Nothing, it seems, is sacred – not even people’s health. The tentacles of money in politics are deep, and businessmen masquerading as politicians are seeking profit everywhere, including in medical education. As we’ve explained before, this is the natural result of crony capitalism.
A resistance to this sick state of affairs has come from a medical doctor. Dr. Govinda KC is now on his 11th hunger strike, demanding reforms in medical education. All previous fasts-unto-death by the good doctor have ended with the government committing to his demands, with little follow ups. Had it not been for KC’s activism, we know for certain that healthcare in Nepal would’ve been considerably worse. He’s been halting the tide of wholesale perversion of medical education. This time around, he’s gone on a hunger strike urgently demanding the passage of the much-needed health education bill in the Parliament.
Some politicians are trying to dilute the bill, so they can continue to sell medical education to the highest bidder, regardless of the students’ merit. The draft of the bill in Parliament is now in the danger of being mutilated. MPs have suggested as many as 276 amendments to the bill, which seriously undermine the very purpose of the bill. They seek to remove the ten-year ban on new medical schools in Kathmandu Valley, and reduce scholarship quotas and the minimum number of beds required for inpatients. We know how those profiting from corruption in this sector have included officials from Institute of Medicine, the Medical Council, and the anti-graft body Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). The rot has reached the highest levels of judiciary.
KC’s periodic hunger strikes, and the occasional street rallies he inspires, have pushed successive governments to make compromises on paper, of which the health education bill is a victory. Yet, his call hasn’t transformed into a social movement. That is because KC and his supporters are missing the elephant is the room: the privatization of services essential to working men and women, of which medical education is only a small subset. Corruption in medical schools is not unique, and the entire privatized school system feeds on parents’ fears about their child’s future, while undermining the faith on public education system.
KC needs to expand his vision. Depending on markets for essential goods and services – education, security, healthcare, or public transport – has created two unequal categories of Nepalis: those who can afford to go to the Norvics, Grandees, Ullens, Lincolns, and Rato Bangalas of Kathmandu, and those who can’t. Imagine what kind of society we would have if only those with money could afford to get services from the police or fire brigades. There would be several for-profit security firms or fire brigades that people would pay to get support from. Like medical colleges today, they would lobby political parties to grant them licenses to operate to make a killing.
So the logical step for KC and his supporters’ activism should be to insist on economic democracy for the poor and the anxious middle class. If private medical colleges need stronger laws, so do private hospitals and private schools, as do beer factories and automobile importers. They need to make a broader demand for the government to invest in and strengthen public schools, hospitals, and transportation. This is hardly a new idea. A mixed economy is necessary, but that shouldn’t be a pretext to ignore the enormous levels of economic inequality in the cities, the ongoing exploitation of workers and consumers, or recent revelations like the largest tax fraud in the country’s history.
There’s a risk to demonizing all politicians and deifying KC. Framing the movement on moral terms – on Dr KC’s personal integrity against the shady ways of politicians and investors – is not the most effective strategy. Institutional changes always occur through political power. This was precisely the case with KC’s stance against former CIAA chief Lokman Singh Karki, when KC was able to link the CIAA boss’s nexus with the “medical mafia”, with Karki’s ominous grip on society.
KC, and all those who believe that market doesn’t always benefit the most vulnerable in the country, need to give their activism a wider political scope. The movement could be “social democratic,” or “democratic socialist,” or “progressive,” or “democratic” or “pro-poor” – the name doesn’t matter. Whatever they call that movement, to paraphrase the editors of the magazine Dissent, it is clear that socialism is the name of their desire. They should know by now that socialism is, after all, the stated goal of our new Constitution.
Photo credit: Agence France-Presse