Covid-19 has brought many public health issues to the table which certainly is positive learning from the pandemic. This is a wake-up call to take cognizance of our inadequacies in the health infrastructure and delivery mechanisms, the lack of community awareness and the absence of linkages between health, education and poverty levels. We have risen to the occasion and the country has seen large-scale indigenous manufacturing of ventilators, PPEs and other protective equipment to weather this storm. WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) is being seen as the panacea to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. This can be considered a watershed moment for public health in India. However, what has somehow not been at the heart of this discussion is the menstrual health of women in India. To date, there is no evidence of any direct impact of Covid-19 on the menstrual cycle, though it has been suggested that stress, anxiety and lack of proper nutrition can impact reproductive health.
As per UNICEF, an estimated 1.8 billion girls, women and gender non-binary persons in the world menstruate. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 estimates the number of menstruating women in India to be about 336 million. Out of this, about 121 million (roughly 42 percent) women use sanitary napkins or other menstrual hygiene products. This means that even in normal times, women are deprived of good menstrual hygiene owing to cultural taboos, poverty, lack of awareness and inaccessibility of menstrual health products. These statistics can only worsen in crises like Covid-19. At Samarpann, when we started distributing ration and cooked meals to migrant workers and underprivileged people across India, we realised that a major issue women were grappling with was menstrual hygiene management. Due to the lockdown, the families had lost their sources of income from daily wages and the paltry savings which they had were utilised to purchase food and other things which ranked higher in priority than menstrual hygiene products. In the initial days, there was also the problem of the unavailability of menstrual products in the market because of depleting stocks fuelled by panic buying. The Karnataka and Telangana governments were among the first to include sanitary napkins on the list of essential goods.
Slums in Mumbai like Dharavi, with a population density of 2,77,136 people/ sq km, and others like Worli Kolivada, Deonar, etc, have shared water supply, toilets, bathing facilities and laundry sites and improper sewerage systems. In such a scenario, these high-density and poorly ventilated informal settlements not only pose the highest risk of the spread of the infection, it also makes it very difficult to maintain good menstrual hygiene.
At a time when all of us are indebted to doctors and healthcare workers for their selfless service, we must also be aware of the menstrual needs of women medical and healthcare workers. As per the UN, 70 percent of healthcare workers in the world are women. Apart from the tasks of delivering healthcare, these women face additional challenges in managing their menstrual hygiene in these tough times. The issue came up with news from China, where healthcare workers faced immense difficulties in putting on and removing PPEs for changing sanitary pads, leading them to bleed into the protective suits. This would only worsen in the scenario of hospitals having an inadequate number of PPEs. The media also reported how many healthcare workers had suppressed their menstrual cycles using oral contraceptive pills.
This is the time when specialists all over the world are pondering seriously on public health issues and our preparedness to face any crisis. It is imperative that such a critical component of public health, that is menstrual health, should necessarily be included in the policy-making and be addressed in all the solutions to be implemented on the ground.
Currently, there is an overwhelming need to provide WASH facilities in slums and other deficient areas as well as ensuring regular water supply and separate WASH facilities for girls and women. While reaching out to underprivileged families, the inclusion of menstrual products should be ensured while distributing food and other items.
The administration should also ensure the availability of menstrual hygiene products in hospitals and quarantine centres for healthcare workers and patients along with enough PPEs for the doctors and staff. WASH facilities should be female-friendly and disabled-friendly, along with provisions for the safe disposal of menstrual waste. The schedule of healthcare workers should also be designed in a way that they have adequate breaks and remain hydrated during their working hours.
