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India doesn’t want taali-thali charity from billionaires, it wants Socialist state to act

Everyone becomes a Socialist in a pandemic. It’s time India realises billionaires aren’t the cure for coronavirus — the State is. 

Medics outside an isolation ward of coronavirus at Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, on 2 March 2020 | PTI
Medics outside an isolation ward for coronavirus patients (representational image) | PTI

Coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis, it’s a crisis of capitalism.

In 2001, a high-intensity earthquake rocked Gujarat, claiming thousands of lives and livelihoods. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the prime minister at the time, promised Rs 100 crore from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund to rebuild the government’s G.K. General Hospital in Bhuj city. Vajpayee also reportedly wanted to set up AIIMS-style hospitals in four regions of the country, and Bhuj’s hospital would be AIIMS-West. But as luck, and political interests, would have it, AIIMS-West was never built. Instead, Bhuj’s state-rebuilt G.K. Hospital was acquired by the Adani Group on a 99-year lease through a resolution passed by then chief minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2009. Today, the Adani Group runs the Gujarat Adani Institute of Medical Sciences —GAIMS— and its privatised footprint keeps expanding.

Why am I talking about the Gujarat hospital now? Because the story of G.K. Hospital is the story of India’s response to the novel coronavirus. Coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis, it’s the crisis of billionaires, corporations and capitalism.

The pandemic has sparked a conversation across the world on the importance of public healthcare, high-testing rates and ‘social distancing’ measures, which involve staying at home and quarantining. It is an incredible sight — suddenly, more and more people are demanding greater government role and investment in science to develop a vaccine, passengers returning from New Delhi’s airport wanting cleaner and better quality government quarantine facilities, and the upper-middle-class and elites are asking for ‘work from home’ and paid sick leaves.

For the first time, ‘Indian billionaires’ was trending on Twitter — people were asking where our Ambanis, Adanis, and Mahindras were. Finally, Anand Mahindra announced Sunday that his company will be working on making ventilators and offered his hotels as COVID-19 hospitals.

The message is loud and clear: Everyone, even the richer classes, has become Socialist in times of a pandemic. It’s time we realise that billionaires aren’t the cure for pandemics — the State is. 

It is the Indian state and its capacity that citizens, rich or poor, are again turning to as the country goes into the 21day-lockdown PM Narendra Modi has declared.

Also read: PM declares 21-day full lockdown across India from midnight, Rs 15,000 cr to fight COVID-19

Charity to demand

Today, we have taken the first step by asking questions of India’s billionaire class. Tomorrow, we must shift our political thinking from pity and charity to demanding the governments tax billionaires higher and ensure rights for workers in these mega-corporations and factories. To immediately contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, put an additional tax on the top 1 per cent of the rich. The latest Oxfam study shows they own more than four times the wealth of India’s bottom 70 per cent. We will deal with a pandemic better when we demand that billionaires give higher wages and paid medical leave to all workers — including at Reliance, Adani’s power plants, Amazon’s warehouses, and Uber drivers.

While we were endlessly debating the policy logic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 5 pm taalis and thaalis (when millions of Indians living in poverty don’t even have balconies), another announcement was made. This one was by Kerala’s chief minister. Pinarayi Vijayan announced a Rs 20,000-crore package to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

This is not merely a study in rhetorical flourish, it is a study in political economy. The much-reviled ‘radical Leftists’ were proposing government aid for MGNREGS workers and daily wagers, providing free food grain up to 10 kg through ration shops, and provisions to disburse early social security pensions, among other things. Meanwhile, Spain has nationalised all its private hospitals, and the UK’s Chancellor just announced that the state would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of Britain’s workers who are not working during the coronavirus crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says a minimum of 4-5 per cent of every nation’s GDP should be spent on healthcare. In the Union Budget for this fiscal year, healthcare has been allotted just 1.6 per cent of the GDP. Just for some perspective, we spent Rs 2,989 crore on a Sardar Patel statue, over Rs 1,100 crore to conduct a failed citizenship exercise in Assam and have allotted Rs 20,000 crore to redesign New Delhi’s Central Vista.

Also read: Homeless with no income, migrant labourers wish they had left Delhi before the lockdown

A clear caste-class divide

A primary health centre (PHC) is the first point of access to healthcare for most Indians, not Fortis, Medanta and Delhi’s leading private hospitals.

It is in this area that Kerala outperforms other states, and it is where we must push governments to focus on. Now is the time to ask those millions of poor and working-classes across religions whether the Modi government has invested in their hospitals or instead pushed for Niti Aayog-style backdoor entry of privatisation through ‘public-private partnerships’. Now is the time to ask how much the government invested in science, research and development, especially in a country where cow-urine and cow-dung are being peddled as substitutes for vaccines.

Moreover, the International Labour Organisation estimates that about 81 per cent of those employed in India are part of the informal workforce. Daily-wage earners, domestic workers, street vendors, contractual safai karmis and cleaners are all at the very heart of this pandemic. Even as you sit at home quarantined while reading this, the Zomato and Swiggy delivery people or your cook don’t have government protections and strong unions yet. And for the waste-pickers, the ones sanitising public transport, the virus has reinforced caste occupations.

Also read: Sitharaman promises economic package ‘soon’, but eases norms for businesses and taxpayers

Socialism for the rich

To those saying that corporate efforts such as privatisation and taali-thali-charity are the way out instead of the State ‘giving freebies’ (or rather doing its job for healthcare, domestic and public workers), remember the curious case of the SBI being called in to bail out Yes Bank?

Since 2014, India’s banks have written off bad loans worth Rs 6,60,000 crore. The message is clear: When an Anil Ambani or Subhash Chandra make hay, the Socialist public sector steps in to save the private banks. So, the irony is this — privatisation’s elite cheerleaders actually do like Socialism when it works for their personal benefit, just not when it’s meant for the masses. Indeed, as Bernie Sanders says: “Socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor!”

The author is an MLA from Vadgam constituency, Gujarat. Views are personal.