29 Apr 2020: The Indian Express Editorial Analysis
1) Reset and reform-
In his interaction with state chief ministers on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about the need for ushering(hurrying) in reforms that touch the lives of citizens. While details of the specific reforms the government intends to pursue(follow), or the possible roadmap, are still to be spelt out, the ongoing crisis provides an opportunity for a conversation on re-evaluating the state’s priorities.
Two areas in particular deserve attention: First, the glaring(serious) inadequacies(shortfalls) of the healthcare system in India. And second, the absence of safety nets(schemes) for large sections of the labour force, including migrant labour. They need to be addressed urgently.
PUBLIC SPENDING ON HEALTHCARE:
Public spending on healthcare in India continues to languish(suffer), falling well below levels in other countries which are at similar levels of income. Yet, over the years, there has been a tendency to favour an insurance-based model, moving away from significantly expanding the public provision of healthcare facilities.
This crisis is exposing the inadequacies and limits of that model. In the Union Budget of 2020-21, central government spending on health was pegged at Rs 67,484 crore, or 2.1 per cent of its total budgetary outlay. Government spending on health, at all levels, needs to be significantly increased.
Yet, merely ramping(increasing) up spending is unlikely to lead to the desired outcomes as preferences for private alternatives may dominate. Thus, spending plans will have to be reconfigured(reassessed) to ensure a commensurate(to that proportion) rise in the quality of public healthcare facilities, in addition to ensuring accountability for the services being offered.
The focus has to shift to primary healthcare, neglect of which leads to a rise in overall healthcare costs down the line, as well as lowering health outcomes.
The centralised model of healthcare spending also needs to be reexamined. As this crisis has shown, states have varying levels of institutional capacity, and going ahead, this needs to be factored in.
The pandemic has also exposed the precarious(unstable) living condition of casual wage labourers, including the large migrant population, and their difficulties in accessing basic services.
Dependent largely on daily wages, this section of the labour force does not have safety nets, and a drop in their incomes can push them into poverty.
To address this, a social security architecture that is geared(moving) towards ensuring access to healthcare services, providing short-term relief for loss of income, and compensation for occupational hazard(risk), needs to be urgently considered.
There is need to ensure portability(transferred from one to another) of benefits, such as the provision of food through the public distribution system. The long-term strategy should be to bring greater numbers into the formal workforce, which will provide them with some form of social security.
The government could incentivise(encourage) this shift by funding part of the social security contributions, as it has done through the Pradhan Mantri Rojgar Protsahan Yojana (PMRPY) where it pays the full employers’ contribution towards their provident fund.
2) School’s out-
The University Grants Commission held a meeting on Monday to consider a tentative(not certain or fixed) academic calendar for the current year, and the need to promote online learning and conduct common admission tests via the internet, but school education is not getting the attention it deserves.
When the national lockdown started, schools had scrambled(struggled) to take their courses online. They had been quite innovative in uncharted waters, using digital resources available in teachers’ homes to conduct classes online.
Formidable(strong) challenges were faced — limited bandwidth, personal computers and phones unequal to professional work, and teachers and students falling back on the communications grammar of the live classroom, which produces confusion online.
Parents have had to bear the burden of keeping electronic classrooms in order — by keeping their wards(children) in check — and have been devoting half their day to their education, while working from home themselves.
And everyone involved has discovered that electronic education is not a complete solution. Paper, pens and geometry sets are still essential, even though stationery shops are closed.
The purpose of a lockdown is to delay a crisis while the state and institutions marshal(collect) their resources. This is being achieved, though imperfectly, in public health.
But much needs to be done in school education, on which the more distant future depends, and which is in urgent need of the support of the state and the IT industry.
Back in 2006, the MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative came a cropper in India over a question of how just Rs 450 crore should be spent. But today, a similar project to make all students capable of receiving digital education seems essential.
Low broadband penetration and the preponderance(majority) of prepaid mobile connections suggests that large sections of the population are low on data, and the consequent digital divide calls for subsidies.
Besides, both teachers and students need training in how to operate in the electronic classroom, and how to deal with digital workflows.
State-backed television and radio, along with community radio in underserved places, can help to bridge this divide temporarily. In fact, education was part of the original remit of Doordarshan.
But eventually, the school system would have to cut the cord(end to rely on someone or something protective or supportive and begin to act independently) and learn to operate online as effectively as it does in the physical classroom.
The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to make it possible, with a little help from the state and the industry.
3) Our children need a happy, congenial environment to grow up in, not a climate of fear-
A child’s mind is like a wet clay waiting to be moulded(given) into shapes — good, bad or ugly. According to Benjamin Spock, an American paediatrician(medical practitioner specializing in children) whose book Baby and Child Care is amongst the best-selling books in history, 85 per cent of the child’s mind is developed by the age of five.
This is spelt out lucidly(simply) by Robert Fulghum in his magnum opus “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten”: “Share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, clear up your mess, don’t take things that are not yours, when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together!”
The damage to our planet by environmental pollution has been a hot topic of discussion for decades. There are, however, equally serious if not greater dangers which no one talks about — the consequences of the pollution of minds, especially those of the young.
