A disastrous vaccine shortage worsens the COVID crisis in India — as Modi repeats Trump's mistakes

If the month of April was marked by images of endless rows of burning funeral pyres from major Indian cities, the images of floating bodies in the Ganges River near the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in May were a grim reminder of the unchecked spread of the virus in rural India where a majority of Indians, without access to basic health care, vaccines or infrastructure, have been fighting the virus.

The second surge of the virus in India has wreaked havoc in the largely unconnected and inaccessible rural areas, and according to an analysis by Down to Earth, these areas have accounted for "more than half of India's… COVID-19 deaths" in April. There is not only a lack of information and facilities provided by the government to the rural population on how to protect themselves against the virus but also a lack of access to medical facilities or even vaccines, which had led to the rural areas being left completely vulnerable to the virus.

In India, efforts to vaccinate enough people to create the much-needed herd immunity and manage the number of infections and deaths in the country during the second wave have been marked by confusion and a lack of planning by the government, especially the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the center that has mostly left it to the states to figure out how to vaccinate their residents. The result is that vaccinations have become a privilege that seems mostly unattainable by the poor and marginalized populations of the country. According to a doctor that I spoke with, Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, "it is mostly a privilege vaccine meant for the rich and influential… the system is anti-rural and anti-poor."

The question those working on the ground in India are asking is how the vaccines will reach people, especially the poor—who in most cases have no access to the internet or do not have the digital know-how to book vaccine appointments. And even those with internet access and tech-savviness still face the difficulty of trying to register for a vaccine on the government's CoWIN website, which is reported to be difficult to navigate and subject to technical glitches and long wait times.

The Privilege of Getting Vaccinated

Dr. Bhatti works in a private hospital in New Delhi where he has been responsible for treating COVID-19 patients. While treating them, one thing became clear to him: the system wasn't set up to treat the poor and the marginalized. To help this section of society, he and some other doctors have started an initiative, DoctorsonRoad for rural India, to help create awareness about COVID-19 and vaccines and also provide basic facilities for rural Indians to fight the virus.

Bhatti says India's vaccine rollout is mostly meant for the privileged and that "the system wasn't set up for the poor people who have to walk 100 kilometers to access health care. The irony of the situation is that, even when they reach [health care facilities], there isn't any help available because these centers in rural areas don't have the requisite resources or manpower or are not operational," says Bhatti, who is also the national president of Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum. According to him, there is a lack of adequate testing taking place in rural areas, which contributes to the undercounting of cases. Furthermore, even if the tests do take place, the results can come seven to ten days later, and Bhatti says that by then a patient may have passed away from the virus—but these deaths are not included in the official COVID-19 death count due to the lag in test results.

"The vaccination policy wasn't meant for the poor, underprivileged and those living in rural areas. Look at the government's intention. There are two vaccine manufacturers [the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech], and Sputnik V will be manufactured by Dr. Reddy's Laboratories for about Rs 1,000 [almost $13], and we don't know what price they will eventually sell it for and if the [state or central] governments who procure it will bear the entire cost for it. Can a middle-class or a poor family of five in India afford to pay so much for vaccinations when they don't have a livelihood due to lockdowns? The system is anti-rural and anti-poor," he says.

In an interview with the Economic Times published on May 15, Dr. Anurag Agarwal, the director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology and the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics, said, "Vaccination levels… [in rural areas] are not going to be good… I am not adequately informed to comment on the rural side, in terms of personal direct knowledge or insight or access to data. I know that India has very large hinterlands, I know that facilities there are very poor. Just like any other rational person, I would worry about rural India."

Talking about the lack of awareness about how to treat the virus, Bhatti says, "There is no proper death registration in rural areas, and no proper diagnosis of the virus is taking place, so many of the deaths due to the virus are not counted into the figures." He adds that many people living in rural areas and slums in urban centers don't have access to masks and soap and don't know how to isolate a person who has been infected. For most of them, isolation is a privilege they cannot afford, with many family members living together in a small room.

In Manipur, a hilly state in northeastern India, Sadam Hanjabam and his team from Ya All, a nonprofit organization working with the youth and the LGBTQI community, have been trying to organize medical aid for people there through crowdfunding. He talks about the difficulty in getting to a medical facility in the face of an emergency and the lack of clarity on vaccines. "The medical clinics—which in most cases are privately owned—are located in the city center, and to get there, people in rural areas have to take some sort of public transport. But during lockdowns, public transportation is not available, and getting medical help in such a scenario is increasingly becoming a challenge." In India, while there is no national lockdown in place presently, various states have implemented lockdown measures.

Hanjabam talks of the stigma attached to getting sick with COVID-19, leading to many in rural areas hiding the fact that they are sick. "This is accounting for the rise in deaths."

"I am not vaccinated. We were told that vaccinations for [people age] 18 and above would be available by May 17, but very few slots are available [in Imphal, Manipur]. I don't think I will be vaccinated anytime this year," he adds.

"The vaccination centers are also not properly managed. The crowding at these centers by people waiting to get vaccinated has led to fear of getting infected by the virus from visits to these vaccination centers," says Hanjabam. According to him, since there are very few shots available per center, those in rural areas who don't know how to book appointments have already lost hope of getting vaccinated.

Prime Minister Modi, meanwhile, issued a press release on May 15 and "asked for augmentation of healthcare resources in rural areas to focus on door to door testing and surveillance."

According to Down to Earth, while more than "65 percent of India lives in rural districts, as per the World Bank… only 37 percent of beds in government hospitals are in rural India, according to the National Health Profile 2019."

In urban India, the situation is no better. Ambalika Banerjjee, a senior lawyer who lives in Mumbai, has been trying to book an appointment to get vaccinated for most of May. "Why did the government open up the vaccinations for all adults if they didn't have sufficient vaccinations?" Banerjjee says.

"I have been spending three to four hours to get an appointment without much success. The CoWIN website is hard to navigate because you can't move away from your laptop for a moment, otherwise you have to start the login process again. The right to a vaccine is a right of every citizen; instead, it is being treated as a privilege. I am willing to pay up to Rs 900 ($12) for a shot [administered through a private hospital]. It's not even like it is being provided for free," says Banerjjee.

The pricing of the vaccines depends on many factors including a person's age, the type of hospital it was administered by (whether public or private), and the way in which it was procured (whether it was purchased by the center, state, or private sector, and which vaccine manufacturer sold it).

The Reality of the Vaccine Rollout

India started its vaccination drive in mid-January, offering it to the priority groups of frontline and health care workers. The second phase saw the vaccination of people 60 years and over and those between 45 and 59 with underlying health conditions. By April 1, vaccination had opened up to all people 45 years and above, and by May 1, the country opened up registration for vaccinations to all adults over 18, in spite of facing vaccine shortages. In fact, many states have had to shut down vaccination centers in May with the shortage persisting.

Currently, the center is responsible for providing the states with 50 percent of all COVID-19 vaccine doses produced by two private Indian manufacturers: Bharat Biotech, which, along with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology, developed Covaxin; and the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which is producing Covishield (licensed from AstraZeneca). The center bought 50 percent of the vaccine supply to offer it to states for free, leaving the other 50 percent up to states and private hospitals to buy directly from the manufacturers. Out of the 25 percent of the vaccines being procured by private hospitals, however, "very little" is reaching the rural areas, according to an analysis by the Times of India.

The crippling shortage of vaccines, meanwhile, has forced state governments to float global tenders for the procurement of vaccines, resulting in states being pitched against one another to ensure that their citizens are inoculated. Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has pointed out in a tweet how this procurement strategy portrays a "bad image" of the country, saying that the process should be centralized instead.

If the global community of vaccine manufacturers and countries had been approached by a united "'India' rather than individual states, our bargaining power" would be much greater, he further tweeted, because the central government "has much more diplomatic space to negotiate with their countries." Indeed, Pfizer and Moderna have reportedly refused to "deal with [the] Indian states for vaccines."

India's vaccination program is hamstrung by its lack of centralization twofold—not only by how successful the central, state, and private sector are in procuring the vaccines, but also in the pricing offered by manufacturers to each buyer. Manufacturers are quoting different prices for the vaccines to the central government, state government and private hospitals. India's highest court has questioned the "rationale" behind this "differential vaccine pricing." The center while responding to this has maintained that "the difference in the prices fixed for Central government, state governments and private market are because of the volumes sought by them," Business Today reports.

