Saturday, March 18, 2023
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Is India back to being ‘Third World’? Irony of an aspiring superpower exposed by Covid crisis

Institutional weakness is a feature of most Third World nations, and explains India’s failure to set up oxygen plants & ramp up vaccine manufacturing. Accountability is missing too.

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So is India back to being a ‘Third World’ country, dependent once again — after 16 years — on aid from other countries? No, and Yes. No, because India has given aid before getting it. As the foreign secretary has said, it’s an inter-dependent world. Besides, this is a once-in-a-century event, and mistakes will be made, so let’s cut some slack to those in charge. But the answer is also Yes, because extraordinary bungling and incompetence lie at the root of the need for emergency help from overseas. Institutional weakness is a feature of most Third World countries, and explains the two most egregious failures of the last few months: To set up planned oxygen plants and to ramp up vaccine-manufacturing capacity. Add to that the failure to spot those failures before funeral fires began overwhelming us, despite official busy-making by high-level task forces and committees.

In many ways, India has returned to type. Like its weakness for declaring victory midway — as with the virus, or at Doklam — or its new variant, celebrating setback as victory, as at Depsang. Also making a comeback is the old prickliness about criticism overseas. That prickliness sits poorly with the reports on the guardians of red tape turning away a foreign vaccine manufacturer, doubtless by following the rules. We are the world’s vaccine capital, after all — except that daily vaccinations have dropped from three million to two million in a country that needs upwards of two billion.

The inadequacies (like not having a proper public health infrastructure) have long been obvious and commented on, but were obscured by more recent successes that had begun, however belatedly, to script a different story. So India moved from “Third World” to “Emerging Market”; in some especially patriotic eyes, even a potential superpower. The virus has merely exposed that obscured underbelly for the world to see and report. The same world that had been happy to join in the cheering of recent successes while, perhaps out of politeness, not puncturing the puffed up comparisons with China. So the counterpoint to the super-patriots is the predictable schadenfreude in recent “andolanjeevi” comments about premature triumphalism. A mature view would acknowledge failures and successes, the jobs done, and remaining to be done.

Also Read: Modi govt has made a mockery of Covid crisis, high time it gets serious about real solutions

‘Normal is snafu’

So both No and Yes. Third World and Emerging Market. The same system that has allowed a crisis to balloon into untold (because substantially unrecorded) numbers of personal tragedies also has the capacity to respond to crisis. Medical oxygen production is said to have been ramped up by 70 per cent in a month — a repeat of last year’s scaling up of the manufacture of personal protective equipment. Field hospitals have been opened at speed. When government leaders focus on the job at hand, action does follow. Institutional and industrial capabilities now exist, even if they function only in mission mode. Unlike 1962, the Army could and did respond instead of simply caving in. It is not that nothing has been achieved in 60 or 70 years, just that the “normal” is snafu.

A feature of “Third World-ism” is lack of accountability. Whether and how the Narendra Modi government is held to account politically is a matter for the future, and involves the question of alternatives. For the moment, it bears noting that the prime minister has not found it possible to stretch his acknowledgement of the country being “shaken” to admitting responsibility for such shaking. Nor have his ministers found it in them to tone down the arrogance with which they respond to questions or suggestions by a former prime minister and sitting chief ministers.

Lesser humans are threatened with arrest for complaining of oxygen scarcity, while no one has heard of action being taken against those responsible for the failure to set up sanctioned oxygen plants, or to act on the certainty of additional vaccine requirements even without a second wave of the pandemic. The accountability and systemic checks within which developed societies operate — like the cabinet secretary in Britain looking into the home refurbishing expenses of the prime minister — are missing in India. Here, the PM’s favoured projects get special sanction. That’s very Third World.

By Special Arrangement with Business Standard

Also Read: Why Narendra Modi’s India is ‘partly free’, and where it is headed


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  1. Thomas Ninan should not allow his religious bigotry to cloud his articles .. or his church propaganda to cloud his thinking

  2. For India to become first world dictatorship or one party rule like China is only the option. Democracy does not work for a country of such huge population!. But not a dictatorship like North Korea.

  3. Modiji is getting old, weneed to replace him with our young and energetic leader Yogiji

  4. So when India sent vaccines and medicines to European nations, they became third world. Similarly, China too became a powerless country when it first faced the pandemic the moment an Air India plane landed on a Chinese tarmac. Wow. Wonderful logic. Let me remind the author why everyone is super interested to help out ! One seventh of the world’s population lives in India and if a pandemic to spreads to nook and corner of the country it will lead to even more dangerous and stable mutations which puts the whole world at risk. This isn’t your usual economic theory or political opinion piece. The virus if not contained affects all of the globe. And behind all this helping hand is this calculation at the back of every country. As a matter of fact, does the author realise why knowing the origin of virus was and is so important? This is why.

