,000-crore Central Vista (which will house prime minister’s new residence too) on a war-footing!

Modi-government has had its own argument in defense. Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri had tweeted: “Government of India has allocated nearly twice that amount for vaccination! India’s healthcare budget for just this year was over Rs 3 lakh crore.” And he reminded the critics in no uncertain terms: “We know our priorities.”

The BJP leaders know their priorities very well indeed! When our country needs around 4-5 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health, we spend a meager one per cent! Even our poor neighbours spend more. A pity! When the authoritative international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) was cautioning that the second and far dangerous wave of corona virus was knocking the doors, and revamping of our COVID-fighting infrastructure was the need of the hour, our vaccine-makers were allowed to export vaccine considering that India had become the world’s ‘vaccine warehouse’ and our prime minister boasted in an international forum that “India had shown the world” how corona pandemic could be “done away with”. This complacency, though not based on facts, has led us to the present dismal situation.  People are crying for vaccines, oxygen cylinders, and other necessities to fight corona pandemic. Who is to be blamed for the failure?

“You cannot blame the government alone. People are equally responsible for the present calamity. They did not obey the corona directives properly and hence we are facing the consequences,” argued a friend of mine. Interestingly, my friend is not alone to put the blame on the suffering 130 crore Indians. Similar line of argument can be heard not only from the people who are ‘soft’ about our ruling dispensation, but also the guiding force and the backbone of our present rulers—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The top brass of the RSS strongly believe that the ‘positive work’ of the BJP government is not being properly propagated. As a result, the government is being blamed because of ‘wrong perceptions’ propagated by a small number of critics and hence such perceptions need to be done away with a ‘Positivity Unlimited’ programme. So, the entire might of the RSS organization (which has lakhs of branches throughout the country and there is no dearth of money and cadre) has to be geared up in support of the ‘efficient’ government, which ‘delivers’.

Critics are calling this programme “an attempt to push falsehood and propaganda”. Let them criticize. It’s their job. Remember the popular song: Kahene do, logoka kam hi hain kahena. But to the BJP and to the RSS, these critics who come out with lot of suggestions in support of the well-being of the people and of the country are dubbed as ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-nationals’ who need ‘due treatment’. So they don’t bother to listen to the suggestions made even by former prime minister, an accomplished economist who delivered, for a course correction. They can ignore, even phoo phoo Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen and other experts! It seems to be their birth-right! Is this not the RSS variety of ‘positivism’!

As a citizen one may ask a simple question: Do common men decide government policies? Is it the responsibility of the common men to develop infrastructural support, including enhancing production of vaccines and oxygen cylinders, to face the impeding catastrophe—the new round of corona pandemic?  Of course, it’s not. If there is a policy paralysis, how common men can be blamed? When gearing up of the machinery to fight the foreseen calamity was the need of the hour and a national unity had to be forged to combat it, the BJP top brass, including the all-powerful Modi-Shah duo were busy for months in a failed attempt to capture power in a relatively small state in our eastern border, West Bengal! And during the process they divided the people further.

Last year, the ruling honchos were busy with blaming an international religious gathering of a handful of minority people in Delhi (foreigners gathered there with visa issued by the central government), while this year the governments, both at the centre and concerned states, miserably failed to put a stop on Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, where millions of pilgrims gathered and it can hardly be denied that the Kumbha Mela gathering has proved to be a super-spreader of the corona virus as these pilgrims helped spread the deadly virus in Delhi and other parts of the country. Blaming the pilgrims and holding them responsible for this super-spread is utter dishonesty. And we had a slap from the British government for our failure to stop the gathering! Does not such a slap from a foreign government hurt our national pride? Who is to blame for this?

Economist Jean Dreze, who played a pivotal role in suggesting and framing the highly effective Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNRES), has cautioned in no uncertain terms that India might be heading towards a ‘serious livelihood crisis’ as the situation seems to be worse this time for the working class amid the COVID crisis. He has very rightly observed that “compared with last year, many people have depleted savings and larger debts. Those who borrowed their way through last year’s crisis may not be able to do it again this time.” A fish vendor, Bishu Das, corroborates Dreze’s observation. Das also expressed his agonies the same way, “Last time I could somehow survive with my meager savings. This time, I don’t have any. I see no way out.”  So, it is strongly felt that people need cash and food support from the government for their sustenance, though for a limited period. The hungry badly needs them not lectures and promises which will never be implemented.