While the majority of states have decided to provide free vaccines to adults, those getting a shot from a private hospital will most likely have to pay out of their own pocket, even as most countries have made vaccination free for their citizens. Talking about the implications of the differential pricing or the increase in prices for vaccines being provided to state governments and private hospitals, economist R. Ramakumar told Firstpost in an interview, "It will have major implications in the way that it will push and exclude millions of poor people in India out of access to this health measure."

The central government, while facing pressure on vaccinations, has come up with a new plan where it claims that it will have 2 billion vaccines available between August and December to vaccinate the whole population by the end of 2021, which seems ambitious to say the very least.

How Lack of Action Has Cost Lives

As of June 1, 3.3 percent of India's population was fully vaccinated as against 40.7 percent of the population in the U.S. or 10.5 percent of the population in Brazil.

India is reporting around 3,000 deaths per day and is second only to the U.S. in the total number of COVID-19 cases that have been reported from the country so far.

Despite this, the central government's messaging has focused on controlling its image rather than on taking charge of the health crisis. It has denied its own failure and has made no effort to share useful information to prevent the spread of the virus, with India's health minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, even telling people to eat "dark chocolate to beat COVID-19 stress." More recently, he tweeted to support a rebuttal of a recent Lancet report criticizing the handling of the crisis by the government.

The misinformation and downplaying of COVID-19 by the right-wing Modi government is similar to that of America's former President Donald Trump, who said that people should consume disinfectants to fight coronavirus, only to later say he was being "sarcastic." Many other parallels can be drawn regarding the handling of the COVID-19 situation by Trump and the Modi government. The state governments in America were also left pleading with the federal government for basic medical facilities, as seen in India. Much like Trump, who was against calling for a national lockdown, Modi is now averse to the idea, even as experts feel it will help curb infection rates. This is mostly due to the criticism Modi faced of calling a lockdown on short notice during the first wave. Despite receiving a clear mandate, both the leaders squandered the faith of the people who voted them to power.

Meanwhile, India and its slow vaccination rollout have become a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. "The tragedy in India does not have to happen here in Africa, but we must all be on the highest possible alert," said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Ruhi Bhasin is an assistant editor at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she worked as an editor and a senior journalist at the Times of India and the Indian Express covering politics, legal matters, and social issues. She can be reached on Twitter @BhasinRuhi.

How Modi’s privatization agenda fueled the COVID disaster in India

While the incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis, its performance has been far worse on the vaccine front. The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems to believe in the ideology of free-market capitalism, thinks that the market will magically produce the number of vaccines the country needs. This would explain why it has starved seven public sector vaccine manufacturing units—according to an April 17 article in Down to Earth—of any support instead of ramping up much-needed vaccine production.

The rights to produce the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, have been given to the private company partner on an exclusive basis. The Indian government also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which has tied up with AstraZeneca for producing Covishield, would make vaccines according to the country's requirements without any prior orders or capital support. The government did not even see the necessity to intervene and prevent India's new Quad ally, the U.S., from stopping sending India supplies of the required raw materials needed by India for manufacturing vaccines.

The sheer negligence by the government is further highlighted by the fact that even though India has about 20 licensed manufacturing facilities for vaccines and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of which could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two companies are presently producing vaccines. That too is at a pace completely inadequate for India's needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development, which can be traced back to the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, in Mumbai, in the 1920s. With the Patents Act, 1970 and the reverse engineering of drugs by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the country also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the Left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world and becoming the global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky News in the UK regarding India and South Africa's proposal to the World Trade Organization on the need to lift intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. Gates claimed that IP is not the issue and that "moving a vaccine… into a factory in India… It's only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all." In other words, without the white man coming in to tell India and other middle-income countries how to make vaccines and provide them with his money, these countries would not be able to make vaccines on their own.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the Western governments and Big Pharma argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to the manufacturing of poor-quality drugs and theft of Western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft's IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo as a great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma's charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the World Health Organization, is also to dilute any move by the WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies are the largest manufacturers of existing vaccines by volume in the world, according to the WHO's Global Vaccine Market Report 2020. When it comes to measuring vaccine manufacturing by value, however, the global share held by multinational corporations or Big Pharma is much bigger than that of India. For example, as per the WHO report, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with 11 percent of the global market by volume, generates 40 percent of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28 percent of the market by volume has only 3 percent of the market by value. This shows that the patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The Western philanthropic money of Gates and Warren Buffett will 'help' the poor Third World to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government's approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology—which serves as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP—that the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else including planning is seen by the right wing as socialism. In the case of vaccines, it means not to make any attempt to get the companies, both in the public and private sectors, to make necessary preparations for a quick vaccination program: to put in the money and provide the necessary supply chain. Instead, the government believed that India's private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India's pharmaceutical industry. It is institutions like the Haffkine Institute under Sahib Sokhey's leadership and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava that led to India's vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India's vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

It is not niji (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims. The private sector companies rode on the back of public sector science and technology that was built in the country between the 1950s and the 1990s.

The Indian government recently opened up vaccinations for all adults in the country on May 1. To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine in order to give the required two shots per person. To plan for the production of an order of this size, apart from technology and capital support, India also needs to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This includes raw materials and intermediate supplies such as filters and special bags. There are at least 37 "critical items" that are currently embargoed by the U.S. from exports under the Defense Production Act, 1950, a relic of the U.S.'s Korean War.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, had taken to Twitter to ask U.S. President Joe Biden "to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up."

If India puts together the production capacity of the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E, and Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, and the five other companies that have signed up to manufacture Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology, India could have planned for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If it also included the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more in 2021. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator program and its vaccines pillar of COVAX. What is missing is a planning commission that could plan this exercise and create the political will to carry it forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog—the public policy think tank of the Indian government—and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order with the Serum Institute until January 11, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily caseload of nearly 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. The government seemed to bank on its belief in the magic of the capitalist market, which it thought would solve all its problems, without any real effort on the center's part.

India and South Africa have asked the WTO to consider waiving the rules relating to intellectual property during the pandemic, and further sought that knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by the WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts predictably are from the rich countries that want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the U.S. hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally just decided to accept South Africa and India's initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO until now. But this waiver is restricted to vaccine patents only and does not extend to other patents or associated intellectual property as South Africa and India's proposal had suggested. This is still a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, it still has explaining to do as to why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech to manufacture a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and NIV. Why is it not being shared under a nonexclusive license with both Indian companies and those companies outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra's public sector Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, while giving Bharat Biotech six months' lead time with financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. He forgot that in order to compete with China, India needs a vaccine production base that not only takes care of its vaccination needs but also fulfills all its external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least three vaccines already—from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino—that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up, and China is the largest supplier of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And it has also managed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that we are now facing.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why one state in India shows the promise of democracy as the world becomes more authoritarian

Just before the state elections in Kerala, in southern India, a television channel ran a program called "The Great Political Kitchen." The anchor went to kitchens across the state to talk to homemakers about their views on politics. In one kitchen, the anchor asked a woman about a dispute surrounding a temple in southern Kerala where the courts had ordered that women must be allowed full access to the temple premises in 2018. For the past five years, Kerala had been governed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF), which had taken a democratic position over this issue and had supported the entry of women into this famous temple. The right wing claimed this was evidence that the LDF government was against religious freedom; such a claim would not be restricted to the majority-Hindu population but could also be extended to other minority communities in India such as Christians and Muslims. The woman told the TV anchor, "I am a devotee [of the temple], but hunger won't go away if I cook and eat devotion. That's all I have to say about it."

Her response—which went viral—conveyed the mood of the recent election in Kerala, which was won by the LDF. The LDF won 99 of the 140 seats in the Kerala assembly elections; 67 of these seats were won by candidates of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was the first time since 1980 that an incumbent party or coalition had been able to win a second consecutive term in Kerala.

Most people in Kerala were uninterested in the dangerous flippancy of the right-wing politics represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party—in power at the center in India—which is keener to talk about anything other than issues that concern people's material conditions of life such as the pandemic and its social impact on their lives. The LDF leadership, on the other hand, has been focused on the pandemic and on providing the materials necessary for relief to the people in the state during the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis that the country is witnessing presently. Mass organizations of the Left and community organizations joined the state government in efforts to take care of the people. As a result, Kerala has so far been able to tackle the pandemic crisis better than other parts of India.

