In any other country, the sheer number of the victims would have merited flags flying at half-mast. But in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, where marginalized communities and minorities feel increasingly cornered, everything has been business as usual. The Indian prime minister — after remaining silent for a week — used his Independence Day address to the nation to offer condolences for the deaths. In what was a bit of a soulless message, Modi said that “several parts of the country faced natural calamities recently” and that “innocent children lost their lives in a hospital.”
More than 60 children died allegedly due to negligence in a state ruled by his party — but they couldn’t elicit a paragraph of their own in the prime minister’s speech. Modi’s cursory reference to a possibly preventable tragedy in a state-run hospital, which he equated to the randomness of natural disasters, is alarming given that India is still grappling to provide a better, disease-free life to its children. While the country managed to bring down its infant mortality rate by 16 points over the past decade, that rate is still higher than poorer neighbors such as Bangladesh and Nepal and the African countries of Rwanda and Botswana.
The government effort to play down the tragedy began before Modi’s remarks, when Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Adityanath, blamed the incident on a lack of cleanliness. Contrast this with 2013, when 23 children died in a remote village in Bihar in eastern India after eating contaminated state-provided school lunch. Then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went beyond offering condolences in his Independence Day speech and promised action, including a reform of the state’s school lunch program (the world’s largest).
“The tragedy that happened in Bihar some days back should not be repeated anywhere in the country,” Singh stressed four years ago. Something like this was expected from Modi’s speech, especially since he has never been short on rhetoric. However, his one-sentence dismissal of the Gorakhpur tragedy has sent a clear message to India that he is answerable to neither the parents of the children in particular or to the people of India in general. It was yet another reminder of how the Modi-led BJP government has been steadily pushing India toward a fascist, right-wing regime.
Modi’s reluctance to address the issue is also perhaps an attempt to divert attention from his government’s inability to deliver on its tall election promises, including affordable health care for all. India, which spends about 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, is still struggling to provide quality health care to its citizens. An economic survey, released on Aug. 11, said India had the largest out-of-pocket expenditure — more than 60 percent since 2008 — among all BRICS countries. Yet, despite an increase in health-care spending, hospital bed to patient ratios in India remain at 1:1,833 in government hospitals (the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of three beds per 1,000 people). India’s doctor-patient ratio of 1 doctor per 1,674 people, is worse than in neighboring Pakistan.
Many of the 63 children who died in the Gorakhpur incident were suffering from Japanese encephalitis — a mosquito-borne incurable disease that plagues the region and kills hundreds of children every year. When Adityanath came to power this year, many had hoped that he would be able to address an issue that has plagued the state for decades. However, apart from some cosmetic actions — a dedicated website, a helpline and a vaccination campaign) he has failed to deliver on much else, including access to clean water and sanitation — key to containing this disease.
The Gorakhpur incident exposes these uncomfortable realities in India. A hurried central government probe on Wednesday has already pronounced that the deaths were not due to a shortage of oxygen. This despite various reports that point to the contrary. The Modi government’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge the Gorakhpur incident as a tragedy is also an indication that human rights — as opposed to rights for cows — is a low priority for his government.
The Gorakhpur incident is not just a tragedy but also a massacre, Nobel Peace laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi wrote on Twitter, “Is this what 70 years of freedom means for our children?” This is a question all Indians need to ask themselves. If we don’t, then we would all be complicit in the murder of more than 60 children and the slow, but painful death of our democracy.