In times of scarcity, it is important to encourage several women self-help groups which are manufacturing low-cost sanitary napkins. There is also a need to encourage innovation in the menstrual hygiene space, with several start-ups already coming forward with ideas for reusable sanitary napkins which are cost-effective and environment-friendly. Samarpann has taken one such endeavour of supporting an SHG of 11 women in Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh, where we have undertaken the capacity augmentation of a reusable sanitary pad manufacturing unit. We are also buying back these pads and, in the first phase, distributing them to 500 women in remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh on the VHNDs (Village Health and Nutrition Days). Through this initiative, we are ensuring the livelihood of women in the aftermath of the lockdown and, at the same time, increasing the accessibility to environment-friendly menstrual hygiene products which will take care of their menstrual needs for a year. The reusable sanitary pads will also prevent plastic pollution by keeping close to 36,000 sanitary pads from entering landfills, thus, mitigating environmental and health risks.
This crisis can be turned into an opportunity where we bring neglected areas into the mainstream of the public health realm. We need to develop gender-sensitive policies and strategies and ensure the effective implementation of the same at the ground level. The response should also factor in the diversity of women in different communities which may have different education and awareness levels. When the world grapples with one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, our resolve must be that such a crisis should not deepen the already existing gender inequities.
Dr Ruma Bhargava is the founder of Samarpann. Dr Megha Bhargava is Deputy Commissioner, Income Tax, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.
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‘People are more aware of the quality of products after Covid’: Ashish Khandelwal
Ashish Khandelwal joined NewsX for an exclusive conversation this week for its special segment NewsX India A-List. Speaking about the company, Mr. Ashish spoke about how the company was formed in 1999 and was made by his forefathers. Having been the business for the past 75 years, Bl Agro Industries Limited has created a niche for itself.
When asked about the reason behind the entry into kitchen ready products, he said, “Basically for diversification, we started it. We are doing distribution and all the customers and retailers ask for quality products. So we decided why not move forward with diversification and move into food products.”
Talking about the response gained for the product, he said, “Just after the launch, Covid-19 started. It started in January, 2020. The journey has not been very long. We faced lockdown. Moving forward, we will hit our targets.” After Covid hit, kitchen ready products became one of the most searched productions and most of the people started exploring various option. Talking about this, he said,“We got a good push in delivery because of this. Otherwise, a new product introduction during lockdown would have been tough.”
When asked about the existing market and new markets in India, he said, “Right now, we are in northern parts like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttaranchal, Bihar, etc. and we are permanent here. In a couple of months, we are moving to the South.” Stressing on the company’s new marketing strategy, he added, “We are always after distribution. We try to maintain relations with distributors. So, companies provide all sales staff and everything. The sales staff gathers all the market reports and demands and then we work on it. The more prominent and convenient strategy is retailing nowadays because nobody is moving out and going to market and all. Today, Covid problem is for retailers to move out. So we are trying to maintain our market. We recently started our online portal. Soon it will be fully functional.”
Most people are used to bigger platforms like Amazon but small companies have also curated their apps, which shows whatever product available. Bl Agro Industries Limited has the same plan. He says, “Definitely, we are launching an app. We will be available side-by-side with the sites and all. From the first of July, we are trying to fulfil the desire of the customers.”
“We are thinking about expansion typically in pulses, flowers and all. In India, it has not been innovated. There are not many innovations and all. So we have tried to introduce some machines and all. Right now, we are grinding it with the stone mill which was modernized and from Austria. We have started vacuum packaging of pulses and food items. Nobody in India does vacuum packs for pulses. Similarly, we try to procure more specific machines and all and try to give more flavours and more specific aromas and the best quality we can provide,” he added.
Ashish expressed, “After Covid, people are more aware of the quality of products. They are more concerned about the quality. So we are trying to produce good and better things today. We don’t have such competitions and we are focusing on Indian pulses.” When asked about organic chains, he said, “Right now, we are not planning for organic because organic has lost its quality as every brand is producing organic products. Specifically, we don’t have any tests for organic. That is the problem when we say organic, it needs a specific amount of time. It takes 7 years for an organic crop to come and is financially not feasible.”
