The new year promises a replay of 2021 in India: a year of gloom, if not doom
Economic Survey 2020-21 ranked India 179th among 189 others in prioritising healthcare in its budget. 2021 also saw selective use of the law, formalisation of the divide between politics and people
As 2021 exits through the inglorious haze of an unrelenting pandemic, Indians are bracing themselves for the third wave in the New Year that is being stoked by a government more given to politicking than governance.
The Indian public fears the State is turning against its own people by navigating the country into yet another year of ignominy and anguish as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues warn people against crowding in public spaces and being casual about wearing masks and social distancing, even as they themselves hold mass rallies for the March 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections where neither they nor the spectators are seen taking any such precautions.
The brutal second wave of 2021 had been similarly fanned by the frenzied campaigning for state polls in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry, and by the Haridwar kumbh mela in Uttarakhand. But the government had been in denial, and instead persecuted those who sought accountability, as the nation edged into a humanitarian and health crisis.
This selective application of law, largely without intervention by the judiciary, election commission and law enforcement agencies, has formalised the divide between the political gentry and the public, this administrative high-handedness undermining democracy and raising public insecurity.
The Modi government’s completion of seven years in office on 30 May 2021 was hence an event to celebrate the 1.39 billion people of India for their resilience in surviving this misrule. Particularly calamitous have been the past two years of the coronavirus, with the viral catastrophe less devastating than the recipe for anarchy scripted into its management.
The Prime Minister had pledged to build a “New India” while canvassing in 2019, but the country in 2021 witnessed scenes that harked back to the pestilence of the Middle Ages: multiple bodies heaped on pyres, bodies burnt in the streets as cremation and burial grounds ran short of space, and decomposing bodies floating in the Ganga, at times being picked at by stray dogs. Barrages of corpses overwhelmed mortuaries, and graves were dug to depths that accommodated two to four bodies in tiers.
No lessons seem to have been learnt from this catastrophe, as votes continue to be prioritised above public health and lives. It was intriguing for India’s BJP-friendly ‘The Daily Guardian’ to headline an ‘Opinion’ column last May with “Virus is your enemy, not PM Modi”.
The government had pledged before the Supreme Court (SC) to have the eligible adult population vaccinated with at least one dose by 31 December, but the year ended with only 64 per cent fully vaccinated and around 90 per cent administered the first dose.
The viral disaster should have compelled funding towards rebuilding the country’s crumbling healthcare system by constructing hospitals, village dispensaries, and medical and nursing colleges. According to Economic Survey 2020-21, India ranked 179th among 189 others in prioritising healthcare in its budget.
The country would have been better placed to deal with the current third wave if requisite investment had been forthcoming from PM CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund) set up in March 2020 specifically to aid efforts against the coronavirus. Instead, healthcare languishes even as PM Cares remains exempt from revealing the origin of its funding from both within the country and abroad, and also from government audit and public scrutiny.
Registered as a Public Charitable Trust, with the PM as its ex-officio Chairman and the Defence, Home Affairs and Finance ministers its ex-officio Trustees, PM CARES was set up despite there being the PM’s National Relief Fund that has performed unfalteringly since Independence.
PM CARES has additionally stressed the underprivileged and marginalised, who receive critical help from NGOs. This philanthropy was impaired as CSR funds got diverted to PM CARES instead.
India has the largest number of NGOs in the world, an estimated 3.3 million, largely because they deliver services the government fails to. Washington-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law cited the response to the COVID-19 crisis in India being hampered by restrictions imposed by the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) amendments of September 2020, which prohibit sub-granting, mandate bank accounts with State Bank of India, and institute a 20 per cent cap on administrative expenses for any foreign funds received by FCRA-registered NGOs, “among other burdensome requirements”. It adds, “Many not-for-profit actors, including hospitals and charitable trusts, have been unable to accept oxygen donations and other critical COVID-19 supplies as a result of FCRA restrictions.”
This onslaught against NGOs was not only driven by the need to appropriate their funding, but also to curb their dissent against government lassitude and to disadvantage minorities.
This manifested sordidly in the Home ministry’s rejection on Christmas day of the application for renewal of the FCRA registration of late Nobel laureate and Bharat Ratna Mother Teresa’s Kolkata-headquartered Missionaries of Charity, on grounds of “some adverse inputs” being received against it. What these “adverse inputs” are remains unknown, though the BJP and its far-right ideological progenitor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), charge Christian organisations like Missionaries of Charity with using foreign funds to convert Hindus to Christianity.
