Now that India turns 75, there is little to celebrate


Today marks 75 years since India gained independence from British rule.

The run-up to this occasion was marked by great pomp and circumstance. The Government of India launched the “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” initiative on March 12, 2021, marking a 75-week countdown to the 75th Independence Day. The initiative aims to commemorate the struggle for independence, celebrate ideas, actions and achievements that have shaped the nation, and strengthen the country’s commitment to goals and objectives that will take India to greater heights on its journey to 2047, when it reaches 100. is becoming.

However, a closer look at India’s “report map” reveals that it is faltering on several fronts. As is often the case, the Modi government has once again conducted a successful marketing campaign that has struck a chord with many citizens. But there is very little to celebrate about India at age 75.

An economy in crisis

The Indian economy is in crisis long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the global economy. Indeed, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown, India’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth was the lowest since 1975-76. Exports and investments also showed a downward trend.

As was the case around the world, the Indian economy experienced a sharp downturn during the pandemic. GDP growth fell by 23.9 percent and in 2020-21 GDP shrank by 7.3 percent. The effect of this downturn was felt most strongly by the poorest in the country. In 2021, a Pew Research Center study showed that the number of people in India living on $2 or less a day has increased by 75 million as a result of the recession during the pandemic. This increase accounted for 60 percent of the “global increase in poverty”. The survey also found that the size of the Indian middle class shrank by 32 million in 2020. This also accounted for 60 percent of the “global withdrawal” from the middle class.

Currently, the Indian economy appears to be on the mend somewhat. Nevertheless, the current spike in global energy and food prices resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a significant effect on the economic recovery after the pandemic. Food and drink inflation has eaten up the already tight household budgets of the poor and middle class. In June 2022, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, up 0.7 percent from May. Unemployment was 43.7 percent in the 20-24 age group. The Indian rupee is also losing value against the dollar and this will adversely affect import-heavy sectors.

Wrong policy making

National policy making has not been proof of good governance either. This was all the more evident during the pandemic. Although India was classified as a country at “high risk” of a devastating COVID-19 outbreak shortly after the virus was first identified in China, the government has been slow to take preventive action. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global public health emergency on January 30, 2020. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first statement about the pandemic, in the form of a tweet, did not come until March 3. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched its COVID-19 awareness campaign on March 6. Until then, the only public health advice on this matter came from the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy). And the AYUSH advice on COVID contained little more than a list of Ayurvedic and homeopathic preventive measures and remedies.

Finally, on March 24, a national lockdown was announced — with just four hours’ notice. The way the world’s largest lockdown itself was instituted was evidence of poor governance and misguided political priorities. The four-hour notice was intended to represent determined leadership in the face of a global crisis. However, with little information on whether there would be access to essential goods during the lockdown, panicked citizens ignored all social distancing guidelines and rushed to stores to stock up on essentials just before closing to to prevent transmission.

The way the lockdown was implemented also failed to take into account the effect it would have on the poor, especially informal and migrant workers who play a pivotal role in sustaining the economies of India’s major cities. When businesses closed their doors, millions of people became unemployed and had no means of transportation to return to their villages. Many ended up walking hundreds of miles home, turning the lockdown into a humanitarian crisis. The Prime Minister apologized for the effect of the lockdown on the country’s most vulnerable, saying: “When I look at my poor brothers and sisters, I definitely feel like they must be thinking, what kind of Prime Minister is this that put us in the this difficulty… I seek above all their forgiveness.” However, he added: “There was no other way to wage war against the coronavirus… It is a life and death battle and we have to win it.”

When Modi founded the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, it was no coincidence that the acronym read “PM CARES Fund.” The emergency fund was intended to help the poor. However, critics questioned the need for such a fund when $500 million in the prime minister’s much older National Relief Fund went unused. Some have argued that the fund is being used by corporate donors — who are required by law to allocate 2 percent of their net profits to corporate social responsibility (CSR) — to funnel funding earmarked for CSR activities. The Ministry of Finance has also issued an ordinance to make all donations to PM CARES tax-free. The government has been reluctant to release any information about how the funds will be spent and many have speculated that the fund was a way for corporate donors to gain favor with the prime minister.

The second wave of the pandemic devastated India in March 2021. However, the tragic outcome was not entirely unexpected. Access to reliable and affordable healthcare is scarce in India. The public health care system is weak and lacks the resources to deal with a global pandemic. The largely unregulated private healthcare providers are also unreliable and expensive. Private and public hospitals very quickly ran out of beds due to the wave of infections. Without a national oxygen coordination system, oxygen producers were also unable to meet the needs of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, if the government had taken the threat seriously and followed sensible policies, India could still have mitigated the impact of the second wave on its population. In an effort to boost his image, and against the advice of experts, Modi had already declared victory over the pandemic in January of that year. The vaccination campaign has also been slow as the government has failed to obtain sufficient doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for domestic use – despite India being the largest producer of vaccines and generics. Not long before the start of the second wave, Modi approved a major religious festival in the ancient city of Haridwar in the state of Uttarakhand. The Kumbh Mela went ahead without taking any social distancing precautions and is now regarded as the world’s largest super spreader event. The spate of infections in March and April can also be attributed to the Modi government’s decision to allow parliamentary elections at the height of the pandemic, despite extensive warnings that they would accelerate the handover.

Islamophobia as public order

On its 75th birthday, democracy also seems to be on the decline in India. The human rights of minority groups are under constant attack and Islamophobia has become a public policy in the country. Lynchings, Islamophobic disinformation campaigns and cultural harassment are indeed an everyday facet of Indian Muslims’ lives.

In 2019, for example, the Parliament of India passed the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). CAA granted quick access to Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, undermining “constitutional equality” by introducing religion as a citizenship qualification. The government brutally suppressed protests against the law, labeling them “anti-national”. Anti-CAA activists were arrested and denied bail using India’s draconian anti-terror law.

Also in 2019, the BJP government revoked the special status of the Muslim majority in Kashmir in the Indian constitution. Not only did the move fulfill the long-standing Hindu nationalist promise to ensure that Indian-administered Kashmir is (at least constitutionally) an integral part of territorial India, it also created a new avenue for state Hinduism. In addition, in order to curb protests against the withdrawal of its special status and autonomy, the government introduced a communications breakdown and shut down cable television, internet and telephone lines throughout the territory for several months.

Silence the opposition

In addition to its efforts to intimidate and subjugate Indian Muslims, the government is also engaged in a wider campaign to silence all dissenting voices. For example, in 2021 it was revealed that the Israeli spyware Pegasus was used to monitor politicians, journalists and opposition activists in India.

Modi and his government have also led the fight against human rights groups. In 2020, Amnesty International had to shut down its operations in India after its bank accounts were frozen and office buildings were robbed. While the government maintained that Amnesty had violated the rules for receiving donations from abroad, the NGO itself interpreted it – like most of the international community – as a response to its criticism of the human rights situation in India.

The government has also prevented several activists and journalists critical of its policies from traveling abroad in recent years. Many government critics have also been spied on, arrested on terrorism charges and subsequently detained without trial. Police have been accused of posting incriminating evidence to activists’ computers and arresting them on false charges.

As a result of all this, India has fallen eight places compared to 2019 and is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index. It also scored just 66 out of 100 in this year’s Freedom House Democracy Index and has been placed in the “partially free” category.

Admittedly, as this “report card” shows, there isn’t much to celebrate for India on its 75th birthday. If the country is to have something real to celebrate on its next milestone anniversary in 2047, it must begin to recognize its many shortcomings and work towards building a more free, equal and democratic society and state.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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