Education is the third eye of a child: Prof (Dr.) Achyuta Samanta
NewsX recently interacted with KIIT and KISS founder Prof (Dr.) Achyuta Samanta as part of its special series NewsX India A-List, wherein he talks about his journey as an entrepreneur and social worker. Speaking about the initial stages of start-up, Prof Achyuta said, “Now the word start-up is very much familiar with everybody. It is very popular. And all the young masses are generally starting something in the name and style of a start-up. But practically when we started, there was no word like a start-up. But I am very much happy that we have started from scratch. With Rs. 5000 in my pocket in those days, in a two-rented house, in two organisations. Both organisations have come up like anything and earned World appreciation.”
He added “The Kalinga Institute of Technology (KIIT) is one of the most promising universities in the World. In the league of eminence, recognised by the government of India along with nine other universities, with 30,000 students present in the campus from Pan India and from the 65 countries, with one lakh alumni students from the KIIT University. Besides spreading over 25000 square kilometres of the area with 1.5 crores square foot built up in 25 campuses. This university’s aim is humanity and compassion. At the same time, I started the Kalinga Institute of Social Science(KISS). Now it is home for poor tribal children.”
When asked about reason or the idea behind starting it, Prof Achyuta said, “Idea is very simple. Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. As Achyuta Samanta was born and brought up in those days amid severe poverty. Achyuta Samanta was so poor after losing his father at the age of four with other six brothers and sisters and mother. Achyuta Samanta himself was not getting even one square meal or two pieces of roti in one day. So that type of poverty, hunger Achyuta Samanta was experiencing from the age of four. I had this experience on how poverty and hunger kill everything. I used to say education is the third eye of a child. Education is the tool of everything. If one is educated or given education, all the problems will be taken care of. Achyuta Samanta himself is the best example before the World. Unless and until I am educated a little bit, I will not have been the instrument to give this smiling face to millions of children. This is the reason I started the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. It is also the first-ever tribal university in the entire world and it is fully residential.”
Talking about his village, he said, “As a social worker and entrepreneur I work for the people. I developed my native village into a smart village giving all city amenities in that village. Also, the entire Panchayath is known as the model panchayat and that village is a smart village. Everything is available there.” He added, “If someone wants to manage things he or she can do it. I have been working 17-18 hours per day for the last 29 years without taking single daybreak. “
Talking about the work he does for women empowerment, he said, “I know from my childhood, the more we respect women, the more prosperity we get. From my childhood, I’ve been respecting women. Women are the real source of inspiration. In the last 20 years, countries are prospering because women are on par with men. There is one scheme- the Kalinga Fellowship for empowering women.”
Emphasising his organisation’s efforts towards Covid relief, he said, “It is such a challenging time for everybody and we have been with people during every calamity. During the pandemic, I’ve been happy to help people. We have been running four Covid hospitals. We have been dropping 10 kg of dry food at the doorstep of every child for the last 15 months. We have announced if any faculty dies, children will be given free education. In the meantime I’ve been taking care of 100 orphans and once the pandemic ends they will be given good education till they are adults. These are some of the good things that we are doing.”
GLAD THAT I LISTENED TO MY INSTINCTS: TANUJ VIRWANI
Tanuj Virwani, who has won a lot of accolades for his role in ‘The Tattoo Murders’, recently joined NewsX for an exclusive interview as part of NewsX India A-List and opened up about his current projects and how the pandemic has been affecting him.
Tanuj Virwani is an actor and model, who has won a lot of accolades for his role in ‘The Tattoo Murders’ on Disney+Hotstar, and yet again he packed with a powerful role as ACP Aditya in ‘Murder Meri Jaan’ streaming on Disney + Hotstar alongside Barkha Singh. Along with being an actor he has shown a keen interest in direction and writing and has made several socially relevant short films. Tanuj recently joined NewsX for an exclusive interview as part of NewsX India A-List and talked about how his current projects and roles in it and how the pandemic has been affecting him.