Pandemic Relief

A comprehensive poll by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Lokniti shows that 73 percent of those polled said that they were satisfied by the performance of the state government. Led by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the LDF government's first term, from 2016 to 2021, was wracked by natural disasters (a cyclone in 2017 and floods in 2018 and 2019) and virus outbreaks (the Nipah virus in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic), which have impacted lives globally. The government dealt with each of these crises in a similar fashion: through calm and scientific assessments of what had occurred, combined with announcing generous relief for the impacted people. This was true in all the calamities before the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the 2018 floods, which were the heaviest in a century.

The CSDS-Lokniti poll shows that the electorate went to vote with the good governance of the LDF in mind. Asked about the LDF government's performance in dealing with the pandemic, 72 percent said that it was either "good" or "very good." A remarkable 88 percent said that they were satisfied with the food kits distributed by the government to ensure that no one went hungry during the crisis.

Contrary to the attitude of the right-wing government of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the LDF government of Kerala adopted a science-based approach to tackle the pandemic. It expanded public health care facilities to meet likely increases in the number of cases. It carried out a vigorous "Break the Chain" campaign, urging people to adopt the basic practices (social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks) that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 in Kerala's government hospitals have been free and available to everyone who needs it.

To prevent mass suffering during the pandemic, the LDF government got the state's self-government institutions—which have been strengthened over the past few decades due to the efforts of Left governments—to cook and deliver food to those in need. The government provided food grain and grocery kits for free to every household to prevent hunger. The trade unions and mass organizations helped run these community kitchens as well as helped set up quarantine facilities and treatment centers.


The right wing in Kerala has typically claimed that the Left is not equipped to build the state's infrastructure. But this time, the right wing had no grounds to make its typical complaints. Since 2016, the state government has not only improved the basic transportation infrastructure but has also built up other kinds of infrastructure needed by the working class and the peasantry.

There is a conventional attitude that suggests infrastructure is built to promote the interests of business alone. But this is not the case in the way Kerala's LDF government built its public infrastructure, including public housing—the government built 250,000 homes for the poor. There was a major focus on public education and public health care, both of which were enhanced, and a stronger public health care system in the state helped it to stave off the catastrophe that COVID-19 has wrought in the rest of India. For the first time in 25 years, students left private schools to return to the improved public education system. Improvements in facilities in public schools included providing sanitary pads for girls to encourage better attendance in school.

Roads, bridges, power lines, and a massive public sector internet project (Kerala Fiber Optic Network, or K-FON) to provide internet as a basic right to citizens have been a few of the key elements of the government's infrastructure work.

Election manifestos are often not taken seriously; this is, however, not the case with the LDF government. "We have fulfilled 580 out of the 600 items in the 2016 manifesto. Now we are placing before the people a manifesto with 900 promises," Chief Minister Vijayan said in March.

900 Promises

The pressing task for the LDF government is the same as before the election: to bring the second wave of COVID-19 infections under control. The Indian government of Prime Minister Modi has been hopeless, allowing the infection to run rampant while doing little to either build up the public health care system or to provide a proper vaccination program. In the first week of May, the seven-day average of doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in India was 1.9 million. At this pace, it will take until February 2024 to administer two doses of the vaccine to the entire adult population of the country.

Kerala's government is forced to buy vaccines on the open market. An important takeaway from this pandemic has been the need for the state to redouble its efforts to strengthen its public sector enterprises, such as the Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited, which has been producing essential drugs at low prices for the government hospitals in the state. Kerala currently has a lockdown in place to bring down the rate of infection, which has been high due to the more contagious variants of coronavirus, including the triple-mutant Indian variant, that have been infecting people.

The CSDS-Lokniti poll showed that the working class and the poor as well as oppressed castes, including Dalits, voted overwhelmingly for the LDF; there is no doubt that their interests will play a leading role in shaping the government policy. That is why the LDF returns to power with a mandate to end absolute poverty by the formulation of micro-plans that target families who live with extreme poverty, including homelessness.

Hunger can't be eradicated by devotion. Only social action can eradicate hunger and hopelessness.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Subin Dennis is an economist and a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research's New Delhi, India, office.

The mismanagement of Covid in Brazil and India is triggering a hunger crisis

As Indians continue to scramble for survival through a deadly second COVID-19 wave and deal with an inadequate health care system that has failed them at every step, for a majority of the country living in rural areas and in slums in urban centers, food insecurity is proving to be a bigger struggle than protecting themselves against the deadly virus.

In one of Asia's largest slums, Dharavi, Mumbai, putting food on the table is proving to be a pressing challenge for the population of about 1,000,000 living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. "Hunger is a major problem," says Nawneet Ranjan, founder of the nonprofit Dharavi Diary (Gyanodaya Foundation), who has been working in Dharavi for the last several years. "In the last six or seven years that I have worked here, I have never seen anything like this," he says, referring to the helplessness being felt by the marginalized sections of India's societies who have been facing increasing food insecurity, especially during the second wave. "Food is a bigger priority than sickness," he explains. He has recently started a crowdfunding effort to provide the residents of Dharavi with food supplies, especially the most vulnerable sections like single mothers, the elderly and the transgender population.

During the second week of May, India recorded more than 400,000 daily infections and more than 4,000 deaths, surpassing earlier records, and has overtaken Brazil as having the second-largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (after the United States of America).

In the Global Hunger Index 2020 report, India's hunger crisis was considered "serious." India was in the 94th position among 107 countries ranked for their management of hunger; "[t]he situation is grim and the country is battling widespread hunger," an October 2020 Down to Earth article reported.

A study by the Azim Premji University's Center for Sustainable Employment released on May 5 estimated that "[t]he first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shoved a staggering 230 million (23 crore) Indians below the poverty line," states an article in Business Today.

An Impossible On-the-Ground Reality in India for the Poor and Informally Employed

As with the case of the health care system in India, those facing hunger have had to largely depend on nonprofits or citizen efforts, which have come forward to provide food, medical supplies and other help for those already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic.

"People have lost jobs again. During the first wave of the pandemic in India, people from the slums went back to their villages. But there were no work opportunities there, so they came back to cities once things became better," says Ranjan. The number of COVID-19 cases had started to subside by December 2020, at the end of India's first wave. "They came back, and the second wave hit a few months later, and this time it was worse because they had already sold everything they had during the first wave," he adds. During the first wave, thousands of people who were employed in the informal sector, such as domestic workers, drivers, cooks or factory workers, were caught unawares as the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the harshest lockdowns with short notice, leaving them completely unprepared. This led to the "exodus" of people who were left with no other choice but to walk thousands of kilometers in an attempt to reach their homes in rural parts of India.

"There is no testing here. The disease is spreading rapidly, but there is no acknowledgment among the people that they might be affected by the virus. They don't want to go to government hospitals, so they avoid getting tested. Unlike the first wave, they can't even go back to rural areas as the virus has spread there also," says Ranjan.

According to Ranjan, besides avoiding getting tested, there is also resistance to getting vaccinated and a lack of knowledge about how to book vaccination appointments. "[Some people] either don't want to get vaccinated or don't know how to since they don't have access to the internet to book appointments."

The situation is far worse in rural areas where there are next to no health care facilities.

While the central government has been criticized for the lack of nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, some state governments have imposed lockdowns—which might be helpful for public health, but for the informally employed, these have added difficulties. In the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, people left without work can only head out and look for temporary employment before 11 a.m., since a statewide lockdown takes effect between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. "In Kolhapur, people depend on the manufacturing industry for employment, which mainly includes the textile and automobile industry. With the lockdown in place, these factories have stopped operating and people no longer have any means to earn a living and feed themselves," says Sanket Jain, a journalist in India who writes about rural issues and has been working in rural areas to make education more accessible to children.

Jain explains why there is sometimes resistance by this population to get tested for COVID-19. "Looking at the oxygen crisis, they are really scared and are in denial about their symptoms. They don't have money to afford food—how will they afford oxygen cylinders?" he says.

"They are mainly surviving on certain government benefits and the food supply they are provided by nonprofits," Jain says. "Most of them only survive on eating rice and make it last for as many meals as they can," he adds, further pointing out that many families are down to eating one meal a day.

In both the rural areas and in urban slums, social distancing is something that people do not have the luxury to follow, and the lack of clear communication from the government about the importance of wearing masks and other safety protocols required to control the spread of the virus has contributed to its spread.

Mismanagement and Surging Hunger in Brazil

Food insecurity has worsened across the world during this pandemic as more than 155 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2020, which is a jump of 20 million people from 2019.