Our fight against corona pandemic and revamping of our industry and agriculture should go hand in hand. Let us be honest enough to admit that our rulers messed up the situation on both fronts. Last year our agriculture did a good job in increasing production. Despite this good work, the peasants were ‘rewarded’ with anti-peasant agrarian law. They were forced to seat on the streets for months under the scorching sun and severe cold. The peasants are demanding repealing of the act, while the government is in no mood to oblige. Despite a normal rain forecast for the year, it is to be seen whether the government’s ‘no compromise’ mood will have any negative bearing on the agricultural production.

Now, we need to take both short and long term measures to fight new round of corona pandemic and to tackle the damage caused by last year’s lockdown on our economy and on the toiling people as well as on the impeding catastrophe.

Although the process of reactivating our economy had started during the second half of the previous 2020-21 fiscal, and some signs of recovery were visible, the second round of corona attack is bound to have a severe negative impact unless it tackled properly. Instead of issuing administrative or bureaucratic orders, as we have seen last year, the government should come out with some concrete steps apart from providing some soft loans to the employers. It is good that some tax relief has been offered on the imports of corona-related equipment and drugs. But this subsidy needs to be passed on to the corona affected people by providing cheap drugs and reducing the cost of treatment. Some military hospitals have been thrown open for treatment of corona affected people. This is a good decision.

If the workers have housing facilities close to their working places and do not need to use public transport to reach there, it will help reduce spread of virus through social contacts. To start with, temporary housing facilities can be built on nearby government land so that they can walk to their workplaces without coming in contacts with outsiders. Apart from the public sector companies, private sectors like the Tatas, the Jindals and some others used to build descent dwelling colonies near the work places. That culture has become out of fashion thanks to overzealous cost-cutting and profit enhancing exercise by the corporate sector. Even PSUs are being forced to abandon housing schemes intended for their employees, both blue and white colour ones. Our private sector companies have grown with the time and have strong financial muscles. They are capable of addressing the issue of providing housing facilities for their employees provided they have the necessary mindset. Public-private partnership can be thought of.

The workers should be provided with biometric ration cards which can be used in any parts of the country to get food grains and other daily necessities. The government has already decided for biometric ration cards but the decision has to be put into practice all over the country without any delay.

The government needs to come out with a huge slam development scheme pan India, not like the much-publicized imagery smart city, bullet train and central vista programmes. They are more aimed at face-lifting. The aim of the slam development programme should be to provide better and more  hygienic living facilities to slam dwellers who are basically toilers.  An Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme (UEGS) in line with the MGNRES to ensure employment even for 100 days should be framed and enacted. This will help reduce reverse migration. The UGES has to be crafted in such a way that it can become an instrument for slam development programmes and form a part of improving the standard of living of the toilers. How can we forget that the improvement of the standard of living of the huge army of Indian toilers also helps increase the demand of industrial products and adds to the enhancing of the GDP of a country more equitably?

Our health sector needs revamping and reorientation to cope up with the future challenges. Our government is focusing more on an insurance-based health care system in line with the failed US model. The corona pandemic has clearly exposed its serious limitations. It has failed miserably even in the US where more people are covered. Eventually, the US administration both under Trump and Biden had to come up with huge government packages to deal with the pandemic. On the other hand, countries with better government healthcare facilities performed well.

Instead of strengthening the government healthcare facilities at all levels, our present rulers are relying more on building super specialty hospitals in private sector. The performance of the private sector in fighting corona pandemic needs proper assessment keeping in mind the interests of the common Indians. Are they really serving with a human face during the ongoing crisis? One has to admit that our government facilities, despite all weaknesses, are serving better to tackle the pandemic. The Kerala experience has also amply proved (and received wide acclamation world over) that deadly corona virus can be checked if certain level of government healthcare infrastructure supported by proper planning and public participation are in place. It can really deliver.

There is no doubt that we will be able to stem and do away with the first and second round of corona pandemic sooner or later. But, in the long run, we definitely need government policies with a human face. They will help develop a strong army of healthy and happy working population which in turn will ensure our future economic advancement and immensely help us in coping up with any future challenges and calamities, both natural and manmade. The sooner we develop such policies and implement them; the better will be our future. Unfortunately, our ruling dispensation believes in propaganda and falsehood, instead of addressing the real issues facing the country. So, long live the well-being of the toilers and down with the ‘Positivity Unlimited’!

(Sunil Mukhopadhyay is a retired journalist and writer)


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