Sam Pitroda: India in Covid induced national emergency

RITU JHA

India is going through a “national emergency” that has been precipitated by the Narendra Modi government’s failed Covid-19 strategy, feels Sam Pitroda, considered one of the architects of India’s telecom revolution.

India on Wednesday morning registered 3,293 coronavirus related deaths and over 360,000 new cases in the last 24 hours.

India is in a crisis,” Sam Pitroda told indica News. “No one expected the second wave [of the pandemic] to be this bad. We took it very lightly; we did not prepare for the worst and now the situation is the worst.

We should have done the opposite, we should have prepared for the worst and hopefully we would have a better situation. We did not plan, strategize… and it has a lot to do with the way India has turned out to be,” he said.

The basic problem is how do we reduce the number of deaths and offer basic services to people and how do we make sure those who do not have money get the treatment,” Pitroda, who was an adviser tio many Congress party governments, said on the immediate need.

India’s social media is filled with distress posts about people looking for oxygen, medicines, hospital beds. In many cities, there are long lines of bodies at crematoria.

Hospitals are asking for hefty deposits, said Pitroda, and he, too, has been getting calls for help.

I feel hapless I am not able to do it. People call for money and there is no guarantee that money can save the life,” he said.

He said India had competent people but the problem lay in an overly centralised decision-making process — an undemocratic approach.

India has great people — like Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan from Princeton, an economist and an epidemiologist and founder and director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP). So you have to listen to them and listen to the Covid task force. You can’t take it in your hand and say, ‘I know all the answers’.”

He said the All India Institute of Medical Sciences has “many very knowledgeable people working there, but these people were never given autonomy.”

Three things bother him about Prime Minister Modi’s government, which Pitroda said are also the reasons for India’s grim situation.

One, institutions are not allowed to function with anatomy, freedom, and flexibility — whether it’s university, science and technology institution or hospital and even media or judiciary, or election commission. You have taken their independence away,” Pitroda said.

The second thing is you have not allowed the civil society to function. This includes NGOs. Local NGO, who provide local heath support, you have killed them by creating all kinds of hurdles.

The third is we have no scientific mindset. You have to create serious challenges in these areas. It’s a part of democracy…. You have taken away the scientific rationality.”

He added: “So, if put all of this together, it’s a frightening situation. A modern nation has to think logically, rationally. Look, it is one thing to win an election and another thing to run a country.”

He said the government had not invested enough in heath and building up health infrastructure even in the face of a pandemic.

Asked what the government should have done, Pitroda said: “They should have taken away one year of the defense budget. In this crisis, you should have said they are not going to spend one year on defense and spend that on health. And it should have been in giving support to the vaccine manufacturing companies. To me, it’s a national emergency and it’s not about private manufacturing versus government.”

India’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout has floundered in recent weeks. Prime Minister Modi has announced that everyone above 18 years of age would be eligible for a vaccine, but many states, entrusted with the rollout, say there are no stocks.

Many Indians above 45 years old who have got one shot of their Covid-19 vaccine have not been able to get their second shot.

If they say vaccine over 18, well, calculate the number the people and how many months it would take. And you don’t have even one-tenth of it… Somebody has to think like this,” he said.

You look at the mathematics how much it’s going to cost and who is going to fund for it. You cannot have a vaccine with three prices. The government set one, the state government set other prices, and private players set another price,” he said.

India is the largest producer of oxygen in the world,” he pointed out. “It’s the logistics — to get from factory to hospital there is a lot of logistics required — you have to make sure, and that there is no black marketing going on.”

He said the culture of governance was responsible for the mess the country found itself in.

Democracy allows you to listen to other voices, collaborate, cooperate, co-create, understand. And if you are not willing to listen to other people you end up in a situation like this,” Pitroda said.

The government, he said, “is not listening to people. In addition, they are all caught up with the elections… We should have postponed the elections for six months.”

The healthcare system has collapsed, he said.