Describing the situation for the vulnerable and "poor communities," Oxfam International says that the message from them is clear: "[h]unger may kill us before coronavirus."

According to the organization, "new hunger hotspots are also emerging. Middle-income countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil are experiencing rapidly rising levels of hunger."

The gross mismanagement of the handling of the COVID-19 situation on the ground and lack of action based on scientific data during the pandemic by Brazil, much like in India, has not only led to the loss of lives from the virus on a massive scale but has also led to food insecurity emerging as another factor people have to fight against in order to survive.

With minimal government support, hunger has crippled those who were already struggling before the pandemic in Brazil and in India. The increased unemployment—especially among those employed in the informal sector—has been one of the main factors for hunger as the virus surges unchecked in both these countries.

Brazil's former president Dilma Rousseff has described the handling of the current COVID-19 crisis by President Jair Bolsonaro as "repulsive" and "genocidal" in a Guardian interview, further stating that this mismanagement had left the country "adrift on an ocean of hunger and disease."

"A survey by the Brazilian Research Network on Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security shows that more than 116 million people are facing food insecurity. Of these, the survey says, 43 million (20.5 percent of [the] population) do not have enough to eat and 19 million people (9 percent) are just starving," states an article in the Wire.

In 2020, "the director of the World Food Program's Brazil office, Daniel Balaban, warned that Brazil was moving quickly toward returning to the world hunger map, which it left in 2014. Countries figure on that list when more than 5 percent of their population live in extreme poverty," states Agence France-Presse.

The stories of hunger in Brazil are very similar to those in India where people are struggling to survive in the face of an indifferent government. Brazil had made great strides in overcoming hunger "in the first decade of this century, when one-sixth of the population was lifted out of poverty. For many now in Rio, its return is devastating," states a Reuters article.

A video report by Gustavo Basso for DW shows Celia Gomes talking about her struggle with feeding her four children on a daily basis. "I wake up with a feeling of being in agony. I jump out of bed and the first thing I do is thank God I am alive. I look at my children and think to myself, 'today I will bring home some food for them.' I leave the house early to fetch bread. There are days when I can't manage to bring them any." People in Brazil have also had to look to nonprofits for help to overcome hunger, much like in India.

The Government Response

In India, the Modi government has failed to respond to the crisis in every manner possible. Despite early warning signs of an uptick of cases, the government allowed the holding of superspreader events like the Kumbh Mela and the organizing of political rallies in several states. As the health care system became overwhelmed by the rising number of cases and India faced a shortage of ICU beds, oxygen supply and adequate testing, the Modi government distanced itself from the blame, instead prioritizing a parliament renovation plan over saving lives. With no end to the second wave, experts don't see any respite for India any time soon, with a third wave already being predicted even as the country is far from managing its second wave.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Bolsonaro faces possible impeachment over his handling of the crisis. He has referred to the COVID-19 virus as a "little flu" and continued to ignore or take inadequate measures to control the situation, in the face of rising fatalities.

With the leaders in both countries refusing to accept the urgency of the situation before them, the marginalized populations already struggling are having to fight a dual fight: against the virus and against hunger.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Ruhi Bhasin is an assistant editor at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she worked as an editor and a senior journalist at the Times of India and the Indian Express covering politics, legal matters, and social issues. She can be reached on Twitter @BhasinRuhi.

As India gasps to breathe, Modi abdicates responsibility

The COVID-19 pandemic continues its brutal march across India. Figures of new infections reached 355,828 on May 3—which accounted for more than 62 percent of the world's new infections on that day. As hospitals run out of beds, ICU capacity, and even oxygen, these factors have been contributing to the already skyrocketing death toll in the country. Dead bodies in mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds speak of the awful toll of the pandemic.

India's daily numbers of COVID-19 cases have outstripped infection rates in other countries like the United States and Brazil. The end of the surge is nowhere in sight as more states and cities slip into the grip of the pandemic. The new confirmed cases are rising quite steeply in states like Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal even as numbers in cities like Mumbai and Delhi are beginning to flatten. What is more worrying is that the positivity rates are rising quite steeply, indicating that the actual number of infected people is even higher.

After the first wave subsided in December 2020, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against the pandemic. Perhaps it truly believed in its own propaganda. At any rate, it was busy, chest-thumping on its great success. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi said, "In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively." The BJP's National Office Bearers meeting in February applauded the Modi government's performance in keeping the first wave of the virus under check. "The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID," said a press release issued by the BJP. This pyrrhic victory and these vainglorious claims are doubly painful as India grapples with a second wave that makes the first wave seem like a trailer.

The BJP was focusing on how to convert this so-called success into electoral victory in state elections when the second wave struck. As the numbers began to rise, the BJP decided that if it could not control the pandemic, it would try to control the narrative. It went on the offensive, with its troll army amplifying the message that the state governments have failed; people are to be blamed for abandoning the safety norms of masks and social distancing; everyone is to be blamed but the Modi government. This, notwithstanding the central government's signal of a return to normalcy by holding public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. If people did relax their adherence to the COVID-19 norms, they were only following the example of the leaders—Modi and others—on the dais during political rallies and roadshows, who appeared maskless while addressing large crowds during these events.

The first COVID-19 wave in India peaked around mid-September in 2020, touching nearly 100,000 new infections per day. It had gone down to about 10,000 by mid-February. This period should have been used to strengthen the public health system: increasing the numbers of hospital beds and ICU facilities, stepping up oxygen production and building a supply chain for delivery of medical oxygen. Tragically, the central government, which has centralized all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare itself, or the states, or the public, for this second wave.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen supply. When the lungs of patients are affected due to the virus, the most important medicine is oxygen. This shortage of oxygen has added to the rising death toll, as patients requiring oxygen are unable to get admissions in hospitals; they are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen; and oxygen cylinders are not available for home treatment. During the last week of April, several hospitals in Delhi reported that they had only a few hours of oxygen left. Failed oxygen supply has resulted in the deaths of patients in various hospitals, even in elite hospitals in the capital. If this is the situation in the nation's capital, and that too in elite hospitals, one can only imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere in small towns and rural India.

That is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during a pandemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting. This is the case now in India.

In the first wave in India, the spread was limited to a few states, and to certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spreading across almost all states, and affecting a much larger cross-section of people.

Why didn't the government prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is, unfortunately, completely centralized; only the prime minister and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, the home minister, can act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive criticism—from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example. Modi's sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal where the BJP recently faced a decisive defeat. Modi continued to hold political rallies and only stopped when he realized the poor optics of being in electioneering mode amid a major pandemic. By then it was too late, and his poor handling of the situation on the ground led to his party's defeat in the West Bengal elections.

The central government has also failed to ensure a smooth vaccination rollout and has provided misleading information about vaccinations, which might not address the immediate crisis, but will help with controlling any future waves that may follow by creating herd immunity. The government's announcement about having vaccinated 157 million people as of May 3 is misleading. While 157 million vaccine doses have been given, only about 27 million people have received the two required doses as of May 3.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about their vaccine supplies running low. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan dismissed these complaints by states as politicizing their "failures to control the spread of pandemic." The figures of vaccinations, however, reflect a different reality than the one claimed by the health minister and show that the number of vaccine doses given per day has indeed fallen drastically in mid-April in comparison to what it was in early April.

With the vaccine supply still constrained, the Modi government has failed to explain why it is now proposing that everyone above the age of 18 be vaccinated under the third phase of its vaccination drive. No explanation has been offered, nor a plan announced on how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target.

The central government has mostly abandoned its responsibility to ensure that vaccines are available for the entire population, after its initial push to inoculate health workers and people above the age of 45. The government said that it will continue to provide 50 percent of the country's vaccine production to states and union territories for free under the third phase of the National Vaccine Strategy. The rest of the 50 percent will, however, have to be acquired by the state governments and the private hospitals from the two vaccine suppliers in India—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. The center has also removed all price controls on vaccines, creating a competition for scarce vaccines among the states, which will ultimately benefit the private suppliers. Instead of a well-thought-out plan to increase vaccine production, distribute it centrally and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the central government's responsibility and shifting the blame to the state governments for failing to vaccinate the people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, had developed Covaxin. There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have given licenses to other vaccine manufacturers, including half a dozen public sector units that are idling today, to ramp up production of this vaccine. Instead, the Modi government granted the rights to produce the vaccine, which was created with public-sector technology and public money to Bharat Biotech only. And no explanation has been given about why the Modi government refused to take issue with the United States on its denial to provide vital supplies for the production of vaccines in India until it reached the current crisis.