When asked about what convinced the director and also him to do the role in his recent film ‘Tattoo Murders’, Tanuj shared with us, “If you propose that question in front of our director Shravan sir maybe he will ask what convinced Tanuj to do the role. It was sort of a perfect role because I think I was also itching to do something different. Since I have started getting work, I have been offered an array of roles such as after ‘Inside Edge’ I have been offered interesting projects. It was more urban in the treatment of how those characters lived, and I specifically felt that with the character of Prabhat Pratap on ‘Tattoo Murders’, it offered me the chance to do something drastically different and I like to experiment.”
“On this particular project, I did not have the sort of pressure to carry a shoot but I was okay to try something different because sometimes you will pass with flying colours and audience will embrace it or sometimes just mixed reactions. But if you don’t try, if you don’t take that first step into the water you will never know whether you can sink or swim. I think the OTT platform also largely should be credited because it really gives us as actors a lot more scope for experimentation, shoots and even films.”
When asked about how appealing the role was to him, the actor replied, “Absolutely, the one thing I am happy having seen the show entirely is that our director who is also one of the writers on the show was kind of able to read it in the authenticity that was present in the writing. Many times what happens is that things get lost in translation, you might read a script and whereas the whole story may appeal to you but when you see the way it’s finally done on the screen executed very differently. In this particular case, I feel Shravan sir has done an excellent job of maintaining the authenticity and it’s very raw and very edgy because there’s no sex involved in a lot of projects was involved shooting in real life which I think will be impossible during a pandemic but we finished shooting just before Covid has hit.”
When asked about his success with digital platforms, Tanuj said, “I think just the visibility of what OTT platform offers to actors like myself and many others in my position is insane. I still remember when I was signed on ‘Inside Edge’ and we were shooting back in 2016, a lot of us were very cautiously optimistic that we know we are making something cool and interesting but no one could have in their wildest dreams thought like the impact it could have. Today when you look at the entire landscape of entertainment in our country it has just shifted so dramatically and has given birth to so many wonderful actors and I consider myself very fortunate that I am an active actor at this point of my career who is getting these opportunities. I am just so glad that I listened to my instincts and it has given me even more confidence on going ahead to trust my instincts.”
While talking about his next upcoming movie, the actor shared with us and said, “The lineup seems to be very solid right now so I believe my next release would be a show called ‘Tandoor’ that is based on a Tandoor murder case that happened in Delhi in 1995 and I am portraying the role of the person who was responsible for it and it’s a miracle to get that on Covid situation. I have got another show coming up with Barkha Singh so I am looking forward to it as it has given me another opportunity to do other works. There is one upcoming project which I am passionate about with the mafia in Bombay city because it’s again a very different kind of project.”
When asked how the actor himself has adjusted to the pandemic situation, Tanuj revealed, “Everybody collectively put our guards down and we are in a probably worst situation than from last year. I would like to say is that we all have been redirecting for the last year about social distancing, sanitisation and wearing masks and hence I request viewers to take of themselves and others around especially those who are vulnerable. It has been frustrating for me also but whenever I put on television I consider myself extremely fortunate and grateful to be in the position that I am and there is so much to look forward to in life and I am sure few years from now when we will look back at this as learning curve thinking and how we lived through it and we survived.”
Cryptocurrencies: Regulation is the constructive way forward
Is the wave of cryptocurrency a destructive tsunami that shall annihilate the financial system or a lucrative opportunity that ought to be pushed towards profitable shores? Given that the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, traded at $0.08 when it was created in 2009, even after accounting for its significant fluctuations, its current value of $35,876, is enough to make jaws drop and eyes roll.
