As we approach the 75th anniversary of our freedom, one question that has constantly invigorated all classes alike in India is where and how we wish to see our glorious nation at 75.
The dire need for judicious use of available resources is the need of the hour. Shoddy decision-making spurred by personal ambitions that don’t concern or benefit the larger masses of the country is a tale in ignominy. When you add the precarious context of the Covid-19 pandemic to the mix, a wiser and deeper introspection becomes a necessity. The Narendra Modi government’s investment in the Central Vista project with an estimated cost of Rs 20,000 crore raises more questions than it answers.
The situation in India at present is nothing short of dire. More than a 100 people have lost their lives in hospitals due to lack of oxygen and thousands have been denied admissions due to either lack of oxygen or beds. The nation is gasping for air and this isn’t something that propped its ugly head overnight. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health had warned the government of acute shortage of oxygen as far back as in October 2020. And even before that, in April, just a week into the nationwide lockdown, one of the government’s own empowered groups of officers had red-flagged the shortage of oxygen.
The ludicrous line of reasoning resorted to by the government last year was that the contraction of the Indian economy, in the wake of the pandemic, was an “Act of God”. Fourteen months since, we can’t still be passing the blame.
There are three ways of evaluating the propriety of the Modi government’s actions: First is the moral ground of the allocation of funds and other resources towards the Central Vista project. Second, the misplaced priorities. And third, the question of timing.
Choosing Central Vista over people’s lives
It’s appalling to see that 14 months have passed since the Covid pandemic first broke out, seven months since the experts warned of an acute oxygen shortage and of a second wave, and three months since the Budget 2021 allocations were presented to us. While all this was going on, the contract for Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista project was awarded in September 2020 and the construction began in January 2021. Add to it all, the project has been provided an ‘Essential Services’ tag during the second wave.
Compare this to the allocations made in Budget 2021 to fight the pandemic. The 137 per cent increase in allocations towards health was also a sham. If one breaks it down, it comes down to a PR stunt yet again. The only allocation to fight the Covid pandemic has been Rs 35,000 crore that was assigned for the vaccination drive, but just one month into the financial year 2021, the government has put the onus on states and households for vaccination. It would have been heartening if the Budget contained allocations for ventilators, oxygen containers, concentrators and everything that could help us raise an honest and brave fight against this deadly virus, especially when a third Covid wave is now expected towards the end of this year.
How many new hospitals were constructed since the pandemic broke? None. When it costs close to Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 crore to set up an AIIMS, could a few new super-specialty hospitals not have been built in the last 14+ months? While the sprawling Central Vista campus is expected to be ready in two years, AIIMS Madurai is still a work in progress — six long years after the official announcement. This clearly indicates misplaced priorities. Even economically, when India is headed towards another lockdown and the question of ‘lives vs livelihood’ is staring at us again, could the Central Vista fund not have been used for a scheme benefitting the unemployed or for low-income groups?
Waking up when the house was on fire
Now let’s analyse the issue from the perspective of time. This crisis did provide us with a seven-month window to buckle up. And when did we finally wake up from our slumber? The Modi government approved Rs 4,500 crore to the two Indian vaccine manufacturers — Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech — only on 19 April 2021. This will only help scale manufacturing capacity after three-four months. After 100 days of vaccination, the government has not been able to fully vaccinate even 2 per cent of the population. Procuring more vaccines from global manufacturers to expedite the vaccination drive should have been the focus. The government approved setting up 551 PSA medical oxygen plants only on 25 April and announced orders for close to 61,000 ventilators on 1 May. It’s a matter of shame that only when the house was under fire that the Modi government could think of scouting for ways to douse it.
History is always kind to those who strive to get their names etched in the hearts of people rather than in brick and mortar. We are a nation of limited resources, but with immense potential. Being wise and prudent in decision-making is perhaps most valued in a nation like ours. We have done grave injustice to the lakhs of people affected by this deadly virus who wander from hospital to hospital in the hope of getting some help. We, as citizens, wish for an India at 75 that is prepared to make all efforts to value lives a lot more and invest heartily towards the happiness and health quotient of its citizens, rather than moving our parliamentarians to a lavish complex.
The author is professor of finance and national spokesperson of the Congress party. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)