A case of dengue epidemic and India’s misgovernance..

Indira Rajaraman ponders over recent state elections and why there is an astonishing lack of debate on economic issues in states.

There is an astonishing lack of debate on economic issues in states going to the polls at a time when the economy faces a deadly combination of low growth, raging food inflation, rising interest rates, and recurrent wobbles in the external value of the currency. Instead, there is a focus on personalities and on the groups they would favour and disfavour. Anti-incumbency features in discussion but without demands for granularity in promises of change.

There have over the years been state elections in which parties with a good governance record won successive terms. But conversations between candidates and electorate are still not about the details of what contenders would do to raise the productivity of agriculture, or vest employable skills in school-leaving cohorts, or facilitate industrial production and employment, or reform the power sector, or improve the quality and quantity of water supply, or combat climate change, or improve sanitation. Electoral strategy lapses into particular forms of segmentation of the electorate. Election warfare then degenerates into schoolyard practices, where scare tactics are used to prevent the formation of party coalitions which can forge alliances across these partitions.

She says one such example of misgovernance is dengue epidemic and there is no talk to treat the epidemic:

A current example of misgovernance is the epidemic of dengue fever that took grip post-monsoon, a classical public health failure, which ran riot through rich and poor alike. A popular movie director, Yash Chopra, succumbed to dengue some months ago. There is no political party exclusively culpable for this, in Delhi at any rate, where the municipal level at which responsibility for public health principally lies is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the state government by the Congress party. The general credibility of government is at such an all-time low that when incidence in Delhi was reported (most recently) at 4,784 cases, and deaths at 15, the public routinely applied a factor of as much 10 to those numbers.

Even 48,000 cases might be thought of as a low probability affliction in Delhi with a population of 17 million. The absolute numbers were nevertheless large enough to cause an acute shortage of hospital beds for routine surgeries. India now has the proud distinction of having the largest number of dengue cases in the world. Since the dengue mosquito breeds in any collection of water, including those inside homes, it might be thought to be beyond the reach of the governance capabilities of the country. It was not always so. In the 1950s, there was a systematic effort to stamp out malaria in Delhi through home visits by field staff of the public health department. Supervisors later did sample checks to see if their investigators had actually visited. Before the worldwide eradication of smallpox by a remarkable international effort, when there was an outbreak in Delhi in 1958, every home was visited and every resident inoculated. Delhi was a smaller city in those days, of course, but available channels for outreach were also much more limited.

Voter memory is short. When a public programme succeeds, there is no reminder of what it was like before. People forget the ravages of malaria, of what it was like to be reduced to a shivering wreck. Slowly, over time, the focus of elected governments shifted from the universal benefits of good governance to identifiable beneficiaries. The advantage is that the larger problem can be neglected, and bailouts given to selected groups. The governance solution to food inflation would be to steady the price level, to benefit all. The votebank solution is to give subsidies to selected identities.

Any mosquito bite these days are scary. One can no more enjoy the rains as is always worried over some or the other infection..

But who cares?

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