What makes cryptocurrency so valuable despite it having no intrinsic value? Top cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin trade at amounts that are unthinkable for an intangible piece of code. While this can be baffling, on deeper scrutiny, print money’s valuation is equally without any intrinsic value. Once the gold standard was removed in the 1930s as a basis to value fiat currency, the central bank of a country was effectively the sole determinator of its value. So the RBI dictates the value of the Rupee and if it decides to devalue it against the dollar or print more money, it can easily do so. However, there is still a level of stability associated with the value of the rupee owing to several factors on the demand and the centralised nature of its regulation, as is true of most fiat currency from stable economies. On the other hand, it begs the question of whether a currency whose value can fluctuate from $58,000 to $30,000 on an Elon Musk tweet can be said to have any level of stability.
The value of cryptocurrency is derived from demand and supply, media forecasts and finite coin mining. Being platformed on blockchain technology and a decentralised distributed ledger system it has no central authority which approves and maintains a record of the database and determines its value. Despite the banking system being one of the oldest institutions backed by the Central government, the absence of an intermediary has not stalled the growth of cryptocurrencies because it has developed on a peer to peer network, being freely tradable by individuals and vesting control directly into the hands of the owner. Its convertibility into fiat currency is also at the behest of individuals who, through exchanges, are perfectly happy accepting it as tender which constitutes a discharge of debt.
Moving forward, there is great uncertainty about the place of cryptocurrencies in the formal economy on account of the concerns of the state-regulated banking system. Lately, the Chinese government, amongst others, has vowed to crackdown on crypto-exchanges amidst growing leakages from their financial system. El Salvador, in stark contrast, became the first country to formally introduce cryptocurrency in its financial system and recognise it as legal tender. Several countries stand between these two extremes and recognise cryptocurrency in a limited capacity by regulating its use. India is at such an inflection point and must decide which path to follow.
As with most significant technological developments, India viewed cryptocurrency with scepticism but did little about it from 2008 till sometime in 2018, when the RBI decided to come out with a circular that disallowed banks from allowing persons to trade in cryptocurrency. That step was taken without the legislature disallowing trade in cryptocurrency, so it effectively never made cryptocurrency illegal but created a surrogate ban for its official trade. The result was cryptocurrency exchanges relocating themselves outside of India and those wanting to trade in cryptocurrency proceeding to do it from outside the country. The RBI’s circular was struck down by the Supreme Court in its judgment in Internet and Mobile Association of India v RBI, which meant that crypto-currency, never considered illegal in India, could be traded and conversions into fiat currency done through the formal banking channel. However, as with most things, matters did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision. The recent experience with cross border trade in cryptocurrency in violation of foreign exchange guidelines served as another important reminder that regulation, and not prohibition, is the way forward. The cryptocurrency exchange WazirX was put on notice by the Enforcement Directorate for the alleged violation of foreign exchange laws.
Rather than a blanket or a surrogate ban, acknowledging that the Indian authorities are well within their rights to prosecute the unauthorised and illegal use of cryptocurrency is the way to serve all stakeholders and is better in the long run, even from a tax collection standpoint. Allowing interested traders to access the market through legitimate and regulated means would help negate many of the worries associated with cryptocurrency transactions. Banning cryptocurrency is likely to further incentivise investment through the black market thereby leading to even more leakages from the formal economy.
India can take several cues from beyond its borders on how to approach the regulation of cryptocurrency. The European Union, while cautioning against the dangers of cryptocurrencies, has permitted its use by regulating it. Cryptocurrency trading is also permitted in the USA, UK, Canada, Brazil and Russia, amongst others. For example, in the USA, people who trade in cryptocurrencies must follow centralised regulations and must register with accredited bodies to enforce anti-money laundering programs, keep appropriate records and make reports to FinCEN. With the active monitoring of such reports, it is possible to regulate the entire market holistically to avoid funding criminal activities such as terrorism.
