Right through the extraordinarily gruelling pandemic period, one question remains unanswered: who is accountable for the many shortcomings in the Covid 19 fight? So as a crucial monsoon session of parliament begins next week, here are a list of ten questions that ought to be debated by our parliamentarians.
- The health minister Dr Harshvardhan has been removed, a tacit admission that the Centre failed to act swiftly and effectively during the lethal second Covid wave. But was the minister singularly responsible for the failure to anticipate, prevent or at least minimize the impact of the virus? The hubris and complacency that led to a premature declaration of ‘victory’ over Covid, the frenetic electioneering in the crucial March-April period, the green signalling of the Kumbh Mela, surely wasn’t the act of just one cabinet minister. So shouldn’t there be a mea culpa and more heads roll right across the political and administrative spectrum?
- Vaccinations remain the key weapon in the fight to contain the spread of the infection. So could the nation be informed just how the Centre intends to double vaccinate all its adult population by the end of December as claimed before the Supreme Court? At the moment, vaccine numbers keep oscillating wildly, a day of record highs in vaccinations followed by sudden dips and shortages. In May, the government had projected that India would have 216 crore doses of Covid 19 vaccines available by year end but in an affidavit before the Supreme Court in June, the figure was revised to 135 crores. So could we have an accurate estimate of vaccine availability and time-lines over the next six months without any trumped up figures?
- There have been concerns over vaccine pricing. In the build up to the 2020 Bihar elections, the Centre had claimed it would give vaccines ‘free for all’. And yet, it required Supreme Court intervention to ensure a ‘one nation, one vaccine price’, especially for the 18-44 age group. A number of private hospitals were also found to be charging higher prices. So could the nation be enlightened as to how exactly has the government used the Rs 35,000 crore budget allocation for vaccines that was aimed at ensuring free vaccines for all?
- There are several unanswered questions over the relationship between the Centre and Bharat Biotech, manufacturer of Covaxin. The Indian Council of Medical Research has, after all, helped Bharat Biotech in developing Covaxin and co-funded the research. How then was Bharat Biotech allowed to decide on its pricing unilaterally until the government finally announced a price cap last month? Moreover, while emergency use authorization was granted to Covaxin even before its phase 3 clinical trial efficacy results were available – in itself a breach of scientific ethics – why was there a reluctance to fast forward approvals to foreign manufacturers like Pfizer who were ready to supply to India? The failure to place firm early orders and an over-reliance on just two indigenous manufacturers to ramp up supply without allowing compulsory licensing to other domestic players is seen as one key reason for the vaccine crunch. Also, was the Indian government aware of the details of the deal between Bharat Biotech and the Brazilian government that is now the subject of a criminal inquiry in that country?
- 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 death numbers across the country, especially as the apex court has now forced a reluctant Centre to devise a compensation scheme for the Covid affected families? And what is the status of the numerous people who died in their homes in rural India of Covid but their death certificates did not register it as a Covid induced death? How long will rural Covid deaths in particular be ‘invisibilised’?
- The PM Cares fund, set up in the pandemic aftermath, 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 funds are being spent. For example, a number of ventilators funded through the PM cares fund allocation were found to be defective. On what basis were these supply orders placed to 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?
- Another critical element in the fight against Covid 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 (designated labs had sequences less than one per cent of total samples). So can the government now share details of its investments in medical research in tracking the virus as it mutates?
- The pandemic has led to massive job losses. Since the government refuses to accept the unemployment data provided by credible institutions like the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, why doesn’t the Ministry of Labour and Employment provide accurate data of jobs lost during the pandemic? When a specific question was put to the labour minister last year in the Rajya Sabha, he offered a wishy-washy response. Its time now for a reality check.
- 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 GST council to push for fuel to become part of a more rational and sustainable tax regime?
- Finally, could we get an answer to a simple question: is India better prepared to handle a possible third wave than we were for the second? And where does the buck stop if, god forbid, there is a next time?
Post script: In the build up to the monsoon session of parliament, the Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla was seen posing before a Mahatma Gandhi statue in the parliament grounds. Can the speaker now restore the dignity of parliament by ensuring that Gandhian values of honesty and fair-play prevail through a comprehensive discussion on all the above questions?