India's Oxygen Crisis Reveals More Than Bad Pandemic Management

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sets off youth groups to enforce lockdowns and wants to control the 'demand' for oxygen cylinders.

A critical COVID patient is taken to a COVID care hospital, in Kolkata, India, in April 2021.
A critical COVID patient is taken to a COVID care hospital, in Kolkata, India, in April 2021.
Sidharth Bhatia

NEW DELHI — Among the many homilies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech to the nation on Tuesday — which many astute observers summed up as telling the citizens, "you are basically on your own" – was the mention of youth groups, Yuva Mitras, who will be installed in every neighborhood to ensure people follow COVID-19 and lockdown protocols.

As always, no further details were provided, and this allows us to speculate. What exactly will such groups do and how will they accomplish their tasks? What powers will they have to enforce the rules? Will they urge, request, implore or threaten with word and deed? Will they patrol the streets or go from house to house? Will they work as an arm of the police or with the various Residents Welfare Associations etc., which are often more deadly than the cops?

Now, think about what it would have been like if the prime minister had said, "There should be youth groups who help people get groceries, medicines, hospital admission and oxygen"? Such groups could be at the service of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, and be of great assistance to their respective neighborhoods and the nation (because, in the end, we are all at the service of the nation).

What could have been a call for benign citizen participation now looks menacing. History buffs will instantly see comparisons with the youth brigades of Germany, which were initially set up for a whole range of religious and social issues but eventually gave way to a massive, well-organized body of young men imbued with Nazi ideology. They spied on people and institutions, and were trained to become future political and military leaders.

The idea of vigilante groups is very appealing to political leaders who want a support base outside the existing structures. Modi's party, the BJP, already has the RSS, a paramilitary volunteer organization, but it was the latter that spawned the former and party leaders have always found that total freedom from the RSS is almost impossible. Modi has managed the RSS particularly well as the organization needs him in order to fulfill its agenda, but even he has constraints. If the kind of youth groups he mentioned in his speech are set up systematically, they could be very loyal to him. This would give him not just political but social control.

People do not know what is good for them — they need to be told.

Control is, ultimately, what all of this is about. Not just around social behavior or political thought — though those are critical — but also on freedom. The freedom to organize, to think, to speak and even to eat is a cornerstone of democracy. That troubles political leaders, especially those with autocratic tendencies.

Nor are only politicians concerned; Even businessmen and technocrats find that unbridled freedom is an impediment to progress — their progress. I was once at a gathering where a famous legal-eagle, representing corporate interests, was chafing at the activism stalling a certain project and said, "The problem with India is that it has too much democracy." This same person had passionately argued in freedom's favor in the 1970s, during a state of emergency induced by mass strikes and protests.

Recently, the government's favorite bureaucrat, Amitabh Kant, was reported to have said that India had "too much democracy" because these freedoms made it difficult to institute "tough" reforms.

The impulse to control extends much beyond all of this. The Brahmins (the highest Hindu caste) were once custodians of knowledge and ensured that their wisdom was imparted in Sanskrit, keeping it out of reach for other groups. India's bureaucracy may have been set up by the British, but is in consonance with the Indian genius in its ability to hold back goods, services and information from others. The unspoken reasoning is that the people do not know what is good for them — they need to be told.


Modi addresses a public rally in Kolkata, on April 1. — Photo: Imago/ZUMA

One of the most recent, troubling examples of this came frome the Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal. Keeping in line with his Darwinian ideas, he wagged his finger at state governments because they kept asking for more oxygen cylinders instead of controlling demand. There is just too much wastage, he felt. The implications here are troubling, as his statement could be taken to mean that those who have a minimal chance of living should be deprived of precious oxygen, and the cylinders should be limited to those with a long, productive life ahead of them.

Pillars of democracy – the judiciary and the media among them – are already under governmental control. The troublesome civil society, from NGOs to activists, are now being targeted. There are well-known, high-profile cases but behind the scenes, scores if not hundreds of small NGOs have found their accounts frozen without recourse. These organizations are, for all purposes, finished. Others are being careful not to come under the government's eye. Laws are being specifically designed to impose executive oversight on digital news platforms, which are mostly independent-minded. The international platforms who rank India low on internet and press freedom don't really matter to this establishment.

This middle class doesn't believe in abstract notions like freedom of expression.

We have been here before, when Indira Gandhi imposed the aforementioned state of emergency in 1975, throwing her opponents in jail and censoring the media. Although she was initially applauded by the middle class but when the elections were held in 1977, she was thrown out of power.

This time is different. The new Indian middle class – aspirational Indians – has cheered all these controlling initiatives and is in complete sync with the political class. This middle class doesn't believe in abstract notions like freedom of expression. All its fantasies are coming true – greater control over troublemakers, be they of the wrong religion or advocates for the poor and the marginalised. Indeed, they see these disenfranchised groups as a drag on the economy and on India's future trajectory as a super power. Nothing would give them more satisfaction than the poor, the vulnerable and the unhealthy simply disappearing.

The pandemic is hitting people irrespective of religion, caste and privilege. Will this death and destruction change citizens' minds, perhaps resulting in a demand for more governance and accountability? Will Goyal's seeming insensitivity upset and anger them? Will they finally see that incompetence is costing lives, including those of their loved ones? We shall see, though I wouldn't place a large bet on it.

As far as the Indian establishment is concerned, it definitely knows the best course ahead: curbing and controling both democracy and oxygen. The youth vigilante groups will guarantee it.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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