Opinion |

Modi Is Guilty of Mass Negligent Manslaughter in India

Responsibility for India's 200,000 COVID deaths (and rising) rests with Prime Minster Modi and his arrogant, hypocritical, incompetent government, which even now prioritizes subduing legitimate criticism over saving lives

Shrenik Rao
Shrenik Rao
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A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter holds a mask showing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he addresses a campaign rally in West Bengal this month
A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter holds a mask showing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he addresses a mass campaign rally, despite COVID, in West Bengal this monthCredit: DIPTENDU DUTTA - AFP
Shrenik Rao
Shrenik Rao

Negligent manslaughter.

That’s the only way to describe the Modi government’s abominable, grotesque mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. India has passed the grim milestone of 200,000 dead. Every day, more than 350,000 Indians are added to the 18 million COVID cases already recorded.

Every four minutes someone dies of COVID in the nation’s capital, Delhi with infection rates spiking among younger people. Hospitals are overflowing: often, two COVID patients share a bed.

Beset by oxygen shortages, hospitals are sending SOS tweets begging the government for supplies. There’s looting of oxygen canisters from hospitals at gunpoint. Haryana’s Health Minister accused the Delhi government of stealing his state’s oxygen tankers. State governments have deployed armed police at oxygen production plants.

The Delhi High Court expressed its "shock and dismay" that the central government doesn’t recognize the "extremely urgent need of medical oxygen," directing it to ensure "safe passage" of oxygen supplies and warning all "hell will break loose" if its supply is interrupted.

The sick are waiting outside hospitals, gasping for air, lying on the ground, on stretchers, in ambulances, waiting to be admitted. Many are dying, waiting.

Relatives in personal protective equipment watch the cremation of family members who died of COVID-19 at Nigambodh Ghat Crematorium in New Delhi this monthCredit: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp overflow with distress calls, people pleading for oxygen, plasma, Remdesivir and hospital beds. Even the well-connected struggle to find their relatives hospital beds. The Union Minister, VK Singh, tweeted a plea: "Please help us, my brother needs a bed." But as the tweet went viral, he deleted it.

Deaths are doubling every seven days, and the true toll is being undercounted. Bodies are piling up in mortuaries, crematoriums and graveyards faster than they can be burned or buried. Delhi’s largest cremation facility, Nigambodh Ghat, ran out of space, despite doubling its capacity to 100 simultaneous pyres. Bodies are being burnt in makeshift crematoriums, on pavements.

A black market is thriving in the proverbial "pharmacy of the world," with COVID-related medicines being sold at almost 200 times the maximum permitted retail price. There is a severe shortage of testing kits.

And there are not enough vaccines. "Vaccines Out Of Stock" posters are plastered outside hospitals across the country. The Tika Utsav, a four-day COVID vaccine campaign, failed due to shortages. In the country that supplies UNICEF with 60 percent of its vaccines, fewer than ten percent of the population have received even one COVID vaccine dose, and just 1.6 percent are fully vaccinated.

This appalling litany constitutes negligent manslaughter: the denial of the right to life to hundreds of thousands, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of India under Article 21, which specifically includes the right to health and medical aid.

But how did it get to this stage?

This humanitarian crisis is a direct result of the government’s hubris, complacency, lack of preparation and the criminal neglect of its constitutional duties. Added to the mix are a hyper-nationalistic populism and bureaucratic arrogance.

When he addressed the World Economic Forum this January, Prime Minister Modi claimed that India was one of the select few countries to have saved so many of its citizens’ lives, thanks to his administration’s efforts "strengthening COVID-specific health infrastructure," training, testing and tracing.

Self-congratulatory and boastful, he declared that the self-reliant India, now out of danger, was helping other countries their fight coronavirus.

It was blatant distortion of the truth. Nonetheless, it was a seductive narrative.

A week later his party, the Bharatiya Janata or BJP, passed a resolution which now sounds delusional: "It can be said with pride, India… defeated COVID-19 under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi…The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID."

Modi, his subservient ministers and genuflecting bureaucrats, believed their own lies. Soon after, part of India’s pliant, craven media prematurely declared victory against the pandemic. Then the propaganda effort really kicked in.

Modi’s party men brazenly spread misinformation, rumors and straightforward lies. The BJP president claimed that Modi had saved the lives of all 1.3 billion Indians already. The state of Assam’s health minister, a BJP leading light, announced, "There is no COVID in Assam, there is no need to wear mask." In West Bengal, the BJP chief advocated drinking cow urine as a COVID cure.

Many ordinary Indians bought into the story. With a dip in the number of cases, some even argued that the "Indian gene" has a "special resistance," and joked that India should offer "immunity tourism" packages for foreigners with "weak immunity and weak genes."

But in mid-February, Tabassum Barnagarwala, a journalist with the Indian Express, warned that genome sequencing of random COVID samples had found a new mutation that could cause increased transmission.

As India's infection rate started to climb in March, India’s health minister declared that India was in the 'end game' of the pandemicCredit: Twitter

By March, as the infection rate started to climb, India’s health minister declared that India was in the "end game" of the pandemic.

By the beginning of April, the number of infections had risen exponentially. Modi knew danger lurked at the door.

On April 4, 2021, he chaired a high-level committee to review the situation. He ascribed the sharp rise in cases to the severe decline in compliance of COVID-appropriate behavior" and highlighted the need for "100 percent mask usage, personal hygiene and sanitation at public places" and maintaining "2 Gaj ki Doori," or social distancing of two feet between people.