Such vilification of this globally renowned mission, known for its principled work among the poorest of the poor, amplified the spate of attacks in 2021 and especially during Yuletide on India’s Christian community by Hindu vigilantes who openly threatened to “behead” Christians and who vandalised their churches and icons.
In a public address just a fortnight before Modi’s meeting with the Pope at the Vatican in October, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat warned Hindus about religious conversions in India’s northeastern states, which have sizeable Christian populations. The 96-year-old organisation has historically pledged to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra, or ethnic Hindu state. Days after Bhagwat’s speech, BJP legislator Rameshwar Sharma called for a “chaddar mukt, father mukt Bharat” (an India free of veil-wearing Muslims and Christian priests).
The year saw similar savage attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs that evoked little official condemnation. While Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind has petitioned the SC against assaults and repeated instances of hate speeches against Muslims across the country – especially genocidal calls made at the recent Dharma Sansad (religious conclave) in Hardwar by Hindu extremists who pledged to eliminate Muslims if necessary to make India a Hindu rashtra - 76 SC lawyers sought immediate judicial intervention, while voicing concern about law enforcement agencies “succumbing to non-state actors” in failing to protect minority rights. The petitioners also alleged that Uttar Pradesh police had arrested over 100 Muslims who were protesting against particularly inflammatory remarks by conclave organiser Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, while none of the “hate mongers” had been acted against.
While such transgressions largely evade media, Opposition and judicial scrutiny, what is being lost sight of is the daunting threat that looms at our borders. Even as India has been gravely endangered by what are now becoming routine intrusions by China into Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, Indian authorities are either in denial or are downplaying the flashpoint building up along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Himalayan frontier that divides the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
While Army Chief General M.M. Naravane expressed concern at ‘the largescale build-up’ in eastern Ladakh that ‘continues to be in place’, questions are being raised if India has a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence, which has been aggravated by the sponsorship of cross-border terrorism by China’s long-standing ally Pakistan.
Modi has not only avoided identifying China as the aggressor, but has also refrained from discussing the issue by telephone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which many Indians believe would have helped defuse the tensions. Beijing questions the need for military negotiations when it finds official Indian confirmation that it has not trespassed on Indian territory.
Oddly, even though India decided to reduce or ban certain imports from China as a countermeasure, bilateral trade surged over 22 per cent in 2021 to cross $100 billion for the first time, reaching $102.3 billion, according to China’s General Administration of Customs (GAC). “At this rate, we are likely to attain the highest ever bilateral trade between two countries,” said India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, who added that India’s trade deficit with China is “the largest trade deficit we have with any country”.
Another peril to India being ignored is that caused by the truncated deal with France that severely undermines our air defences. The €7.87 billion contract with Dassault Aviation for 36 of its Rafale multi-role jetfighters that Modi finalised during his state visit to France in 2015 had implicitly annulled an agreement by the previous Congress-led government for 126 Rafales for a relatively much cheaper price of €8.86 billion.
The deal, which the government has refused to clarify, citing reasons of “national security”, has caused a shortfall of 90 aircraft that were required by the Indian Air Force (IAF) under its original tender of 2005. The IAF is already hamstrung by a depleting fleet, and impending obsolescence is anticipated to diminish it to less than 30 squadrons of serviceable aircraft over the next two years against a sanctioned strength of 42.
India’s defence preparedness is today guided by the prospect of a two-front war with China and Pakistan, and any lag can prove ominous. As there is considerable hold-up between the selection of military equipment and its delivery, much time has been lost through the partial Rafale deal.
It was only in April 2019 that the IAF issued a successor initial tender for a total 114 jetfighters at an estimated $18 billion, but there has been little progress since. Maintaining that the IAF will be unable to reach the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons in the next 10-15 years, notwithstanding planned acquisitions, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari anticipates 35 squadrons by the next decade, with phasing out of old aircraft and induction of new ones.
India’s maritime security lies similarly exposed. For instance, the Indian Navy sees a dire need to surmount a slump in its undersea capabilities, as it confronts a menacing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific, with Beijing concertedly bolstering its fleet levels, as also marshalling support of India’s neighbours in the littoral through transfers of significant naval assets.
