Britain’s new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, became famous earlier this year for injecting a massive dose of funds into the National Health Service. India should also note that one of the reasons Theresa May reiterated in her sustained and spirited parliamentary defence of leaving the European Union was that not having to pay “huge sums” to Brussels would allow Britain to invest more in the NHS. Without entering the raging debate over EU membership, it must be acknowledged that the NHS is not only a tremendous boon to the British people but a shining example to the world. A developing country like India where a large number of people cannot afford proper health care, hygiene and sanitation or nutritious food should take careful note.
It’s a sorry comment on the sense of responsibility of our politicians and on the quality of Indian politics that words like health, medical care and even welfare are seldom heard in public debate. There’s emphasis on universities which are seen as “prestigious” but not on schools. Nor on well sticked, equipped and staffed hospitals in the countryside with panels of doctors in villages to treat the poor for free. The British not only take free medical treatment for granted but bitterly criticise the NHS for not doing enough for them. Yet, the NHS, which recently completed 70 years, is the envy of the world and makes Britain great. I am reminded of it every time I have to suffer the expense, callousness, overcrowding, insanitary conditions, and general money-grabbing attitude of even some of our best private hospitals and nursing homes.
Sadly, if ever India does get round to replicating the NHS, it will very likely be to squander money on some clumsy and ineffective copy of the British health department’s current plans to introduce robots and robotical tables to do some of the work. In Britain, these mechanical aids are intended to compensate for the shortage and cost of trained labour. In India, it will be another version of “digitalisation” – another expression of our obsession with sophisticated gadgets and belief that new words and technological innovations (unnecessary and expensive high speed trains for instance) are synonymous with progress. No one in India knows or cares that in those dark decades of the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of migrant Indian doctors, who could find no jobs at home, came to Britain and, in their own need for employment, saved the NHS from collapsing with their skills and dedication. I suspect that the British-born Dr Taj Hassan, distinguished president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, may be descended from that group.
The Indian connection of the founder of the NHS is even less well-known. I don’t mean Clement Attlee’s political colleague, Nye Bevan, a Welsh miner’s son who rightly said the “eyes of the world” were on Britain when the service was launched in 1948. I mean the economist, Sir William Beveridge, whose report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, written during the darkest days of World War II, anticipated a brighter dawn for mankind.
Beveridge was born in Rangpur in what is now Bangladesh in 1879. His father Henry Beveridge of the Indian Civil Service was district magistrate there. His mother was the famous – or notorious – Annette Akroyd who came to India as a Unitarian missionary to promote women’s education. She started a girls school in Calcutta (no Kolkata then) but soon fell out with the religious reformer, Keshub Chunder Sen, who was apparently less progressive when it came to female emancipation.
Miss Akroyd then married the progressive Beveridge who was a widower and – surprisingly – became a strong critic of the Ilbert Bill which contemplated the end of judicial discrimination by giving Indian judges the right to try Europeans. The second Mrs Beveridge didn’t think Indians would do justice to the proposed right. It was a curiously illiberal position for a missionary and social reformer who was also the wife of one of India’s most liberal British administrators. Even though an ICS officer, Beveridge wrote letters to The Englishman newspaper criticising aspects of governmental action, especially Britain’s racist attitude to Indians. One letter objected to Indians not being allowed near the bandstand in Calcutta’s Eden Gardens where fashionable men and women (whites of course) gathered every evening to hear the best military bands play. As a result of such defiance, Beveridge failed to secure his heart’s desire of sitting on the high court bench.
The younger Beveridge was even more enlightened than his father. He was also in a position to take positive action. His prescription for the mammoth pre-cradle to post-grave health care system that, despite criticism, is conceptually noble, became the Labour Government’s official programme. It is more popular today than any other institution like the Royal Family or armed forces. The Beveridge report that inspired the Welfare State focussed on freeing the public from what the author called the five great evils of society – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. I wish some wise Indian would recognise that these universal evils matter more to the human condition than scoring points over Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, inviting international derision by inventing scientific and technological achievements in Vedic times, or trying to impress Westerners by trotting out glib boasts about contemporary India’s supposed advance.
My own experience of the NHS has been slight. But I do remember the first occasion in 1955 or 1956. I had a sudden attack of nose-bleeding, and the elderly English doctor I visited laboriously wrote down all my personal particulars while I sat with bloodied handkerchief pressed to my nose. No wonder Prince Andrew once said tongue-in-cheek when visiting Calcutta that the British left us a bureaucracy that we had “improved”. “Now we’ve made an honest man of you!” the doctor declared jovially at the end, turning to my nose. I was told afterwards he was making sure I was registered as his patient so that he could draw the official fees on my account.
There’s money to be made from the NHS which costs three times more than what Britain spends on defence and double the cost of education. It can pay for all manner of fancy treatments and services. It can – or could – be exploited by visiting foreigners. The joke was that Americans found it cheaper to fly across the Atlantic to see an NHS dentist. The huge expansion of services to include home carers, subsidised taxis and air ambulances means additional scope for abuse.
All the same, as Beveridge wrote, “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” To a country ravaged by war – a “bankrupt nation”, in Winston Churchill’s words – it was a bold and distant vision of a better future. India needs that vision. It’s the only thing that can redeem the barren pursuit of power that is all that politics seems to mean in India.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.