With carefully crafted safeguards most of these concerns can be tamed. The potential for cryptocurrencies to destabilise the system can be addressed by simple checks such as permitting trading only through exchanges and limiting deposits and withdrawals. By placing limits on the volume of sales and purchases as a percentage of the total holding, the volatility can be controlled in the same manner as the stock market. That said, while there have been talks of cryptocurrency regulation in India and several policy papers, they have not materialised into a proper regulation. A bill in Parliament proposes criminal penalties for mining, holding, selling, trading, issuance, disposal, or use of cryptocurrency and at the same time introduces the Digital Rupee as the RBI backed digital currency. However, that was followed by a ministerial press statement that suggested that even if the bill was tabled for the RBI to launch a Digital Rupee, it would not criminalise cryptocurrency. That bill is yet to be tabled. Further, high echelons of the government and in particular the Finance Ministry have made positive statements to the media on the subject, which shines a bright ray of hope, but not without the usual policy surprises.
The question is whether India wants to follow China or embrace the winds of change with strong controls that are in sync with the liberal free-market economy. By embracing new technologies in our democratic and progressive nation, the twin objective of strengthening the dream of a digital India and not missing on the Blockchain revolution will become a reality. Gautam Buddha’s adage holds true even in today’s world: “Change is never painful, only resistance is.” There is no reason for India to impose a complete ban. Appropriate regulation and taxation are the tools to introduce it within the system for safe and legal use.
Nakul Dewan is a Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Barrister, Twenty Essex, Singapore and London. Nakul was the lead counsel who successfully argued against the RBI’s cryptocurrency ban in Internet and Mobile Association of India v RBI. Avishkar Singhvi is an Independent Advocate, Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.
By embracing new technologies in our democratic and progressive nation, the twin objective of strengthening the dream of a digital India and not missing on the Blockchain revolution will become a reality. Gautam Buddha’s adage holds true even in today’s world: “Change is never painful, only resistance is.” There is no reason for India to impose a complete ban on cryptocurrency. Appropriate regulation and taxation are the tools to introduce it within the system for safe and legal use.
FASHION WAS NEVER A PLAN B FOR ME: RANNA GILL
NEW DELHI: Fashion designer Ranna Gill recently joined NewsX’s special series NewsX India A-List . She gave an insight into her journey and shared how the pandemic has impacted the fashion industry.
An alumnus of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Ranna Gill launched her label ‘Ranna Gill’ two decades ago. Over the years, she has carved a space of her own in the Indian fashion industry. Ranna recently joined NewsX’s special series NewsX India A-List and spoke about not only her journey but also how the pandemic has impacted the fashion industry.
Speaking about how the pandemic has impacted her label and how she overcame the challenges, Ranna said, “We are still fighting. The challenges were big. We overcame them a little bit and then we came back to the fighting ground again. We have two businesses, so we have an export business in the United States and then we have stores and retail in India. So, we kind of need to paddle both. When this side of the river is stormy, we jump to the other side. We kind of need to paddle both sides and somehow try to come out of it, get out of the troubled water and we will.”
When asked about the brand ‘Ranna Gill’ and how was it conceptualised, she responded, “It is a lot of work. I started this brand with my mother, so the company is owned by my mom and me. I always loved fashion as a young student. I went to fashion school, it was my passion, it was my first love. It was what I always wanted to do so it’s not a plan B. It’s not like I wanted to be something else and I just rolled into fashion. I studied fashion. I have got bachelors in fashion from FIT New York, so I am a student of fashion and as well as a fashion designer. So, I have trained in fashion and I have always loved it. Even to this date, after having done designing for over twenty years, I still get excited when I look at products when I look at fashion I look at colours. Colours to me are like what candy is to children. It’s just such a special treat to look at the colour palette, to look at swatches, to dip die, to look at textures. Prints are an important USP to our brand. Even now, I am wearing a print from my collection. I love prints, the play of prints, and colours. We like to do easier, more playful, more ready to wear bodies, using these tools. We always stay closer to the story, what it is speaking, what the brand is speaking to its customers. You will always see colour in our collection and you will always see prints in our collection.”
