Home >Opinion >Columns >Ignoring lessons from first wave costs India dear

I had just started breakfast when my cellphone rang. The name of a childhood friend flashed on the screen. He and his wife had tested positive for covid-19 recently, and his wife had been hospitalized three days earlier. I picked up the phone with some apprehension, only to hear him weep: “She is no more."

While I was trying to find the words to express my condolence, he said, “Shekhar, I need one last help from you, today. Please make a cremation arrangement for my wife. One has to wait at least 12 hours to get space for a funeral pyre here."

I had helped many people in various ways until then, but never thought that one day I would have to approach senior officials for out-of-turn cremation. Despite the efforts of many friends, her body had to wait for hours for cremation.

We are now in an unprecedented phase where source, force and money have all become worthless. New cremation grounds are coming up in cities. There is no space left in many old cemeteries. Wherever some space is left, fresh graves have been dug.

A cremation at Kashi’s Manikarnika Ghat is seen as virtuous, as many believe those who receive their last rites there attain salvation. This is why people even from nearby districts arrive here with their deceased. A few days ago, the rush was so heavy that people were urging cremation workers to take the bodies, perform last rites and cremate at their convenience. They didn’t even wait to complete the ritual of collecting the remains from the ashes—skipping an important ritual in Hindu tradition, and revealing the gravity of the situation. Some were lucky enough to get a spot at Manikarnika, but many cremation ghats had such long queues that relatives decided to bury the deceased instead of cremating them.

In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, bodies were found floating in the Ganga. Who were they? They were those Indians who were entitled to their last rites but didn’t receive them since the relatives were forced to hand over the deceased to the rivers, forgoing tradition.

The administration, which is responsible for protecting lives, buried the deceased with earthmoving machines. These machines were also used to remove the mountains of ashes at the Kashi ghat. These were the remains of those who believed in the fiery speeches and powerful slogans of their leaders before voting. When they fell ill, the leaders who promised their betterment disappeared. These people did not die due to disease, but lack of oxygen and essential medicines. I have never written so long about death in my journalism career spanning four decades. But what can I do? Death never beat life like this before. Worse, we do not even know when this will end. Experts say that this is the second wave, and a third and fourth wave will follow.

Why did this happen? The answer is simple. Whether it is New Delhi or the state capitals, politicians clung to power. Cocooned in their havens and protected by bodyguards, their thoughts are always on the next election, not making far-reaching programmes or policies. If you won the assembly election, then it was the Parliament’s turn. Once the Parliament is elected, then you have to win the civic bodies. And after that come the panchayats. This is why every responsible person, from the Centre to the state governments, made no preparations for a second wave, though they knew it was coming. This is what the burning pyres tell us.

The culprits are everywhere, and not just in any one political party or ruling elite. All those who shouted slogans of development, alternative, good governance and regional self-respect also ignored them in their states. Instead of making new arrangements by using the experience of the first wave, they ignored all the lessons learnt. Instead of correcting their mistakes, they tried to suppress the voices of those crying for help, with the police registering cases against them. In the end, the court had to intervene. Will the courts be forced to do executive work as well?

The only people responsible for this are those who knew that the second wave was inevitable, but they had their sights fixed on elections in five states. Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are a year away, was busy with panchayat elections. State-level elections in West Bengal were stretched into many phases. By organizing the elections in a short-sighted manner, the Election Commission (EC) put the lives of millions in jeopardy. No wonder, the Madras High Court wondered why it should not be prosecuted for murder. The top brass of the EC should have apologized to the country and made firm arrangements for the future.

Not just the EC, all those who made ludicrous promises but failed to fulfil their duties must apologize. They didn’t do it, and like anyone in power, would never do it either.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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