The Modi government believes in centralizing all political power in its hands and letting the "free market," led by big capital, solve the problems of the country. And if this policy fails, it can always blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and, finally, the opposition for its own failures.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Modi's failure: The COVID-19 catastrophe in India is completely out of control

For Ashish Yechury (1986-2021), journalist.

It is difficult to overstate the grip of COVID-19 on India. WhatsApp bristles with messages about this or that friend and family member with the virus, while there are angry posts about how the central government has utterly failed its citizenry. This hospital is running out of beds and that hospital has no more oxygen, while there is evasion from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet.

Thirteen months after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the world was in the midst of a pandemic, the Indian government looks into the headlights like a transfixed animal, unable to move. While other countries are well advanced on their vaccination programs, the Indian government sits back and watches a second wave or a third wave land heavily on the Indian people.

On April 21, 2021, the country registered 315,000 cases in a 24-hour period. This is an extraordinarily high number. Bear in mind that in China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, the total number of detected cases stands at less than 100,000. This spike has raised eyebrows: is this a new variant, or is this a result of failure to manage social interactions (including the 3 million pilgrims who gathered at this year's Kumbh Mela) and to vaccinate enough people.

At the core is the total failure of the Indian government, led by PM Modi, to take this pandemic seriously.


A glance around the world shows those governments that disregarded the WHO warnings suffered the worst ravages of COVID-19. From January 2020, the WHO had asked governments to insist on basic hygiene rules—washing hands, physical distance, mask wearing—and then later had suggested testing for COVID-19, contact tracing and social isolation. The first set of recommendations do not require immense resources. Vietnam's government, for instance, took those recommendations very seriously and slowed the spread of the disease immediately.

India's government moved slowly despite evidence of the dangerousness of the disease. By March 10, 2020, before the WHO declared a pandemic, the Indian government reported about 50 COVID-19 cases in India, with infections doubled in 14 days. The first major act from India's prime minister was a 14-hour Janata Curfew, which was dramatic but not in line with the WHO recommendations. This ruthless lockdown, with four hours' notice, sent hundreds of thousands of workers on the road to their homes, penniless, some dying by the wayside, many carrying the virus to their towns and villages. Prime Minister Modi executed this lockdown without checking with his own departments, whose advice might have warned him against such a precipitous and unnecessary act.

Prime Minister Modi took the entire pandemic lightly. He urged people to light candles and bang pots, to make noise to scare away the virus. The lockdown kept being extended, but there was nothing systematic, no national policy that one can find anywhere on the government's websites. In May and June of 2020, the lockdown kept getting extended, although this was meaningless to the millions of working-class Indians who had to go to work to survive on their daily wages. A year into the pandemic, there are now 16 million people in India with detected infections, with 185,000 people confirmed dead from the pandemic. One has to write words like "detected" and "confirmed" because mortality data from India during this pandemic has been totally unreliable.

Consequences of Privatization

The consequences of turning over health care to the private sector and underfunding public health have been diabolical. For years now, advocates of public health care, such as the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, have called for more government spending on public health and less reliance upon profit-driven health care. These calls fell on deaf ears.

India's governments have spent very low amounts on health—3.5 percent of GDP in 2018, a figure that has remained the same for decades. India's current health expenditure per capita, by purchasing power parity, was 275.13 in 2018, around the figures of Kiribati, Myanmar and Sierra Leone. This is a very low number for a country with the kind of industrial capacity and wealth of India.

In late 2020, the Indian government admitted that it has 0.8 medical doctors for every 1,000 Indians, and it has 1.7 nurses for every 1,000 Indians. No country of India's size and wealth has such a low medical staff. It gets worse. India has only 5.3 beds for every 10,000 people, while China—for example—has 43.1 beds for the same number. India has only 2.3 critical care beds for 100,000 people (compared to 3.6 in China) and it has only 48,000 ventilators (China had 70,000 ventilators in Wuhan alone).

The weakness of medical infrastructure is wholly due to privatization, where private sector hospitals run their system on the principle of maximum capacity and have no ability to handle peak loads. The theory of optimization does not permit the system to tackle surges, since in normal times it would mean that the hospitals would have surplus capacity. No private sector is going to voluntarily develop any surplus beds or surplus ventilators. It is this that inevitably causes the crisis in a pandemic.

Low health spending means low expenditure on medical infrastructure and low wages for medical workers. This is a poor way to run a modern society.

Vaccines and Oxygen

Shortages are a normal problem in any society. But the shortages of basic medical goods in India during the pandemic have been scandalous.

India has long been known as the "pharmacy of the world," since India's pharmaceutical industry sector has been skillful at reverse-engineering a range of generic drugs. It is the third-largest pharmaceutical industry manufacturer. India accounts for 60 percent of global vaccine production, including 90 percent of the WHO use of measles vaccine, and India has become the largest producer of pills for the U.S. market. But none of this helped during the crisis.

Vaccines for COVID-19 are not available for Indians at the pace necessary. Vaccinations for Indians will not be complete before November 2022. The government's new policy will allow vaccine makers to hike up prices, but not produce fast enough to cover needs (India's public sector vaccine factories are sitting idle). No large-scale rapid procurement is on the cards. Nor is there enough medical oxygen, and promises to build capacity have been unfulfilled by the ruling party. India's government has been exporting oxygen, even when it became clear that domestic reserves were depleted (it has also exported precious Remdesivir injections).

On March 25, 2020, Modi said that he would win this Mahabharat—this epic battle—against COVID-19 in 18 days. Now, more than 56 weeks after that promise, India looks more like the blood-soaked fields of Kurukshetra, where thousands lay dead, with the war not even at halftime.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

India’s right-wing government is so hungry for profit it will risk a famine

India's right-wing government has been deploying all the modern tools of repression against a historic farmers' protest. Much is at stake. For the people of India, their agricultural system is about to get far more precarious. For its farmers, ruin, and bankruptcy for millions, is all but guaranteed. For the government of Narendra Modi and his elite backers, it's a crossroads moment; they calculate that their political power is assured for decades if they can refashion the politics of rural India and force dependency upon the farmers.

The farmers are protesting because the three farm bills, which were passed by the central government in September 2020, will dismantle the state-run agricultural procurement system in Punjab and Haryana, the breadbasket states of India.

In its defense, the Modi government has simultaneously claimed that the bills will enable a great modernization and also that nothing will change; the billionaires who will benefit (Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani's Adani Group) have denied having any interest in entering the newly privatized business.

The billionaires have been set loose in the henhouse. As Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty from the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics reported, India's top 1 percent in today's "Billionaire Raj" have a similar share of the national income as the top 1 percent did under the British Raj.

The "Billionaire Raj" is preparing to turn India back from a country of hunger (on the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India is 94th out of 107 countries) to a country of famine.

Agrarian Crisis Rooted in British Colonialism

The roots of India's agrarian crisis are far deeper than the three new laws. The seeds of the agrarian crisis were planted in the soil of British colonialism.

Precolonial India was characterized by historian H.H. Khondker in 1986 as a moral economy, a "social arrangement which guarantees a minimum subsistence for all." In Mike Davis' book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, he argued that "Mogul India was generally free of famine until the 1770s. There is considerable evidence, moreover, that in pre-British India before the creation of a railroad-girded national market in grain, village-level food reserves were larger, patrimonial welfare more widespread, and grain prices in surplus areas better insulated against speculation." The Mogul state "regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation," relying on "a quartet of fundamental policies—embargos on food exports, antispeculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without a forced-labor counterpart—that were an anathema to later British Utilitarians." The Marathas, another major pre-British power in India, forced local elites to feed the hungry during famines. The British were horrified, calling this the "enforced charity of hundreds of rich men." The Sikh Empire ruled in Punjab, where many of the protesting farmers are from. Its rulers enacted land reforms even while fighting the Mughals and the British.

Then the British East India Company took over the collection of revenues in Bengal, and the British Empire spread its tentacles across the subcontinent.

Historian Navyug Gill summarized the British system as follows in an article in Outlook Magazine: the British introduced "caste-based private property, the tethering of revenue demands to cash payments, and embedding agriculture within global circuits of production and consumption… [A]ctual harvests no longer corresponded to taxation rates, and fluctuations in commodity prices meant drastic swings between modest prosperity and widespread impoverishment. A bumper crop could be rendered worthless by uncontrollable forces in far-off parts of the empire, and yet the revenue would still have to be paid. The bane of those who became peasants was being at the mercy of the state as much as the seasons."

