Open Letter to India’s Opposition Political Parties

The 187 eminent academics, activists, journalists, authors, filmmakers and professionals from across the world have written open letter to India’s opposition political parties and urges them to step up constructive action to fight against the Corona pandemic and lists a few concrete suggestions which the political parties must push forward.

  Picture Courtesy : Business Standard

03 June 2021

India’s Opposition Political Parties,,

We, a group of concerned citizens and well-wishers of India appreciate and fully endorse the constructive measures to be “undertaken on a war footing” suggested by progressive opposition parties to the Government of India (GoI), in their joint letter of 12 May 2021, to combat the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. “An apocalyptic human tragedy” the letter says, compounded by the government’s refusal to act on suggestions made to it.

It is heartwarming that amidst this unprecedented crisis, most political parties are willing to work in a non-partisan manner in the peoples’ interest. Yet, despite the offer to cooperate and work with the union government, it is shocking that the GoI has neither welcomed the suggestions, nor created a truly national task force comprising of all parties, state governments, experts and civil society to tackle the unprecedented situation India is facing. The GoI’s contemptuous disregard towards sincere support is especially disconcerting given that it bypasses the wealth of experience and expertise India boasts of. Consequently, millions of Indians are scrambling to access basic healthcare services⎯ hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, essential medicines, ambulances, hearses etc. The visuals of the deceased lying on roads, floating in rivers and riverbeds has pricked the world’s collective conscience.

This situation is especially shocking because we all expected that the Indian State would tackle this crisis resolutely. Instead of deploying the many resources it commands to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the State seems to have reneged on its moral and constitutional responsibilities. It is very distressing that, despite a history of successful mass-vaccination campaigns in the past 70 years, the GoI has outsourced the procurement of vaccines to severely stretched state governments, at differential and exorbitant rates. Likewise, expert advice is repeatedly ignored, while obscurantist, unproven remedies are encouraged. Large rallies and religious congregations were organised, and there was no preparation to enhance the availability of oxygen, vaccines, and beds. These have in no small part contributed to an explosion of cases and deaths. They have also imposed an unnecessary burden on citizens, whose expenditure on healthcare has mushroomed. Similarly, relief material being sent from abroad is reportedly often stuck because of bureaucratic delays, is being allocated to states in a partisan fashion, and funds are being misused for non-COVID related activities. What is especially nauseating is that amidst this chaos there is an attempt to hide and obfuscate the gravity of the situation, while governments harass journalists and citizens for speaking the truth. Equally shockingly, billions of dollars are being squandered on wasteful projects such as the Central Vista and a new residence for the prime minister in the capital city. Not a day goes by without a new litany of horrors that shock and despair us.

Yet, this difficult time has also revealed the best of humankind. Thousands of conscientious citizens have taken up the mantle to help perfect strangers. Many of us have been part of and witnessed these endeavours at close quarters. It is a testament to the resilience of the Indian people that despite facing years of divisive politics, they have come together as one.

Yet, far too many citizens have, and are still dying in vain. Given the near absence of leadership from the GoI, citizen driven efforts will, perforce, have to continue. However, given that according to many experts, the third wave is widely expected to be much more devastating than the second wave (partly because India’s vaccination drive has weakened and even stalled in many places, and partly because adequate preparations have not been made for it), citizen/civil society groups will need more help and support. With their considerable resources ⎯ financial, organisational and human ⎯ progressive political parties are uniquely placed to empower these noble initiatives. Therefore, in the national interest, we appeal to them to consider the following measures to deal with the crisis:

  1. There is a need to immediately reach out to, and support the efforts of these citizen/civil society groups. Since these are already acting as aggregators of requests from citizens in need, progressive parties can support them by securing help for them or connecting them to the right authorities/systems. Parties must also support and sponsor citizen/civil society initiatives, which are hamstrung because of restrictive policies regarding fundraising imposed by the GoI.
  2. Parties can use their influence to urge the union and state governments to prepare in advance for the imminent third wave. Just to cite one example, children (who may also be impacted by the third wave) will need different oxygen masks, which hospitals don’t have in adequate quantities. Parties can work with citizen groups to map demand, and try to secure their supply.
  3. If the third wave is as, or more intensive and virulent as the current one, many more temporary hospitals, ambulances, oxygen refills/cylinders/concentrators, and food will be needed. Parties must leverage their connections to stock these in advance, and work with citizen groups to disburse them as and when they are needed. The more we prepare in advance, the more lives we can save.
  4. In this context, the universal demand for stepping up a free and universal vaccination programme is critical. Every possible step to actualise this must be taken, whether it is increasing production through public and private initiatives, providing adequate funds, importing vaccines, seeking aid and so on.
  5. An all out effort to revamp the public health infrastructure which has tragically been allowed to decay in most parts of the country is also the immediate need.
  6. A cap on medicine prices, and private sector hospital charges is necessary. State governments can take the lead in resolving this issue.
  7. At this crucial juncture, a safety net must be provided to all, without which many are permanently slipping back into poverty and destitution.
  8. Consultative groups with experts from various sectors can be institutionalised, so they can help all parties and state governments plan for the third wave. Expert advice can also help you to hold all governments accountable on specific issues/lacunae, and to urge them to perform their duties more effectively.

While we would have ideally liked the government of India to take the lead in forming a National Task Force that could have implemented the suggestions outlined here, the experience of the past few years have proved that it is very unlikely to do so. The bitter reality is that, like during the freedom struggle, Indians today face an uncaring and extractive government. Consequently, the full might of the system will continue to be misused to obfuscate the truth, and hide the government’s failures in implementing any welfare measures. In this situation, it is our collective duty to not just continue to hold the government accountable in Parliament and in the media (electronic, print, digital and social), but also step up constructive action that can tangibly help the people.

In this extraordinary situation, it is incumbent on all progressive political parties to work together, and with those conscientious Indians who are helping their fellow citizens. India is thirsty for a compassionate, consensual and cooperative leadership that truly works towards furthering peoples’ needs and aspirations. We hope you will rise up to the occasion, for history will judge all of us for what we do next. In this, we are all with you, and will try to marshal all the forces and support we can muster for the above mentioned initiatives.