A few days after the meeting, the government greenlighted cricket matches in large stadiums with tens of thousands of undistanced spectators. The government okayed the Kumbh Mela, a weeks-long Hindu religious congregation, where over a million people a day jostled cheek-to-cheek. Many in Modi’s party, defending the decision, declared faith supersedes coronavirus, or even negates it.

"Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona," said Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. Needless to say, the celebration turned into a superspreader event.

The Election Commission gave the go ahead to four state elections. Consequently, all political parties, ignoring warnings from serosurveys and intelligence reports, plunged headfirst into massive campaign rallies.

Supporters wave towards a helicopter bringing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a campaign rally in Kawakhali, West Bengal earlier this month.Credit: DIPTENDU DUTTA - AFP

By then, India was reporting over 200,000 coronavirus cases each day for three consecutive days. And Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were busy campaigning in West Bengal.

Modi did not ask the hundreds of thousands who attended his rallies to wear masks, follow social distancing rules or the other COVID protocols he had endorsed so passionately, so rhetorically, days earlier.

At one rally, he described how "elated" he was to "see such large crowds." "I can only see more and more people…You have done wonders," he said.

The rallies also emerged as superspreader events. The Madras High Court slammed the Election Commission, a constitutional authority under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Law and Justice, saying its officers "should be booked on murder charges."

Meanwhile, India’s public health situation was descending into chaos. In Modi’s own constituency, Varanasi, 41 out of 66 COVID vaccination sites were shut as vaccine stocks ran out; hospitals refused to test people; helpline numbers stopped working and it’s estimated that over half of COVID-related deaths were not recorded as such.

As the death toll rose, Modi resisted the escalating calls for lockdowns, saying "a lockdown should be the last resort." Days later, most of India’s biggest cities announced lockdowns in an attempt to stem the loss of life.

In every direction, the criminal negligence of the Modi government is apparent. The culprits: incompetence, poor planning, arrogance, the attractions of short-term economic gain and, most egregiously, the insatiable appetite of Brand Modi. That negligence was ably supported by the demonization of criticism of the government as unpatriotic and subversive.

Last year, a parliamentary committee report flagged concerns over the country’s oxygen inventory. But amid the pandemic, India exported over 9,000 metric tonnes of oxygen, a staggering increase of 734 percent in January 2021, according to the government’s own figures.

Police personnel prepare to escort a truck carrying liquid oxygen in Amritsar, India this month.Credit: NARINDER NANU - AFP

Now, India, one of the world’s largest producers of medical oxygen, is being forced to import 50,000 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen through global tender and using special air force flights.

Last year, India exported more than 66 million COVID vaccine doses to 95 countries under the "Vaccine Maitri" or friendship program. They were tools to promote Modi’s image as a "Global Vaccine Leader" and a "Vishwa Guru," or global leader. Wildly popular cricket players and celebrities contributed testimonies to his "visionary humanitarianism."

Amidst the current shortage of vaccines, the External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was asked whether this export splurge had been a flawed decision. He reacted sharply, accusing a few "irresponsible people" who questioned the wisdom of the move.

Indians gather outside the entrance gate of a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mumbai this month.Credit: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE - AFP

Despite the smoke from thousands of funeral pyres, Modi’s followers are still desperately trying to present the current situation as an example of positive Indian exceptionalism. And they accuse anyone critical of the government of "spreading negativity."

In their eyes, India is doing well, but is also on a war footing. The news is good, so bad news is unpatriotic and undermines morale.

Even as the country is gasping for breath, Modi is intent on stifling those who criticize him. The government directed Twitter to suspend the accounts of 52 individuals who had made critical comments about Modi’s handling of the pandemic. Twitter, notwithstanding all its grandstanding on democracy and freedom of speech, complied.

Hindutva’s poster boy and Modi confidante Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, declared that that there was no shortage of oxygen in any hospital. He called for the use of the National Security Act to seize the property of individuals who try to "spoil the atmosphere."

Modi’s ministers have excelled in their gracelessness and contemptuousness towards the people they are sworn to serve. Approached by a supplicant citizen, begging for oxygen, a Union minister threatened to slap him. The Chief Minister of Haryana, another BJP ruled state, said there was no point trying to acquire more accurate COVID fatality statistics or discuss the death toll as the dead won’t be coming back.

Despite the awful charge sheet, the government can still count on its loyal spinmeisters in India’s media and intelligentsia. Modi’s loyalists frame anyone daring to point out the murderous mishandling of the pandemic as "vultures" conspiring to defame India on the world stage and as Hinduphobic, self-hating Indians.

Regardless of the puffery, denial and intimidation, the writing is on the wall. India’s COVID crisis is the direct result of misgovernance. It will go down in the annals of history as a case study of how to fail, disastrously, in handling a pandemic and how to cause mass death by comprehensive negligence.

In times of crisis, leadership is destiny; good governance is the only path to save a country from descending into uncontrolled disaster.

Before stepping down from office, the then-Prime Minister of India (and now coronavirus patient himself), Dr Manmohan Singh, made a prophetic statement: "I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as prime minister."

Sadly, that prophecy has come true. The second COVID wave, the world’s worst outbreak, is – barring partition – India’s worst humanitarian crisis since independence.

But Modi, lacking any moral compass, continues to tighten his grip on the country, trashing his critics, governing without any explanation, accountability or contrition, riding the politics of death.

Relatives performing the last rites of family members who died of COVID-19 at a mass cremation site in Allahabad, India this month.Credit: SANJAY KANOJIA - AFP

Shrenik Rao is the editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier, a 234 year-old title revived as an award-winning digital publication. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rao writes about foreign policy issues. Twitter: @ShrenikRao

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