The commodification of food followed—and so did famine.

Providing insights about the extent of famines in India under the British rule, Davis' book highlights that "[a]lthough the British insisted that they had rescued India from 'timeless hunger,' more than one [district] official was jolted when Indian nationalists quoted from an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that contrasted 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia." The British imposed new humiliations: "Requiring the poor to work for relief, a practice begun in 1866 in Bengal under the influence of the Victorian Poor Law, was in flat contradiction to the Bengali premise that food should be given ungrudgingly, as a father gives food to his children."

As H.H. Khondker noted, British writer W.H. Moreland in the 1923 book From Akbar to Aurangzeb "made a distinction between" "work famines" under British imperialism and precolonial "food famines." During the pre-imperialism period, people starved because of actual food shortages. Under imperialism, people starved because they were poor, had no employment, and therefore couldn't be fed under a Victorian morality that said you couldn't get something for nothing.

An Economist article published in 1883, which was quoted in Dan Morgan's 1979 book Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World's Food Supply, stated, "A good wheat harvest is still as much needed as ever to feed our closely packed [British] population. But it is the harvest already turning brown in the scorching sun of Canada and the Western States—the wheat already ripe in India and California, not the growth alone of the Eastern counties and of Lincolnshire, that will be summoned to feed the hungry mouth of London and Lancashire."

Mass death through starvation was the price of enabling the British Empire to build a truly global, militarized economy in grain, under which agriculture in all reaches of the globe could serve imperial designs and food itself could become a weapon. Food insecurity for the colonies purchased food security for the metropole.

German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "Famines do not simply occur; they are organized by the grain trade."

Development experiences between India and China are often compared and can be useful here as well.

Pre-colonized China was even better organized than Mughal India. Before the 1839 Opium War, China under the Qing dynasty "had both the technology and political will to shift grain massively between regions and, thus, relieve hunger on a larger scale than any previous polity in world history," as Davis explained in Late Victorian Holocausts.

Imperialism in China led to famine there too, the largest of which occurred in 1876. The multiple Opium Wars, which forced the Chinese government to pay massive reparations to its invaders and plunderers, shattered the old food security system. The state "was reduced to desultory cash relief augmented by private donations and humiliating foreign charity," Davis wrote.

In both India and China, the years of imperialism—the commodification of grain—condemned tens of millions to death by starvation.

Food Security in Independent India and China

Post-Independence, newly sovereign India and China both attempted to get their countries back on the path of food security. Both efforts had initially disastrous results. China had a severe post-Independence famine from 1959 to 1961, worse even than the ones under imperialism. China corrected this trajectory and went on to eliminate hunger and, in 2018, to eradicate poverty as well, as reported at the time by Chinese writer Qin Ling and in Robert Lawrence Kuhn's documentary film "Voices from the Frontline: China's War on Poverty," which was initially aired on PBS before being pulled in May 2020.

In stark contrast with China, India did not have a famine since Independence, but has tolerated chronic hunger. In the most famous comparison of the two countries, economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in their 1991 book Hunger and Public Action that:

"Comparing India's death rate of 12 per thousand with China's of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958–61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame."

India's National Family Health Survey for 2019-20 showed that in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, sometimes touted as an economic model, 39 percent of children under the age of five have had their growth stunted by malnutrition. The report is full of similar achievements, state-by-state, by the current Indian government. Approximately 25 percent of all hungry people live in India, where around 195 million people are undernourished. Thousands per day, perhaps a million per year, die of malnutrition in India, most of whom are children.

A majority of the population lives in poverty.

India's Flawed Agrarian System

Navyug Gill outlined the limited nature of India's post-Independence agrarian system in his article about the roots of the farm bill demonstrations. "[W]hat was put in place from the 1950s onwards was a system of rules, quotas and regulations meant only to minimize the worst of colonial depredations. The purpose was to mainly fulfil the growing needs of a famine-stricken country while bringing about a modicum of stability for landholders of varying sizes. In other words, the state modified and re-directed rather than transcended the tensions among national food supply, capitalist imperatives and rural wellbeing."

Let's go into the details of these measures, using several interviews conducted in different media with agriculture researcher Devinder Sharma as our source material.

From India's independence in 1947 until the mid-1960s, India was dependent on food aid from the United States' PL 480 program. The Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) were established in the 1960s with the intention of getting India off of this dependence on U.S. food aid. The system was built in tandem with the U.S.-sponsored Green Revolution, which sought to use capital-intensive, high-tech, high-input techniques to increase yields. The danger was that in the absence of such a system, higher yields would lead directly to a crash in agricultural prices, the ruination of farmers, and a British Empire-style cycle of disaster.

Two pieces were put in place to protect against this. First, government-run markets, the so-called "mandis," were set up where the government would purchase the farmers' grain at a guaranteed price (which would later be called the "minimum support price," or MSP) if the private sector could not. Second, the government, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), would "mop up" the surplus production in bumper crop years and move that grain to deficient areas through the public distribution system. The system worked: the Green Revolution yields did indeed materialize. The mandis raised enough in taxes to fund not only the market infrastructure but also a network of village roads and certain rural development funds. Dependence on PL 480 grain was broken. And there were no more famines.

There were, however, flaws with the system. First, as environmental activist Vandana Shiva documented, the environmental effects of the Green Revolution rendered it unsustainable in the long term. Second, environmental unsustainability was matched by financial instability; the imported American model of the Green Revolution was based on saddling farmers with impossible levels of debt.

There were also limitations, including a gap in procurement, as Sharma explains: despite the announcement of the MSP for 23 crops, only two (wheat and rice) are actually procured by the government—and without actual government procurement, the mere announcement of an MSP is meaningless. Infrastructural limitations also reduced the system's effectiveness, as Sharma goes on to say: the goal was for farmers to have access to a mandi within 5 kilometers, which would have meant setting up 42,000 mandis. But in more than 50 years, only 7,000 mandis have been established.

The result of these limitations is that only 6 percent of farmers access the minimum support price (MSP), while 94 percent are dependent on the market, explains Sharma during an interview with Newsworthy. The fact that so few farmers access the MSP is used by government proponents to argue that the farm bills are removing the last fetters on an efficient market. But, Sharma asks, while quoting figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, if the market system is so good for India's farmers, why have 364,000 of them committed suicide since 1995? Why do farmers want an assured—and higher—MSP? The analogy with the labor market is clear enough—if the labor market were as good as free-market proponents claim, why would there be a need for a minimum wage, much less unemployment insurance?

The private buyers who want to get into the government business have promised that farmers would get higher prices than the MSP from them. Devinder Sharma asked during his interview why they would have any objection at all to a minimum support price, if they planned to pay more. He points out that the state of Bihar, which did away with its APMC system in 2006, sees farmers trucking wheat and rice into Punjab and Haryana to sell at the (now threatened) minimum support price guaranteed in those states.

The APMCs are accused of being government middlemen, Sharma notes. But the biggest fortunes in the world are already being amassed by middlemen "wearing a tie and a suit," from Walmart to Amazon, who want "to replace the traditional middlemen" the government has acted as. India's super-rich, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, are the picture of the American-style, well-connected, monopolist middleman. If the farm bills are not repealed, the new private grain trade will fall into their laps.

Years ago, Canadian agricultural economist Ian McCreary did a study of the Indian food procurement system. In an interview on February 6, McCreary told me that after crunching three decades of numbers, he found the Indian system to be "quite successful in its objectives" of providing stable prices and food security. The government assumed the financial risks, of which there were several. On the one hand, low international prices combined with a bumper crop at home would see India trying to store grain (expensive in India) or export at a loss. On the other hand, importing in a year when prices were high could get extremely expensive. But neither of these problems could be solved by privatization, as McCreary explained: "If the government wanted to contract out the storage, they could have done that within the structure of the current system." And even after privatization, if prices rose to the point where millions of people couldn't afford to purchase food, the government would still be responsible for feeding them.

McCreary had concluded that extending government procurement at the minimum support price to pulse crops from drier and less productive regions would benefit both farmers and those who received food through the public distribution system. While he shared concern for the farmers, McCreary was also very concerned about the food security implications of the new farm bills. "Poor consumers are going to be very vulnerable in the event of international prices being driven up."

