Let us be clear from the outset: what is happening in India right now is mass murder. And it is organized by a man who has practice in such matters.
Two images bookend the current crisis and contain in them a trajectory of the crisis. The first is the image of the Indian police hosing down migrant workers with bleach last spring, during the first wave of the pandemic, and the grimmer, more recent one of cremation fires burning all over the country. The road between the 2 markers was expected, but the violence lies in the fact that it could have been avoided.
When the infection rate fell after the first lockdown, the Modi regime declared victory over the virus. Lacing his propaganda with Hindu mythology, in March the prime minister told the nation that while the Mahabharat [mythic battle of Hindu epics] war had been won in 18 days, he would win the corona battle in 21.
Policy was shaped around these wild superstitions. The government’s coronavirus task force stopped meeting and the Health Minister declared that India was “in the endgame of the pandemic.” The government boasted that it had sold 55 million doses of vaccine to 62 different countries.
It was an example of a perfect marriage between Hindutva and capitalism. Hindutva assured the government that the virus was over, while capitalist greed monetized a global pandemic.
The lifesaving vaccine is available for free in almost all countries of the global North, in India it is not. The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker, is currently the chief manufacturer of the vaccine in the country. In January they sold the first 100 million doses of the vaccine to the Indian government at a “special price” of 200 rupees ($2.74) per dose, after which they raised the price. On the private market the vaccine is being sold for 1,000 rupees ($13.68) per dose.
SII is a private company headed by one of the richest men on the planet, Cyrus Poonawala whose net worth is about $13 billion. Poonawala made his fortune as a horse breeder and racer. These superior gambling instincts guided his son, Adar Poonawala, to look at a devastating global pandemic last year and decide that it was his moment to make a killing. In his interview with international media, Poonawala emphasized that he was going to “take the risk and become a front-runner.”
The usual suspects jumped on this bandwagon of turning public health emergencies into private profit. The Melinda and Bill Gates foundation invested $150 million, while the vampiric firms of Goldman Sachs, Citi and Avendus Capital became SII’s chief advisors. Like all elites from the global south trained well in neoliberal speak, Poonawalla declared his lofty anticolonial goal to be the supply of “A majority of the vaccine, at least initially… to our countrymen before it goes abroad.”
In reality, nearly 80 percent of SII’s went abroad for a steep profit, till the Indian government finally forced a ban on exports as the death count began to rise.
The lineaments of this capitalist macabre soon revealed themselves. Cyrus Poonawalla’s wealth rose 85% in 5 months. And as the smoke from funeral pyres began to darken Indian skies, in late March, Adar Poonawalla signed a deal to rent a London mansion for a record $70,000 a week.
The Modi regime is directly responsible for the current bloodshed. But the road here was paved by all who came before them, those who, since the 1980s, eagerly complied with the IMF’s structural adjustment programs and destroyed India’s life-making institutions and infrastructure. We apparently needed more cars, more dams, at the expense of food and healthcare.
The Indian economy was formally liberalized in 1991 under a Congress government. The story that followed will be distressingly familiar.
Reducing the fiscal deficit, the holy grail of neoliberalism, in reality opened up “a revenue deficit,” as the rich were relieved of taxation and the state, while increasing military expenditure, slashed public sector investment and social spending. I want to emphasize that not just the Congress or the BJP but every ruling coalition, at the state and federal level, followed this trajectory, including the Stalinists in power in my home state of West Bengal, whose most celebrated effort was to dispossess peasants from their land in order to build a car factory. More than 50 million Indians were dispossessed to make way for development projects like large dams in the first 50 years of independence to power capitalism’s productivist imperative. Research shows that over 50 percent of the dispossessed were adivasis or indigenous people living in hills and forested land where most of the dams and mines were built.