If the formative years are so crucial, it is vital that what a child is exposed to is healthy and positive. In the global village, there are streams of messages floating around, generated by mutual hatred. Children are mercilessly(no pity) left to infer(understand) what they can from these.
The consequences are unimaginably disastrous(harmful). The seed of poison is planted without much notice. This cancer affects the soul, curbs(restricts) the development of the individual and constrains personality. Fear and aggression get ingrained(rooted) in the psyche(mind).
With the phenomenal expansion of TV, a child’s exposure to the outside world is enormous(huge). Hate and violence pre-dominate TV content.
According to an American study, by the time a child is 18, (s)he has been exposed to 2,00,000 acts of violence, including 25,000 killings. So much exposure to violence brutalizes(harms) children more than adults. They tend to take murder as a way of life.
Experts believe that violence shown in the media is the single largest source of pathogenic and criminogenic(causing or likely to cause criminal behaviour) imagery. Aggressive characters become children’s role models and many of them grow up to be angry young men and women.
Their belief in the established legal system is subverted(reduced). The cases of mob lynching and people taking the law into their own hands prove the point.
PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL:
The pollution of the minds of adolescents(teenager) is as severe, if not more. The crisis of identity makes this age segment vulnerable to physical and psychological(related to mind) behavioural problems. They are overtaken by several emotional problems like anger, aggression, depression, loneliness, insecurity and feelings of guilt.
The physiological changes lead to adolescents getting involved in high-risk behaviour like sexual experimentation and drugs. Crimes by and against adolescents surface in many forms like eve-teasing(unwanted sexual remarks or advances by a man to a woman in a public place), abduction(kidnap), rape, incest(sexual intercourse with a parent, child, sibling, or grandchild), prostitution, and sexual harassment.
How can we forget that in the horrendous(horrific) December 2012 Delhi rape and murder case, the most brutal offender was a teenager? In many cases of mob lynching and communal and caste violence, teenagers have been in the forefront.
Mind pollution typically expresses itself in the creation of stereotypes(widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing). This could be about gender, communities, religion, ethnic groups, or any other distinction.
Targeting them with hate and violence is often the next step. One particularly severe pollutant is communalism(fight between communities), which calls for some elaboration as an example. The child’s mind is the worst victim of this pollution.
In my professional upper-middle-class setting, my seven-year-old son returns from a posh Delhi school and asks me, “Papa, are we Musalmaans?” Bewildered(confused) at first, I questioned him: “Why do you ask?” “A boy in my class was telling other children,” he answered. This was 30 years ago. It is a hundred times worse now.
Nazia Erum, in her book Mothering a Muslim, has amply documented this phenomenon, where Muslim children as young as three have been called terrorists by their classmates. The communalisation of textbooks, demonising some communities in the process, is aggravating the situation.
“WE AND THEY”:
The “we and they” being instilled in young minds is a terrible form of mental pollution. This not only fills them with anger and hatred for the “other”, but instills in them a fear of the other. As Edmund Burke has observed, “No passion so effectually robs(steals) the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” It will not be wrong to say that living in fear is a self-inflicted(self-given) punishment.
All pollution spreads through agents or carriers. Propaganda(information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view) is a major carrier. In the wake of a few unfortunate terrorist acts, a well-orchestrated(designed) campaign dubs the entire Muslim community as terrorists.
Some obscurantists(one who prevents development) trumpet derisive slogans about Muslims like, “Hum paanch, hamare pachees” (we are five – husband and four wives – and have 25 children), and an image is deliberately or mischievously created of Muslims as polygamists.
This is designed to cause a rift between communities. They have achieved tremendous success. This is a travesty of facts.
The only study on marriage customs (‘Towards Equality — The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1975’) found that all the communities in India, including Hindus, had incidences of polygamy(having more than one wife). Muslims, in fact, had the least!
The 227th Report of the Law Commission of India (2009) on prevention of bigamy(offence of marrying someone while already married to another person) via conversion to Islam stated that as many as one crore Hindu men had more than one wife, compared to 12 lakh Muslim men, as per the 1971 census.
The media, unfortunately, has played a key role in the propagation of distorted images. With the proliferation(increase) of social media, fear and hatred have become visceral(relating to deep inward feelings). Individuals can easily find others who share those feelings and this soon leads to a mob mentality.
Now, let us turn to the Muslims. Some on the lunatic(idiot) fringe talk of “jihad against the infidel(kafir)” as a religious duty and a passport to Jannat (paradise). But enroute(on the way) to Jannat, hell is created. They conveniently forget the fact that the concept of jihad in Islam meant a struggle within to overcome illiteracy, ignorance, and immoral desires.
The resistance to mind pollution has to start with the realisation of its disastrous consequences — direct and imminent(likely to happen soon). We need serious research to quantify the possible damage by mind pollution, as has been done for environmental pollution. We cannot wait a day longer. Mind pollution has to be stopped. Moreover, the pollution that has already taken place has to be addressed.
While parents have to rise to play their role, the responsibility of the state, education system, judiciary, and the media needs to be especially recognised.
Children require a happy and congenial(suitable) environment when they are growing up, not fear and hatred. The coronavirus will, hopefully, disappear soon. But the communal virus will continue to haunt us for long. Let’s not build a nation at war with itself.