India dispatches: navigating India’s ‘VIP culture’ in the courts amidst the COVID-19 second wave Dispatches
India dispatches: navigating India’s ‘VIP culture’ in the courts amidst the COVID-19 second wave

JURIST EXCLUSIVE – JURIST’s India staff correspondent Neelabh Bist reflects on India’s so-called “VIP culture” and how it  – and the court system’s response to it – has impacted India’s handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic:

As India is counting days for the second wave of COVID-19 to subside, the country’s struggle with the pandemic is accentuated by the sadly familiar phenomenon of VIP favorable treatment. Like many others, this issue has also been brought to the attention of the different High Courts, and they are now stepping up to tackle the challenge of inequitable distribution of covid drugs and supplies.

Last week the Delhi High Court came down heavily upon the Drug Controller of Delhi for having conducted an unsatisfactory investigation and giving a clean chit to Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Gautam Gambhir in the procurement and distribution of an essential drug in covid recovery named FabiFlu. This occurred during a hearing in a Public Interest Litigation which sought to know how politicians are able to procure oxygen and Covid 19 drugs in huge quantities to achieve their political ends whereas on the other hand patients, who are in dire need of the same, are struggling to get their hands on those very resources.

The Court was astounded as to how Gautam Gambhir foundation (not being a medical practitioner) could have procured the drug from the retailers/dealers in such large quantities. The Court’s concern was that such practice by politicians is interrupting the flow of medicines to the hospitals where time is of the essence. The Court observed that hoarding, transferring and distributing crucial COVID-19 medicines by political leaders when these drugs are already in shortage and are not available to the public at large should be discontinued and that the drugs should be immediately surrendered. As it is being projected that the drugs procured are for public charity and not for political gains, the Court said that the political leaders are therefore expected to surrender their stocks to the Director General of Health Services, Delhi Government for use for the poor and needy persons at government hospitals at the earliest.

The Bombay High Court raised a similar concern to the State Government of Maharashtra when it posed the question whether the acts of movie-stars or politicians who are helping in supplying Remdesivir drug amounts to hoarding? While the current law does not allow any private individual or pharmacy to procure Remidesivir drug, the Court was curious to know how the above individuals are getting stocks of the said drug that too in large quantities when even the State Government has run out of stock. While the manufactures have submitted to the Union of India that they are only providing the drug to the Government, the celebrities and politicians in response to the Drug Inspector’s notice are submitting that they have neither purchased nor stored Remdesivir but only facilitated, in some cases by paying the cost of medicines, in some only enabling. The substantiality of their response still needs to be checked.

Through their easy access to essential medical supplies, non-state actors and private individuals have flaunted the worth of VIP favorable treatment in a common man’s India. The oxygen concentrator black marketing case made rounds in the Indian news circle for the last few days where the accused, Delhi based Businessman, Navneet Kalra was earning profits by hoarding medical devices used for covid 19 patients and selling the same at exorbitant prices to those on death beds. 524 oxygen concentrators were recovered from restaurants owned by Kalra. After the initial arrest after a long chase and refusal of bail, the infamous businessman is now out on bail. This just goes on to show the inequality between the haves and have-nots of the Covid era.

The sad truth in India is that VIP culture does exist amongst us. Covid-19 just proved to be a means to expose it. But now is not the time for it to prevail. With the intervention of the Indian Courts at various stages, one can stay hopeful that there remains a constant thrust towards having an equitable distribution of the Covid-19 supplies.