Talking about the trick or mantra behind increased online sales amid the pandemic, she said, “I think it’s mostly product and the price point. It’s not very expensive, not very pricey and it’s not very difficult to wear. You don’t need to think of an occasion before coming onto our website or our stores to buy a line. To buy our products, whether it is a blouse, a tunic or a dress, you can always buy them over this weekend or two weekends down. You can wear it in the summer or bring it up in the falls. I think the product is always the king and we stay close to our language or the message we are sending to our customers. We don’t pivot from sarees to sometimes go on to make a blouse. We are always going to make the blouses, the dresses and tunics and that’s what we are going to always be designing into and circling back to. I think the product is crucial, that helped us through this time, price point, sensible pricing. sensible making of products. It’s not too fashionable that it won’t be relevant next year or two years down the line. So it’s all of those things that we kind of always come back to.”
Finally, when asked about the lessons she learned during this phase and future plans for her brand, she said, “We want to 100% focus on our online business. That is where we are headed and that I think is the future. Having said that I think we can bring more to our stores maybe. I am a little old school but I still think that they are very lovely to come to our shop. The customer has this special feeling. When she comes to our store, the girls know her she wears the garment so I think it’s going to be a bit of both. It’s really not going to be some clear messaging but at the moment it’s online, of course.”
She added, “There have been some really hard learning lessons. I think one has to for all of us. For our brand, it was just mainly we just decided to fight for the brand. We were not going to give it away or let it go and we just kind of all held hands. When did our business quietly and just fought for what we stood for so many years? One thing we learnt in our business, is working via technology. In the past, we used to take a flight and go to any place and really quickly. We would meet a buyer or meet or go to fashion fair or meet. I feel that one of the great learning is that we all got out of this phase was using technology for fashion, for all streams of business, even to connect with friends and family and fighting for your own business. Those were the two big learnings for me.”
When a selfless approach was needed to fight Covid-19, corruption ruled the roost. A grocery shop owner fleeced customers. A pharmacist hoarded life-saving medicines. Even a crematorium wasn’t spared.
Kautilya sat down to write ‘Arthashastra’, one of the first books of economics in human history, some 2,300 years ago. And he ended up writing a whole chapter on ‘corruption’. He famously said, “Just like it is impossible not to taste a drop of honey that you find at the edge of the tongue, it is impossible for a King’s officer not to eat up a bit of King’s revenue.”
Essentially, it means that even as long ago as in 300 BC, we were rampantly corrupt and as a society, we exploited whatever individual power we had. Kautilya implied that for Indians, the very human nature itself poses corruption. Time and again it was proved in our history. Kingdoms grew or fell through some strategic corruption of individuals who switched sides at a critical time. Even the British India Company walked over this sub-continent and established the rule of Britain over us because we could be corrupted easily, and it was so effortless to divide us and rule.
Transparency International, which places us in the list of nations as a very corrupt society, remarked that over 92% Indians have been exposed to and/or indulged in corruption of either giving or receiving or both at some point in their lives. As a society, we indulge in it as a casual act of convenience. And then, we complain about it, make a fuss and cry wolf.
WHY CAN’T THE GOVERNMENTS ABSOLUTELY WIPE OUT CORRUPTION?
So, whether it is Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ or a review by an international organisation, we have had an indisputable image as a corrupt society that can hardly be changed. In these 2,500 years, we have had several types of governments ruling over us — kingdoms, monarchies, dynasties, Sultanats,foreign colonisation, and democracies. There have been benevolent rulers, autocratic usurpers, people’s leaders, men of the sword, and religious oppressors, you name it and we have had it. But how come any form of government or system of rule could not bring down corruption through force, legislation, counselling, or any other means for thousands of years? Haven’t we punished people enough? Well, the country has historically practised capital punishment, dismemberment of limbs, jailing, public humiliation, seizing of property, and all kinds of punishment for corruption over centuries and millennia. Yet, as a society, we are as corrupt as we have been for thousands of years.
