Tika Utsav: Is turning crises into festivals a diversion or a new virus?

Three PM in the 1960s led vaccination drive against Small Pox, Polio, Measles and other diseases. None turned it into a festival and none had their photographs on publicity material or on documents

Tika Utsav: Is turning crises into festivals a diversion or a new virus?
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Sujata Anandan

I was born in a decade where diseases in India – cholera, small pox, chicken pox/shingles, measles, mumps, whooping cough, malaria, polio, diphtheria etc. - were quite frequent and common. My father even had a whole tome in his library on microbes - not so much as viruses - that caused many of these diseases and I remember reading that book avidly at an age less than a teen to learn of remedies and cures, precautions and avoidance.

So, of course, vaccinations and inoculations were a way of life. I recall that for small pox most vividly. You do not find those people at all these days but in my growing up years there were frequently people one would meet blinded by the pox or at least with faces full of black or brown spots and dents caused by the pox. They were the lucky ones, most others in the villages simply died.

The vaccination drive for small pox in the 1960s thus was intense – the health workers came to schools for mass inoculation, teachers had a horrid time controlling young kids who would simply burst into tears even as those three scratches and, in later years, a circle pressed into the skin with a sharp instrument) were administered. They also mass inoculated in housing colonies, clubs (my father was with the defence services), market places and other public places apart from hospitals and doctors’ clinics.

A town crier used to go around screaming out the place we must gather and the time of the drive. But there was nothing festive about it. A friend of mine used to burst into loud tears the moment she heard that town crier because she knew her mother would now drag her out to school or the club and she would have to suffer the jabs. Her cries would invariably be much louder before the jabs than during or after it. It is still a joke between us all these decades later.

Then, suddenly, as the 1970s approached, it was all over. There were no town criers, no school or club vaccination programmes and it was only much later that I understood the government had succeeded in eradicating everything but malaria altogether. There was the occasional polio-affected child but more because of a reaction to the vaccine than the actual disease.

We never heard of cholera again because food and hand hygiene had been vigorously and rigorously implemented in those years. And small pox? The virus does not exist any longer, having been completely dispatched from the world. The other diseases are not as frequent because children are inoculated at birth or at a very young age and India today is a relatively microbe-free nation compared to my growing up years.

And three Prime Ministers achieved this stupendous task in the 1960s - Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. Yet they never boasted about their humongous success, never had their photographs printed on the vaccination certificates and, more importantly, never played games or politics with other state governments or with the lives of common Indian citizens. My father received three postings in three different states in those years and in every state the procedure and protocol were the same and our vaccination programmes uninterrupted by the upheavals of those transfers. India was one nation and had one leader and whoever ruled the states made no difference at all to the leader at the top.

So, it is absolutely stunning that the present dispensation should discriminate among states and people in the current vaccination drive for the Corona virus. We had winners in our vaccine manufacturers established in the Nehru-Shastri-Indira years and they began with such a bang. But the short-sighted government policies have now slowed them to a whimper, forcing the companies to even refund the full cost of vaccines to nations that had imported from India. It is such a shameful failure on both the domestic and diplomatic fronts and yet there is no course correction.

For all that Narendra Modi keeps ad-libbing ad nauseum terms like Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat, why have these companies not been allowed to manufacture to the capacity required for both India and the world, why have other vaccines not been allowed to be brought into India, why have state governments not been allowed to procure their own requirements and, in keeping with less government, why have private institutions not been let into the vaccination regime?

Why is the government deciding for us if we need the vaccine or simply want it and why, of all preposterous monstrosities, should Modi's pictures be printed on our vaccination certificates - indeed why, with a digitalised India and Aadhaar regime, do we need those certificates at all? I never heard of Nehru or Shastri having their faces printed on any such certificates even in an era where paperwork was the norm and it was difficult to keep track of citizens without proper documents. It was left to people to decide whether they wanted themselves or their children to need the vaccines or simply want to be vaccinated as a precaution and why ever has the life of an India citizen, man woman or child, become so cheap as to be sacrificed on the altar of ego and megalomania?

I desperately wish to have some nice word to say about the Modi regime but over the past years I have been greatly disappointed by how it has been able to turn every bit of gold into ashes – the economy, the GDP, the jobs market, the fallout of demonetisation, even the Coronavirus which, to begin with, in India, was a rich traveller’s disease which could have been easily contained with a few simple measures without facilitating its spread in the population.

It is increasingly obvious that this government is competent at nothing but contesting elections and if we remove the electronic voting machines and replace them with old fashioned ballot papers, we may find them failing at even that. Then what is the use of this government, particularly since it has not had to pioneer anything like Nehru, Shastri and Indira did. If it had simply followed the procedures set by those governments, they would not have had to proclaim a “tika utsav" – I have a serious problem with the terminology because a pandemic and its cure cannot be a festival.

And in any case tika means different things in different Indian languages. In Kannada and Odiya it means the bum, in Assamese it means a bump on a flat piece of land, in Marathi and Malayalam, as in Hindi, it means criticism, commentary or interpretation, in Tamil it means a mark on the forehead, and, for whatever it is worth, life itself is tika in some languages. And Pakistani General Tika Khan was the butcher of Bangladesh.

So, a vaccination drive is not a festival for me. It is simply a need, a want and everyone should be allowed to want it.

(The writer is a commentator and columnist based in Mumbai. Views are personal)

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