  5. Disappointingly diplomatic article coming from an excellent journalist….Europe and US got it last year,lots of time to learn lessons(imagine the reverse and what steps those countries would have taken for prevention)….Needles export of vaccines by Modi done publicly to burnish his image….vaccinations should have started much earlier, imagine the chaos going to unfold in coming weeks due to shortages and the high pitched anxiety….the nurses, doctors stretched to the limit and beyond…the next 6+ months patients with other serious ailments will not get the medical support they need…Yes the Prime minister, his cabinet ministers and the bureaucracy are criminally responsible for this mess.

  6. This administration has demonstrated over the course of the last 7 yrs (some might even say 20 yrs) that it is
    a. Incapable of learning from mistakes and hence prone to making smaller mistakes bigger in an effort to justify
    b. Incapable of uniting Indians because of its inherent nature to divide and rule and hence not able to channel India’s strength in numbers.
    These 2 are enough to get anyone disqualified from the job of leadership. Whether that will happen depends on the collective wisdom of ordinary Indians.

    • It appears that HINDUSTAN now requires the help of CHRISTIAN and MUSLIM nations in its fight against COVID !!! Ha…ha…ha…so much for “Nationalism”. No “Patriotism” is going to save you now. No “Dharma” is going to save you now. No “Supreme Leader” is going to save you now. You are all doomed. Congrats Bhakt Buddhus.

    • Agree fully with you NM.

      Sadly, it appears that the vast majority of voters in the BIMARU regions would prefer Hindutva and are even willing to die for it. And in their worldview, Modi is the protector of Hinduism and is moreover infallible.

      Sad, but true.

  7. The impotent state governments are dragging India down. They just don’t want to do any work and always look upon the central government to fulfill their side of constitutional duties too.

  8. India is typical third world country and continuing to be ruled by ‘dhirathrastra’s. So just run a check on what our neta’ s kids are up to .

  9. Considering the utterly ferocious and destructive nature of the second wave, which is beyond predictions, the scarcity of oxygen cylinders and medicines could be mitigated with some efforts. And the blame could be equally apportioned between the Centre and states. However, the vaccines fiasco is entirely the Centre’s folly. More laughable was our pretension to the international community that India has become superpower in vaccine production. The ground reality is exactly the opposite. The Central Government in Delhi simply misunderstood and miscalculated. This lapse is beyond wildest imagination. A child in sixth standard could have made the simple arithmetic. India, a country with population of 1.35 billion would require total doses to the tune of at least 180 doses @ two doses per day for two third of the population. So, the average rate of vaccination, if the task is to be completed in 180 days would be one crore doses per days and if in 360 days, 50 lakh doses per day. Our vaccination drive commenced on 16 January, 2021. We have so far administered around 14.7 crore doses in 105 days. So, the actual rate comes to 14 lakh doses per day as against the asking rate of say 50 lakh per day. At this rate we may take 1285 days or 3.5 years to complete the vaccination process! So much for the pretended efficiency of the government at the Centre. By this standard, India has really become a third world country.


    MANY more PEOPLE will DIE because people are refusing to follow covid19 protocols even TODAY.

    Nothing can help people if they have DEATH WISH.

  11. India, carrying the load of 1/5th of the world’s humanity, has to go a long way to be self-sufficient. As it seems to be challenging to accomplish this goal in a crippled ‘democratic’ way, the democratically elected rulers will fudge the truth to achieve and stay in power. In the meantime, a mercilessly authoritarian China will ride rough shod over the democratic world. Did we not notice how China has still to come clean on its virus declaration and how the leading world powers from the US to the EU have nearly buckled under its weight?

  12. When you are globally ranked 142 out of 192 countries, aspire to be a super power all you want, no one will take you seriously regardless of your cameo chest thumping. All talk and no walk is the hallmark of this Hindutva party enjoying Kumbh mela and building airports in Ayodhya . Screwed up priority of this northern BJP party appears to be a curse on India.

  13. We have a daily listing of what we do not have and it should be brought to the fore. The impression sought to be given is that all that we don’t have, has come about in the last 6 years, very conveniently forgetting that WE DID NOT HAVE A BIG TIME SCAMES IN LAST 6 YEARS. There is a fear that this one shortage which affects the direct beneficiaries and the members of their echo system.
    In the days of social media, the opinion making business has gone out of the hands of the print and electronic media, it is not the loss of money as it is the loss of clout that is hurting.

    • Yeah no scams, hurray !! I mean the worst unemployment record in 50 years (that is much before the pandemic by the way), the lowest growth rate in a few decades, 1000’s of small business closed, state assets being sold off to a small group of crony capitalists, and oh also lakhs of people dead and not being given dignity. But yay, the sold out media has not highlighted any scams in the last 7 years. So let’s keep voting again for this nightmare. Get real !!

  14. T N Ninan’s articles are always anti PM Modi. Nothing better is expected in his article.

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