First of all, an apology to all those whose death we are not even acknowledging. This apology is not just mine. In the month of May, I wrote six articles. Parliament was not functioning, so where would we have taken our complaints, who could we tell? Friends from the BJP and other colleagues called me, congratulated me. I acknowledge them and say it is the responsibility of the House to apologise to all those whose bodies were floating in the Ganga.
Never in Parliament’s history, between two sessions, we have had to read obituaries of 50 people. Was it Rajeev Satav’s time to leave this world? Raghunath Mohapatra? Whenever he used to meet, he would hug and say, “Jai Jagannath”. Suddenly they are not there. This pain is personal, I don’t want to talk about numbers. My number, your number. Look for numbers in your grief.
There is not one person in this country, in this House, outside this House, in that House (Lok Sabha) who can say that they have not lost someone known to them. I can tell you about pain. People would call for oxygen. We could not arrange it. People think he is an MP, he will arrange oxygen. Out of a hundred phone calls, we succeeded twice or thrice. Who will tell us about numbers? We don’t want to talk about any numbers. We have to see that those who have gone have left behind a living document of our failure.
This is a collective failure of all governments from 1947 to now. What have we done? I did not know the relationship between oxygen and hospitals. I am saying this honestly. I don’t come from a medical background. I would hear people say oxygen, oxygen, remdesivir. I used to check the pronunciation of the medicines initially so that I would be able to say them aloud. This is the condition. And then we are talking about numbers?
Outside, there is a huge advertisement saying “Free vaccines, Free Ration, Free Treatment”. I am not saying this as a representative of a party. I am speaking on behalf of lakhs of people who want to be heard here. This is a welfare state, right? If a poor person buys a bar of soap in a village, then he is as much a taxpayer as Adani and Ambani. You are telling him free vaccine? Free ration? Free treatment? Nothing is free. He has a stake. This welfare state has a commitment. Don’t denigrate that, don’t demonise him, don’t make him small. This is my request to you.
As the previous speakers were saying, the coronavirus is a challenge for us. There is much big talk about new laws. Why don’t we talk about the right to health? No ifs, buts and maybes. A straightforward right to health that is constitutionally guaranteed. Link it to the right to life. No hospital will have the gumption to play around with the right to life. We don’t want to do it. The right to work. Work on that. A lot of things are being said about the population. Leave demography to the demographers. But this we can do, in this House and that House. Bring legislation on the right to life, and the right to work. People in the hospitality sector got turned out of their jobs during the pandemic. I raised their voice constantly. Nobody is listening. If you are not listening to a parliamentarian, then those small contractual workers who got turned away, who will listen to them?
Another extraordinary thing happened during this period, when there was pandemonium over hospitals, ICU beds, medicines. Many things happened, of which I will mention one important thing. In that chaos, governments, and I am not talking of the Centre alone, many state governments also, went missing. How this country has lived through that one and a half months, including some from our House, who managed to survive… it seems like a nightmare. I had a 37-year-old student. By the time I arranged for a hospital bed, he had left this world. I am saying this again and again because I want you to search for personal grief. Only then will we be able to find solutions.
I was not able to do anything. In my helplessness, I wrote a letter to those who have left this world. In that I had given some advice to the government. At the time, it was being said that governments didn’t fail, the system failed. Sir, who is this system? Since our childhoods we have heard that behind a system is a person, there is an imagination behind a system. If the system has failed, whether in Delhi or in the lanes of a village, then the governments of that place have failed. Don’t call it a system. It is they who make the system.
Today, even saying “Jai Hind” doesn’t bring the same joy it did in normal days. I did not complain once. Not to anyone. Who could I complain to? I am pained. I want to wake myself and you up. The floating bodies in the Ganga… If there’s a need for dignity in life, there’s an even greater need for dignity in death. We have witnessed undignified deaths. And if we don’t address this, our future generations will not forgive us. You publish large advertisements, fill four pages of a newspaper to say thank you this, thank you that. We should get the chance to say thank you to history. If anyone is pained by my words, I ask for your forgiveness on behalf of those lakhs of people who have died.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 26, 2021 under the title ‘Let’s count the grief’. The writer is an RJD MP. Edited excerpts from his speech in the Rajya Sabha on July 20