The government weighs these implications against opportunities for Reliance and Adani to make profits in a new market. McCreary further said, "When you move from a situation where [the] market is controlled and prices operate within a defined range, to one where you're exposed to the market, the players that buy and sell grain to arbitrage have [the] potential to make quite a bit of money."

Privatization of Grain Procurement in Canada

India's rulers look to the West for inspiration; but in fact, Western agriculture should be an inspiration to no one. The nightmarish consequences of privatized corporate agriculture are poorly understood by those who see only Western agriculture's productivity and not its real social and environmental costs.

Take the example of Canada. The privatization of government grain procurement in India today under Narendra Modi is analogous to the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) in 2012 under Canada's right-wing former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Established in 1935, the CWB was a farmer-run, farmer-funded marketing agency that worked through a "single desk"—private buyers had to buy from the Wheat Board and could not negotiate prices directly with farmers. Farmers earned more. Former National Farmers Union (NFU) president Terry Boehm estimated before the privatization that "Wheat Board marketing and single-desk selling bring hundreds of millions more dollars to farmers each year than they would receive in an open market." Like India's system, the CWB was privatized amid half-hearted murmurings about "increased economic opportunities" for farmers through a rapid and deceitful piece of legislation—in this case, called the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act. The elected board was dismissed, the assets turned over to their new owners, a joint venture called G3 Global Grain Group. Within two years of the privatization of the CWB, several of the grain companies increased their profits by billions.

Like the APMC, the CWB wasn't perfect—some farmers no doubt had believed they would do better on their own, while others complained about a lack of transparency. These farmers, Boehm says, "now labor under a system dominated by multinational grain companies that disclose almost nothing." Ed Sagan, another NFU member, did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that an average farmer has probably lost nearly half their income since the CWB was dismantled—a figure confirmed by multiple years of Statistics Canada reports. A chart produced by the union outlines many of the depressing new realities.

Meanwhile, the United States, Canada, and the EU are demanding India produce less locally and provide a bigger market for highly subsidized grain sourced from the metropole. Economist Prabhat Patnaik has noted that "diversification away from food grain production and importing food grains instead from imperialist countries has been a demand of the U.S. and EU for quite some time."

Looking Beyond the West for Solutions

Neither Canada nor the United States offers any kind of model for agriculture. In the United States, farm incomes are on a continuous decline, and rural suicides are on a continuous rise. Throughout Europe and North America, agriculture is heavily subsidized, with the average U.S. farm receiving subsidies of tens of thousands per year ($61,286 in support per farmer, compared to $282 per Indian farmer, by one estimate). Indian farmers have the suicides, but they will never have the subsidies, nor will they have a fraction of the land per farmer that North American and European farmers have.

The development advice given to developing countries by the IMF and World Bank for the past several decades has been to depopulate the countryside and move the people into cities. People have moved. They were living in cities at the edge of survival, and when COVID-19 hit, they found themselves unable to survive there, leading to the largest urban-to-rural migration in human history. But more than half of the people of India still make their livelihoods from agriculture, which receives a public sector investment of 0.4 percent of GDP (compared, as Sharma points out in an interview with Enquiry, to 6 percent of GDP in tax concessions to the corporate sector annually, a number that has only grown with recent corporate tax cuts).

So what could be done? China recently eliminated rural poverty, but there is little in China's recent experience, with dedicated government and party cadres helping individual rural families with income-generating and income-supplementing initiatives, that India can emulate.

But there is no reason India couldn't find its own way to eliminate poverty. There is much that could be done, starting with Sharma's suggestions: The minimum support price could be extended to more crops, the price raised, and the number of mandis increased to reach the one-per-5-kilometers goal. The state of Kerala has set a minimum price of 20 percent above the cost of production for vegetables—and the prices end up higher than they announce. In PM Modi's own state of Gujarat, there's a very successful dairy cooperative called Amul. The cooperative model could be fruitfully extended to provide better livelihoods for farmers. Between work produced by national commissions, peasant movements, economists, and policy analysts, Navyug Gill has pointed out that "real alternative solutions are actually not hard to come by."

As so often occurs in our neocolonial world, it is the colonial baggage that must be discarded. Once it is, solutions present themselves in abundance.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

Biden makes an opening move in a thorny foreign policy challenge

The frozen lake of US-Iran confrontation is generating a pinging sound. The cracking of the ice is yet to produce that loud booming thunderclap. But these are early days.

It was only last Thursday that the US and the three European states who are party to the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal) — Germany, France and UK, or the 'E3' — lobbed a joint statement across the court to Tehran, whereby the Joe Biden Administration announced its willingness to return to diplomacy with Iran.

It was an opening move, where the Biden administration merely reiterated its position that it will return to the JCPOA if Tehran returns to strict compliance with it. The E3 and the US seek to strengthen the JCPOA to address broader security concerns related to Iran. But certain other moves went along with it on the same day:

  • Washington expressed its acceptance of an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the so-called P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – with Iran for an informal "diplomatic conversation" to chart a way forward;
  • The Biden administration rescinded the Trump administration's decision in September 2020 to invoke "snapback sanctions" worldwide at the United Nations—a provision under Security Council Resolution 2231 – that was earlier rejected by the other 14 members of the council; and,
  • The Biden administration also informed Iran's UN Mission in New York that it had removed Trump's travel restrictions on its diplomats in New York, which allows them now to move anywhere within a 25-mile radius of the UN Hqs. Some Iranian officials also may be allowed to travel to the UN.

A conversation between US and Iranian diplomats in an informal setting certainly serves a purpose insofar as it is a follow-up on an idea floated by Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during an interview with the CNN on February 1 that the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could assume the role of coordinator and create a mechanism to choreograph the steps to be taken simultaneously by both Iran and the US sides to achieve JCPOA reinstatement.

By Saturday, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, the country's chief nuclear negotiator, was on record that Tehran too is considering the proposition from Brussels and would "respond to this proposal [on informal meeting] in the future."

Now, it is easy to see that the retraction on the "snapback sanctions" and the removal of restrictions on Iranian diplomats are necessary pre-requisites of a US-Iranian engagement.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Biden said at the virtual Munich Security Conference that the US is driven to "reengage in negotiations" to revive the JCPOA. He added a positive note, "We need transparency and communication to minimise the rise of strategic misunderstanding or mistakes."

On Sunday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US has started talks with Iran over the return of at least five American hostages whom Tehran is holding. "We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue," Sullivan said.

On Sunday, again, Rafael Grossi, the head of the IAEA, met with Iranian officials in Tehran to try to maintain his inspectors' ability to monitor Tehran's nuclear program. After the talks, a joint statement was issued, which suggests that "a temporary bilateral technical understanding" has been reached for a 3-month period ahead to continue necessary verification and monitoring activities.

But the deal also calls for less access for IAEA inspectors and no more snap inspections. That is to say, Iran is sticking to its stance that unless the US lifted the sanctions, it will soon abandon the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA, but is only partially curbing the inspectors' activity at this point.

Broadly, both the US and Iran are slowly but steadily edging back to the negotiating table. Both want the other party to go first, and neither would allow perceptions of weakness to form or that they're acting under pressure. It's a delicate tango where both are also compromising while appearing to be otherwise.

The Sunday Times newspaper carried a sensational report yesterday quoting a national security source that the US is considering sanctions relief for Iran as a first step towards reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. If so, Washington is about to make the first move on the expectation that Tehran would reciprocate with some significant compromises.

"Sanctions relief is definitely coming, not today or tomorrow but it is coming," Sunday Times quoted its source. But the catch is that Iran can return to the JCPOA by ceasing to enrich uranium over the limit set by the deal, exporting most of its stockpile, and warehousing banned centrifuges. Whereas, the Biden administration has far more difficult path to traverse by way of untangling scores of Trump-era financial, economic, trade, targeted personal and business sanctions and lift those that violate the JCPOA.

One possibility is that the Biden Administration may move in this direction after the "diplomatic conversation" that the EU foreign policy chief is facilitating. In Tehran's estimation, the lifting of US sanctions is now a foregone conclusion, only a matter of time. There is much optimism that the White House will not allow any interference by the US' regional allies.

A commentary in Iran's official news agency IRNA draws satisfaction that President Biden "gave a cold shoulder" to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and has not forgotten the latter's defiant behaviour toward President Obama by attending a congressional hearing in Washington without being invited by the administration and criticising the administration's negotiations with Iran. It had "angered the then Vice President Joe Biden who shouted that no authority in Israel has the right to humiliate the US president. Netanyahu has been advised to avoid direct confrontation with the Biden administration."