This essentially means that it is not the government or the law which is weak and unimaginative in bringing down corruption. It is just that as people, we are too strong and imaginative to remain corrupt by all means. The people perpetuate corruption as a means of convenience. And morally, we do not attach shame or guilt to being corrupt. Corruption is our blood trait. Corruption is more of people’s character in definition than being social malice that the governance can totally get rid of. What has stayed so for years shall remain the same in the coming years, unless we change at an individual level.
During these testing times, when a selfless and sincere approach was needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, this trait of corruption ruled the roost. A grocery shop owner fleeced customers citing short supply. A pharmacist hoarded life-saving medicines. A piece of basic equipment like a pulse oximeter suddenly disappeared from stores and if available, was sold at a much higher price. Black marketing of oxygen cylinders wreaked havoc on several families in dire need of oxygen. Even a taxi driver charged hefty sums from passengers. This shows that we can exploit any opportunity for money or material. And by stooping this low, we have also defeated all the good works of a large section of people during these difficult times. Individuals, organisations, even political parties, in their own capacities, have been providing free food, medicines, ambulances, oxygen, and all possible support to the needy but they were easily eclipsed by the rampant corruption surrounding us.
In the Covid era, we have seen that corruption has reached the zenith. It is not exaggerating to say that during the times of the pandemic, we have ‘corona’ated corruption and installed it on the throne. Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless.
People of all stature — from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends — had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus. It was widely reported that once you reach the hospitals, in the hope of some relief and cure, corruption widened its wings. Finding a hospital bed for the patient proved to be a Herculean task and in several cases, the hospital beds were hoarded by unscrupulous agents in connivance with the hospitals. Negotiating for an ambulance to take the critical patients to came as another shocker. News reports of ambulance operators charging Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 for ferrying patients to short distances of a few kilometres describe this moral corruption in the most absolute terms.
In our country, where total private infrastructure accounts for nearly 62% of all of India’s health infrastructure, it is easier for corruption to thrive at every level of the system. Medical staff were found refilling empty Remdesivir bottles with fake drugs and selling them to patients not only at a premium but also risking their lives, remorselessly. Patients and their families were cheated with fire extinguishers in the name of oxygen cylinders just when they needed oxygen to save the lives of their loved ones.
These instances are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The deep-rooted corruption at the health services goes up to kickbacks given to the health workers to please them and secure better services, thefts of medical instruments and medicines from the hospitals that are sold at a premium outside the hospitals. This ethical and moral bankruptcy have even driven them to the extent of recycling and selling bio-medical wastes like used face masks, PPE kits, and gloves for the sake of a few pennies. Hospitals were also found charging exorbitant fees from Covid patients.
And if one thought this face-off with corruption would end here, a rude shock awaited. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, who would have ever thought of corruption in the cremation grounds. Families of the deceased were charged up to Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 for cremating the bodies that used to be a matter of less than Rs 5,000 on normal days. The cost of woods and ghee spiralled through the sky as bodies queued up at crematoriums.
I began this article by saying that corruption is a blood trait of people. There is very little that anyone can do to remove evil from our surroundings if people act beyond the sanctity of morality. A thing that was never effectively curtailed for centuries will only increase and occupy the centre stage of our lives when people patronise it, benefit from it, and silently subscribe to it.
The present government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has effectively shown how a system can be run without corruption. Having served for 20 years as head of the governments — in Gujarat and then at the Centre — without even a charge of corruption, PM Modi has an impeccable, clean character to inspire our generation to adopt honesty as their way of life. Unfortunately, even the high degree of honesty and morality of our Prime Minister failed to influence our society and proved that corruption was indeed our blood trait.
Governments can only help people’s will to change. But if they don’t want to change, there is no power with anyone anywhere to pull us out of the intricate mess that we have created for ourselves. Let us pledge not to exploit humanity with greed.
The writer is Chairman, Khadi & Village Industries Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.
Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And the coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless. People of all stature—from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends—had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus.
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