Why India's Covid battle is making the rich-poor gap starker

Obviously, when the gap between availability and requirement of facilities is so huge, there would be a tendency among the rich to buy them at any cost, whereas others like politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, judges, journalists, etc are going to ‘buy’ the same facilities by peddling their influence

Vinod Aggarwal May 10, 2021

Last week an interesting but short-lived controversy suddenly erupted in Indian media—and died down equally suddenly. The controversy was ‘are all citizens equal in the eyes of a government’? In other words, is the government bound to treat everyone ‘equally’ while distributing the scarce resources? The controversy erupted as the Article 14 of India’s Constitution gives all citizens ‘Right to Equality before the law’ and ‘Equal protection of the laws to all persons’ – a term which includes non-citizens as well. The unsavory controversy arose in the context of fair distribution of essential life-saving medical facilities like hospital beds, medicines, oxygen, etc, of which there is a deficiency due to the raging Covid pandemic all over the country

The immediate provocation was a letter/order issued by an official of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s government ‘ordering’ the central government-owned 5-starAshoka Hotel to reserve 100 rooms for use of 'Honorable justices, high court staff and their families’ as a Covid care facility whenever the need arose to hospitalize anyone of them for treatment or isolation. 

The hotel was ‘ordered’ to also provide food and other facilities and a nearby large private health facility -- Primus Hospital -- was given the responsibility to assist with doctors, staff, ambulance, medicines, oxygen, etc. Obviously, the Delhi government would have paid for all these facilities.

This letter dated April 25 was issued by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Chanakyapuri – in whose jurisdiction both Ashoka Hotel and Primus Hospital are located. It should be noted that in India, District Magistrates (DMs), SDMs, etc. are executive officers of the state government and they don’t belong to the judiciary as the designation ‘Magistrate’ may wrongly indicate. They report to the government (and not to High Court), are responsible for day-to-day administration and law and order in their area, and also supervise the police.

Obviously, the public leak of the letter showed High Court judges in a bad light at a time hundreds of Delhiites were dying daily due to the non-availability of hospital beds, oxygen, medicines, ambulances, etc. It showed when on the judicial side, the High Court itself had admonished and given sermons to the state and the central governments day after day on how to manage the pandemic, on the administrative side, the same court  was apparently seeking special favors for itself, its staff and their families.

As the issue raised a mini storm, the High Court administration claimed that no request or suggestion had been made to the Delhi government to book so many rooms in a 5-star hotel. The court administration, however, said after the death of two Delhi judicial officers due to Covid, they were obviously concerned about the well being of all officers, court staff and their families, and a meeting had indeed taken place a few days earlier.

On Tuesday, April 27, one Hindi TV channel leaked the letter of the SDM and organized a chat show on this topic. The panelists included a retired Judge of Delhi High Court, S.N. Dhingra. When the anchor asked him about Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, Dhingra made a telling comment. He said the so-called right to Equality (under Article 14) was “the biggest lie".

According to him, the reality was better conveyed by saying “You show me the man and I will show you the law”. In other words, despite whatever is stated in Constitution, there was in reality no equality for citizens.

Though it is a fact that some ministers, MLAs, MPs, government officers, judges, etc have succumbed to the dreaded virus, the harsh question asked in the same show was how many of them died because of the non-availability of hospital care, ambulances, medicines, oxygen, etc. The fact is that their lives could not be saved despite making available to them all these facilities, whereas thousands are dying in different parts of the country awaiting these resources.

 It may not be out of place to mention here that at that time Delhi government was under a lot of fire from the Delhi High Court for Covid 'mismanagement'. But Delhi government was not alone in facing such a situation.

Several other state governments and even the central government have faced the wrath of High Courts and even the Supreme Court after the pandemic started. Apparently, somebody or a section in the Delhi government may have thought of this arrangement to appease the Court and buy peace. But little did they know the issue would come into the public domain and generate controversy!

Feasibility of Right to Equality now 

Another pertinent question here is whether it is right or proper to invoke Article 14 – an inviolable fundamental right given in the Constitution - in the present situation. After the pandemic began last year, millions of people have died all over the world. There is all around a shortage of medicines, hospital beds, etc. even in advanced countries like United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, which have very small populations compared to India and much more advanced medical facilities and infrastructure. 

India is comparatively much poorer. We lack hospital beds, medicines, etc. Obviously, India is going to take much longer to overcome this pandemic. It is next to impossible to arrange hospital beds and proper treatment for everybody, as one would have expected in a normal situation.

Obviously, when the gap between availability and requirement of facilities is so huge, there would be a tendency among the rich to buy them at any cost, whereas others like politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, judges, journalists, etc are going to ‘buy’ the same facilities by peddling their influence. This is the harsh reality,

 Again, it wouldn’t be logical to say if in normal times or even whole of last year of the pandemic, the requirement of medical oxygen was quantity X per day in different parts of the country, the entire supply chain from production, storage, transportation, etc should have been made for quantity 10X. The same is the story about all other inputs required for winning the war on Covid like hospitals, beds, doctors, nurses, testing facilities, PPEs (personal protective equipment), etc. 

All these things cannot be made available overnight. That’s why for India, the winning post in the battle against Covid is still far away

(The writer is an entrepreneur and a former legal correspondent. The views are personal. He can be contacted at vinod.aggarwal@uniliftcargo.com)

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