Again, there is talk that the White House intends to release a redacted version of the CIA report on the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul in 2018. If the report holds the Saudi Crown Prince as culpable for the murder, it will rock the US-Saudi relations. Biden has made his aversion toward the Crown Prince known by letting it be known that he will only interact with King Salman.

Clearly, there is a profound sense of unease in Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the Biden administration's decision to engage with Iran. Conceivably, Tehran senses that a historic moment is at hand marking the end of the US' decades-old strategy to encircle Iran with an alliance of the Gulf Arab states and Israel.

As the situation around Iran begins to transform through the coming weeks and months, the West Asian politics and the regional security scenario will change beyond recognition. The Western powers are for the first time talking about the imperative need of reconciliation between and amongst the regional states of the Persian Gulf instead of fuelling the regional rifts and capitalising on them.

In their statement of February 18, the US and E3 "expressed their joint determination to work toward de-escalating tensions in the Gulf region." By force of circumstances, the Western powers are appropriating an idea that Russia and China have been expounding all along.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Chomsky and Prashad: Why we need a tribunal on governments' crimes against humanity during COVID

Warnings that the oxygen supply was running out in the city of Manaus, Brazil, came to local and federal government officials a week before the calamity led to the deaths by asphyxiation of patients afflicted with COVID-19. No modern state—such as Brazil—should have to admit that it did nothing when these warnings came in and simply allowed its own citizens to die for no reason.

A Supreme Court judge and the solicitor general have demanded that the Brazilian government act, but this has not moved Jair Bolsonaro's administration. Everything about this story—detailed in Solicitor General José Levi do Amaral's report—reveals the rot of privatization and incompetence. The local health officials knew in early January that there was going to be an oxygen shortage imminently, but their warning did not carry any weight. A private contractor who had the job of providing the oxygen informed the government six days before the city ran out of this crucial supply in the fight against COVID-19. Even with the contractor's information, the government did nothing; it would later say—against all scientific advice—that early treatment for coronavirus did not work. The insensitivity and incompetence of the government of Bolsonaro have led General Prosecutor Augusto Aras to call for a special probe. As Bolsonaro dithered, the government of Venezuela, in an act of solidarity, sent a shipment of oxygen to Manaus.

The latest development caused by the government's toxic mix of privatization, ineptitude, and callousness should strengthen the case brought by Brazil's health care unions against Jair Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in July. But the problem is not the fault of Bolsonaro alone or even of Brazil. The problem lies in the neoliberal governments, governments in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and others, governments whose commitments to profit-making firms and billionaires far outstrip their commitment to their own citizens or to their own constitutions. What we are seeing in countries such as Brazil is a crime against humanity.

It is time to impanel a citizens' tribunal to investigate the utter failure of the governments of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and others to break the chain of the infection of COVID-19. Such a tribunal would collect the factual information that would ensure that we do not allow these states to tamper with the crime scene; the tribunal would provide the ICC with a firm foundation to do a forensic investigation of this crime against humanity when its own political suffocation is eased.

We should all be outraged. But, outrage is not a strong enough word.

Noam Chomsky is a legendary linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He is the laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. His most recent book is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Joe Biden unveils 2 big surprises sending a powerful signal he's pivoting to the left

The US president-elect Joe Biden did two spectacular things last week which may rewrite the assumption that his presidency would return America back to the Barack Obama era. One was the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan Biden rolled out Thursday and the other his choice of William Burns, veteran diplomat, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Seemingly unrelated, these two things convey a powerful signal that Biden understands that the real pandemic danger in America is social collapse and what is needed is a national policy that prevents societal disintegration — and a foreign policy which reflects that top priority.

Biden's advisors had let it be known back in October that if elected, even without waiting until Inauguration Day, he would right away provide an immediate fiscal relief the American economy needs and directed and targeted to middle-class and lower-class families, to the smallest businesses instead of just the big corporations that have the best connections to big banks, since "families need to put food on the table to pay their electricity bills, to keep roofs over their heads."

Biden has kept his word. His spending proposal sets aside $400 billion to address the coronavirus; $1 trillion in direct relief to families and individuals; and $440 billion to help communities and businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic. The proposal envisages:

  • Topping up the $600 cash relief passed by Congress last month with $1400 payments additionally;
  • Hike in unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week through September;
  • Fourteen weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave;
  • Raise in national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums;
  • $160 billion earmarked for a broad range of programs, including coronavirus vaccination, testing, therapeutics, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, etc.;
  • $ 170 billion for schools;
  • Billions of dollars earmarked for underserved populations (eg., African-Americans), including health services on tribal lands;
  • Billions of dollars more for helping long-term care workers and who have borne the brunt of the pandemic (and who are disproportionately Blacks.)

It is an unabashedly progressive agenda that the left has been trying to advance for decades — and, arguably, the bulk of them do not even have anything to do with the health emergency as such but are social welfare measures.

Interestingly, Biden is not seeking to raise everybody's taxes to pay for this, but instead proposes to pay for this plan with a series of tax increases on the wealthy, including taxing capital gains as regular income and increasing the marginal tax rate for top earners to almost 40% which he'd announce in spring as a second long-term broader recovery package to "build back" the economy.

The writings of the renowned Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović come to mind. Milanović is famous for his work on income distribution, inequality and poverty. Formerly chief economist at the World Bank and currently teaching at the London School of Economics and the New York City University, his latest work Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World figured in the Foreign Affairs list of Best Books and earned him acclaim as one among the top 50 thinkers in the year 2020.

Milanović wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs last year in March noticing the lengthening shadows of the pandemic stealthily advancing in America at that time. With extraordinary prescience, he forewarned that "the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off."

"Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry… If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate. Thus the main (perhaps even the sole) objective of economic policy today should be to prevent social breakdown. Advanced societies must not allow economics, particularly the fortunes of financial markets, to blind them to the fact that the most important role economic policy can play now is to keep social bonds strong under this extraordinary pressure."


On the eve of Biden's address on Thursday, he announced that Ambassador William Burns will be the Director of the CIA in his administration. It is an unusual choice. Indeed, it is not unusual for an "outsider" to head the CIA. During the past quarter century, out of the ten CIA directors, seven came from "outside" — a smattering of generals and a string of politicians. Yet in CIA's 73-year history, this will be the first time that the agency is going to be led by a career diplomat.

Biden has made an optimal choice. Burns is widely praised as a "titan of the foreign-policy world" and also happens to belong to that breed of diplomats who believe that diplomacy and espionage are two sides of the same coin. In his wonderful book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Burns wrote that in foreign policy, diplomats ought to "harness all the tools of American statecraft—from the soft power of ideas, culture, and public diplomacy, to…intelligence-gathering and covert action".

Interestingly, Burns disavows the so-called "militarisation" of foreign policy. When asked about it in an interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns estimated that "time and time again, we've seen how over-reliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand. Time and time again, we've fallen into the trap of overusing—or prematurely using—force. That comes at much greater cost in American blood and treasure, and tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought."

Without doubt, the choice of Burns is emblematic of where Biden is headed in the conduct of foreign policy. Biden sees Burns as eminently qualified to reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power while charioting the intelligence community to devote more attention to its mission of complementing diplomacy.

Burns is also a rare diplomat-intellectual with a mind of his own — who believes that active coordination with China and Russia is necessary to address global challenges to US foreign policy, who derisively looks at the Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy against Iran being a spectacular failure, who maintains that NATO's post-cold war expansion was a grave mistake that derailed relations with Russia, and who strongly argues for arms control talks with Russia in mutual interests.

In the interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns spoke about the directions of US foreign policy in the contemporary world situation. He said: "The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. To put it bluntly, America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. That's not meant to be a declinist argument. In fact, I'm still bullish about America's place in the century unfolding before us. We can't turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world's pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely."

Biden's choice of Burns as CIA director underscores his intention to put diplomacy first in the US foreign policies. It also means engagement, based on the realistic understanding that the US can no longer impose its will on other countries.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift in power and influence from West to East. Biden reposes confidence in Burns to lead the intelligence community into a brave new world where the post-cold war "unipolar moment" has vanished forever.

Fundamentally, Biden's expectation would be that the US foreign and security policies will reflect his national strategy, "which not only begins at home, in a strong political and economic system, but ends there, too, in more jobs, more prosperity, a healthier environment and better security" — to borrow Burns' words.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.


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