Cause of India’s Covid-Catastrophe is Rooted in the Nation’s Democratic-Backslide*…
*This article is written for Scroll and the published link is uploaded here
Few scholars have left more of a mark in the field of development economics than Amartya Sen. Awarded the 1998 Nobel prize in economic science, Sen’s work reoriented mainstream economic thought-and diagnosis, on issues such as collective decision-making, welfare economics, measuring poverty, gender inequality, and social justice.
Amongst his more popular works, Sen has been well-regarded for his work on famine-and in explaining what causes them. Just as we associate Adam Smith with the phrase: “invisible hand”, Joseph Schumpeter with “creative destruction”, Sen is famous for his assertation that ‘famines do not occur in democracies’.
“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”, he argued in his book: ‘Development as Freedom’. Sen grounded this explanation in the fact that because well-functioning democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, they have strong incentive to undertaken measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”
What is happening in India at the moment-facing the wrath of a second Covid19 storm, may push us hard to reflect on Sen’s assertions. This isn’t a famine, but in effect, is surely India’s worst catastrophe-measurable in countless deaths- since our independence.
Images of people running from pillar to post to find a hospital bed for their loved ones, millions dying helplessly outside hospitals, dead bodies being cremated in parking lots, hospitals facing oxygen shortage across states, all of this, reflects a systemic breakdown of India’s health-and governance machinery.
Grief often looks for a victim to blame and a cause to relate to its effect. In the current scenario, India’s democratic-backslide over the last few years observed in: the autocratic rise of majoritarianism under Modi-Shah’s BJP; a callous disregard for people’s welfare-evident in lesser public investments in social-welfare; an irreversible loss in autonomy for public institutions, independent media; a submissive judiciary and civil service, and a dysfunctional political-opposition, have all contributed to the current colossal disaster.
A disaster, which, in the pages of history, may well be compared with ‘The Great Famine’ of China, seen under Mao’s rule between the years of 1958–1961, when tens of millions died. It took years after Mao’s rule ended to unearth the ‘truth’ behind The Great Famine (we still, till this date, don’t know the exact number of deaths a state-administered famine caused there). In India, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, saw as many as three million people died. Actual deaths from the crisis-at hand-now, is likely to surpass that figure. Like The Great Famine, we may just not know ‘the truth’-ever.
The question of how we got here, with a year’s time in hand for preparing our medical system across states for a second wave, isn’t divorced from the issue of ‘liberties, of the independence of media, and ultimately of democracy’. Yes, India has seen deaths from malnutrition, chronic hunger-starvation in decades even after independence, but never at such a scale, nor did the situation become this bad, when a government in power doesn’t care much for protecting the life of its own citizens.
On the contrary, India under Modi-Shah today, is more invested in spending its time and resources on ‘redesigning the Parliament (The Central Vista Project)’, ‘arresting a 22 year-old environmental activist on sedition charges’, ‘rendering an entire state to become a Union-controlled-Territory by the stroke of a pen’, ‘railroading bills without political consensus’ etc. Some might even argue that all of this was seen long coming, if anyone bothered to write-read-understand Modi’s style of leadership-governance from his time as Chief Minister in Gujarat.
Modi won the 2014 national election on the promise of scaling the ‘Gujarat Model’ to the entire of India. He has done just that. Gujarat had one of the lowest shares of public spending on the provisioning of basic healthcare for the entirety of Modi’s term as Chief Minister. Jammu and Kashmir as a state did far better than Gujarat in terms of access to basic social opportunities (healthcare, education). Gujarat is now one of the worst performing states — in terms of covid19 infections, hospitalization and deaths. No one, within the system back then could question Modi during his tenure as Chief Minister, given how subservient public institutions- the judiciary, the police and the bureaucracy became, alongside the presence of a disabled (/confused) political opposition. All of the above has happened at a pan-India level now- not just Gujarat.
At a time when surge in infections was peaking, the Prime Minister and his party were busy organizing mass rallies in Bengal, appealing to voters to come out in ‘large numbers to vote’, facilitating a Kumbh in one of its own states, showing absolute disregard and ignorance for following -ensuring covid appropriate behavior. The mainstream media did nothing to highlight either of these follies at a time of a public health emergency, rather, in its typical propagandist tone, the media was absorbed in reporting mass rallies in elections-as if a pandemic was long over. A toothless political opposition remained more active on social media platform- and twitter, than on the ground protesting against the government’s inactions-and callousness. The opposition remains more visibly ‘absent’ even now.
Sen said: “Developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development… Among the great variety of developments that have occurred in the twentieth century, the most preeminent development of the period is the rise of democracy…” India’s case, according to Sen, despite being an “ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, nonetheless, survived and functioned remarkable well as a political unit with a democratic system”.
This remarkable story of a ‘chaotic nation’ championing democratic conduct in political propriety appears like a legend of the past. Our country’s political-core now resembles to an autocratic China, where ‘discourse’ isn’t shaped by public-participation or in the interest of safeguarding civil liberties, fundamental rights, but is rather built around a story of lies, propagandic rhetoric, fed and further (re)enforced by the oppressive-repressive hands of a supreme commander.