Ten questions for the government
Right through the extraordinarily gruelling pandemic period, one question has remained unanswered. Who is accountable for the many shortcomings in the Covid-19 fight? So, as the monsoon session of Parliament begins next week, here is a list of 10 questions that ought to be debated by our parliamentarians.
One, health minister Harsh Vardhan has been removed, a tacit admission that the Centre failed to act swiftly and effectively during the lethal second Covid-19 wave. But was the minister singularly responsible for the failure to anticipate, or at least minimise, the impact of the virus? The hubris and complacency that led to a premature declaration of victory over Covid-19, the frenetic electioneering in the crucial March-April period, the green signal to the Kumbh Mela, surely wasn’t the act of just one Cabinet minister. So shouldn’t there be a mea culpa and shouldn’t more heads roll across the political and administrative spectrum?
Two, vaccination remains the key weapon in the fight to contain the virus. So could the nation be informed just how the Centre intends to double vaccinate all its adult population by the end of December as promised to the Supreme Court (SC)? At the moment, the vaccine numbers keep oscillating wildly, a day of record highs followed by sudden dips and shortages. In May, the Centre projected that India would have 2.16 billion doses of vaccines available by year-end, but in an affidavit before the SC in June, the figure was revised to 1.35 billion. So could we have an accurate estimate of vaccine supplies over the next six months without any trumped up figures?
Three, there have been concerns over just how budgetary allocations on vaccines have been spent so far. So could the nation be enlightened as to how exactly has the government used the ₹35,000 crore budget allocation which was aimed ostensibly at ensuring free vaccines for all?
Four, there are several unanswered questions over the relationship between the Centre and Bharat Biotech, the manufacturer of Covaxin. The Indian Council of Medical Research has, after all, helped Bharat Biotech in developing Covaxin and co-funded the research. For example, while emergency-use authorisation was granted to Covaxin even before its phase 3 clinical trial efficacy results were available, why was there a reluctance to fast forward approvals to foreign manufacturers such as Pfizer? The over-reliance on just two indigenous producers to ramp up supply without allowing compulsory licensing to other potential firms is seen as a key reason for the vaccine crunch. Moreover, is the Indian government aware of the details of the vaccine deal between Bharat Biotech and the Brazilian government that is now the subject of a criminal inquiry in that country?
Five, there remains considerable confusion over the exact Covid death toll across the country. Every few days, some states “revise” their numbers upwards, further evidence of the glaring undercount. Is it not imperative to have a transparent, court-monitored audit of the number of deaths across the country, especially as the apex court has now forced a reluctant Centre to devise a compensation scheme for Covid-affected families? How long will rural Covid deaths, in particular, be invisibilised?
Six, the PM-Cares Fund, set up in the aftermath of the pandemic, refuses to share details of donors and amounts received or expenditure incurred by claiming that it is not a public authority which comes under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. This opacity is troubling since the fund was created to assist citizens who are denied the right to know how exactly the money is being spent. For example, a number of ventilators funded through PM-Cares have been found to be defective. On what basis were these supply orders placed with certain companies with no previous track record in manufacturing ventilators? And what is the exact status of government-funded oxygen plant infrastructure, a gap so cruelly exposed in the second wave?
Seven, a critical element in the fight against Covid-19 is to empower the scientific community by aggressively funding research and development. In the build-up to the second wave, it was found that India had failed to ensure sufficient levels of genome sequencing. So can the government now share details of its investments in medical research in tracking the virus as it mutates?
Eight, the pandemic has led to massive job losses. Since the government refuses to accept the unemployment data provided by credible institutions such as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, why doesn’t the ministry of labour and employment provide us accurate numbers of jobs lost during the pandemic? The previous labour minister ducked the question with a wishy-washy response in the Rajya Sabha last year. It’s time now for a reality check.
Nine, rising fuel prices have led to a typical Centre-state blame game. Why doesn’t the Centre withdraw several existing cesses and initiate a dialogue with the states to ensure a calibrated reduction in fuel taxes? Surely, Parliament can initiate a discussion which can then be carried forward in the Goods and Services Tax council to push for fuel to become part of a more rational and sustainable tax regime?
And finally, is India better prepared to handle a possible third wave than we were for the second or will chaos reign yet again? And where does the buck stop if, god forbid, there is a next time?
Post-script: In the build-up to the monsoon session, Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla was seen posing before a Mahatma Gandhi statue in the Parliament precincts. Can the speaker ensure that the Gandhian values of honesty and fair play prevail through a comprehensive discussion on all the above questions in Parliament?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
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