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Epidemics, Public Health and State Responsibility: What Sastras Say

Pandemic is not a war. It’s a development challenge. Charaka Samhita, ancient Indian Ayurvedic text, names epidemic as janapadoddhvamsaroga, meaning that which destroy the social life. The term janapadoddhvamsa is a combination of two words janapada and uddhvamsa, popularly referred as nation and destruction, respectively. The word janapada is a further political concept used in sastras like Arthasastra and Dharmasastra and a combination of the two words jana and pada, each referring to people and path, respectively. Scholars like R Hari have noted the uniqueness of Indian conception of nation or janapada is that it is a community marching towards a common destination. So, the complex of two words jana and pada, should ideally give us a notion of a progressive national community. An epidemic is a disease that basically destroys this forward march of the community.


It results in a massive realignment of the wealth destabilising the usual redistributive actions of the Government and the market. It results in concentration of wealth at some place and draining at some other place. The progress in various walks of like, which the global humanity has been making, is not only halted, but also reversed. The partial success against the global poverty, the incremental improvements in gender justice, trends indicating greater social inclusion and the efforts of equitable distribution undertaken for decades –are all reversed. Nobody is actually in hate with anyone; people beyond class, caste and creed are helping each other; people are sympathetic towardsthe other, yet helpless to save life and wealth. This is why pandemic is not a war, but a development challenge.


The Charaka Samhita, which identifies rightly this concern (CS.3.3.6), discusses how can a certain disease affect the entire population even though the individuals vastly differ in their biological (bodily) composition, food habits, strength, mentality, age and fitness. The dialogue between the scholars like Atreya and Agnivesha detailed in the samhita further explains the causes, prevention and responses of such diseases.


Readers are then reminded of the deteriorating social values and are required to commit to qualities like honesty, empathy, unconditional sharing, co-operation and such other qualities that help rebuild the social connect. Charaka, in his crude bard voice, argues that those people who have the said qualities of honesty, empathy and sharing are the ones destined to live beyond the pandemic period (CS.3.3.15-18). It requires medical professionals to use the above differentiating features in choosing their patients and leave the others to fate.


The Responsibility of State

The responsibility of the State in an epidemic period is further explained in Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Book 4, Chapter 3. Both the role of the Government (king) and the role of the people is mentioned in this chapter on responses to disasters. Kautilya categorises the ‘epidemic’ as one of eight disasters and makes it an explicit duty of the king to protect people from epidemics by the emphatic using of the Sanskrit word ‘rakshet’ - the imperative form of verb ‘to protect’.


He should be protecting people by giving shelter in the fort, by distributing his reserve collection of provisions or by redistributing the hoarded income of the rich among the people – says Arthasastra. According to Shamasastry, the first authority on the Arthasastra, the king is allowed to seek for help from other kings, or to adopt a policy of karsanam (the policy of thinning the rich by extracting excessive revenue), orvamanam (inducing people to bring out their accumulated wealth) during such calamities. The king must also increase investments in agriculture, animal husbandry or hunting and fishing, both in order to increase the food supplies and provide people with employment. While the king is allowed to do properly planned resettlements, both internal and external, the people are alsorequired to subject themselves to medical treatment, and associated prayers and rituals. The repeated use of precative verbs and the conjunction ‘or’ in the text indicates that the Government needs to diversify its strategies and resources allocation.

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