Mindful of the operational gaps, the Cabinet Committee on Security had approved a 30-year plan way back in 1999 for the induction of 24 new diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) by 2030, a dozen of them to be constructed with foreign collaboration by 2012, while the balance 12 were to be “built to indigenous design”.
However, in the 22 years since the plan was introduced, only four of six non-nuclear submarines being built, by MDL under licence from France’s Naval Group, have hitherto joined the Navy’s submarine fleet, and one of four proposed nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) has been commissioned. Two more of these SSBNs, being indigenously built at the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam under the classified Advanced Technology Vessel, have been launched but await commissioning.
It was only last July that the Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued for the foreign-collaborated domestic construction of six new generation stealth SSKs, nine years after the then Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral D.K. Joshi, had announced in 2012 that the RFP would be issued “soon”. The delay and other issues have prompted the Swedes, Japanese and Germans, who had initially bid for the project, to walk out.
In the Indian context, defence procurements, and their timing, are largely a political consideration rather than one premised on military and security concerns.
When Punjab’s former Congress Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh left the party last September and announced that he would ally with the BJP for the forthcoming state election on condition that the three contentious farm laws were repealed, he inadvertently revealed that such a withdrawal was imminent with an eye to the Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, polls.
After all, a seasoned politician that he was would not have publicly made such a conditional commitment at a time such a revocation had appeared remote, considering that the government had been unyielding all through the year-long street protests that had led to the deaths of more than 700 farmers, many from Punjab. The government had besides amplified its stridency against the farmers by branding them ‘separatists’, ‘Khalistanis’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-nationals’.
Though the three legislations were rescinded in November, there are suspicions of their reintroduction when opportune, mainly because the BJP-led government has hitherto not backed down from any of its policies or decisions despite public resistance.
Other issues that brought the country and its people to their knees were the unprecedented spiralling prices and their ruinous consequences. The Commerce and Industry ministry attributed the surge in India’s annual inflation rate, based on wholesale prices, to 14.23 per cent in November from 12.54 per cent in October, to vaulting costs of various essential commodities, “mineral oils, basic metals, crude petroleum and natural gas, chemicals and chemical products, food products, etc.”.
A Bloomberg survey reported wholesale inflation hastening to the fastest pace in three decades on input costs fuelled by high commodity prices and supply constraints, with official data showing that the prices of primary items rose 10.34 per cent, fuel and power, 39.8 per cent, manufactured products, 11.9 per cent, and the food index, 6.7 per cent.
Petrol touched a numbing Rs115.11 a litre on 31 October, while the cost of domestic cooking gas, or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), skyrocketed by Rs305 within the year to Rs899.50 per cylinder, and cooking oil prices crossed Rs200/kg. The rupee plunged past the 76-mark to the US dollar on 16 December as the trade gap widened and foreign investors pulled out funds from equities.
Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) MD and CEO Mahesh Vyas said the second wave led to the loss of 2.25 crore additional jobs in April and May alone, the country’s unemployment rate surging to 11.9 per cent. There was a 20 per cent rise in urban poverty, and of 15 per cent in rural India.
According to CMIE data, the pandemic precipitated an increase in the number of homes with no earning members, with an average of 7.8 per cent of households not reporting any member as employed as from July to November.
This was even as the sensex clocked record highs on a regular basis in 2021, starting at 47,751 points and ending the year at 58,254 points, scaling to an all-time high of 62,245 on 19 October. And even as the net worth of Gautam Adani, India’s second-richest person after Reliance Industries’ Mukesh Ambani, rose by more than $50 billion, while Ambani’s increased by $21.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg billionaire index.
Moreover, even as other social indices plummeted, the Prime Minister’s catchphrase of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, or self-reliant India, was temporarily sidelined with the induction to his security detail of a customised heavily-armoured Mercedes Maybach S 650 car that is estimated to have cost the exchequer upwards of Rs12 crore.
Last March, Modi also used one of the two new custom-made VVIP aircraft for the first time when he flew from Delhi to Dhaka on a two-day visit to Bangladesh. While previous Indian governments requisitioned a B747 aircraft from Air-India’s fleet for air travel by the Prime Minister, President and Vice President, the Modi government ordered two new B777-300ER planes from Boeing at a cost of Rs8,458 crore for their exclusive use