New India needs a new slogan: ‘Hospital wahin banayenge’

Dear precious departed ones,

You are gone. Nothing will bring you back. We will put up photos on walls. Memories will flood in. How can we best pay tribute to you?

As the monster second wave of coronavirus continues to ravage India, so many ‘what ifs’ haunt us. What if we had as many countless quality hospitals and Primary Health Centres (PHCs) as we have statues and religious shrines? There are innumerable Ambedkar statues across Uttar Pradesh. A majestic Shivaji statue is planned in Maharashtra. The Ram Janmabhoomi Trust plans to complete the first floor of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir by 2022 coinciding with Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. The completion of the mandir itself is planned for 2024, the year of India’s general elections.

UP, site of a grand mandir, has one of the worst healthcare systems in India. There’s a 23% shortfall of doctors in PHCs in rural areas. Against the sanctioned strength of 3,578, there are 2,759 doctors. The state has among the lowest doctor-patient ratios in the country. Ayodhya itself, like so many other places, is struggling with severe oxygen shortages.

Almost every street corner in India has a shrine. We’ve built mandirs, masjids, memorials and monuments everywhere. Imagine if all these ceremonial buildings adjoined a well-maintained hospital? Imagine if it was mandatory for a religious place to be accompanied by a public health facility? Historically, India’s budgetary allocations to healthcare have been pathetic, hovering at a little over 1% of GDP when it should be far more. Though this rose in 2020-21, it is still among the lowest in the world. But now, let’s pay tribute to lost loved ones by fundamentally reshaping our priorities. We must change. The colossal tide of bereavements demands it.


RESHAPING PRIORITIES: India needs quality hospitals and greater focus on healthcare

Voters are already sending out an unequivocal message. In Bengal, religious polarisation did not work, the incumbent TMC got an overwhelming thumbs up for its many welfare programmes. In Kerala, the emotive issue of Sabarimala temple entry did not resonate, voters opted in vast numbers for the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s strong focus on Covid relief, food kits and pension schemes. Covid fighter, Health minister Shailaja ‘Teacher’ won by the largest margin ever in Kerala assembly polls. In Assam, visceral identity issues on CAA were set aside, voters plumped for a government marked by Covid responsiveness and performance on the development matrix. Far removed from polarised debates on TV, voters opted not for religion or emotion, but for the real needs of life and livelihood.

In fact, politicians are several steps behind citizens. Netas keep up chants of religion, community and caste. But voters keep communicating that they want convincing and visible signs of daily development and modern responsive leadership. From the 1990s onwards, India has been hostage to identity politics. Caste and religious mobilisation, or “mandir” and “mandal” were twin political engines. Identity politics has today yielded place to beneficiary politics, where every party promises last-mile delivery. BJP practises ‘labharti’ (beneficiary) oriented politics, offering Ujjwala gas or the Ayushman Bharat scheme, Mamata Banerjee aims to deliver schemes like Kanyashree and Rupashree.

Voters are now signaling ‘yeh dil maange more’ by conferring repeated mandates on delivery-oriented governments. After identity politics and beneficiary politics, it’s now time for the political class to embrace the politics of human development. Not just freebies and sops but a sustained focus on health and education as centerpieces of governance. Gujarat is touted as a “model” state, but in April last year, it’s Covid fatality rate at 7.88% was higher than India’s overall fatality rate of 2.87%. Delhi will soon get a grand Central Vista but people cannot find hospital beds.

So let’s now pledge ourselves to a crucial reset in politics. Let us accept that so-called ‘New India’ cannot be built on old slogans of mandir or mandal or grand monuments commissioned by politicians. It needs a new slogan. An Ayushman Bharat universal medical insurance scheme and plans for new AIIMS are good steps but clearly not enough. In villages, the burdens of care still often rest solely on underpaid, overworked Asha workers. In cities, government hospitals are over-stretched and private hospitals are not inclusive enough. The entire ecosystem around health needs to change, and it must become the topmost ministry. At this moment of inflexion, let us bid farewell to the politics of mandir, masjid, jaati, dharm, and pledge ourselves anew to a hospital for every religious shrine. In the next election, citizens must force politicians to promise: ‘Hospital wahin banayenge.’



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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