Last month, Bill Gates’ divorce and allegations of sexual misconduct made headlines in Western media. But in India, the billionaire philanthropist and his foundation have been under criticism for months for completely different reasons. Indians have called for Gates’ arrest over alleged violations of medical ethics and laws by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in the country. #ArrestBillGates trended on Indian Twitter in May, part of a campaign calling Indian authorities to charge the BMGF and Gates for conducting illegal medical trials on vulnerable groups in two Indian states.
This is not the first time the BMGF or Bill Gates has been at the receiving end of public anger in India. This latest outburst is part of constantly growing anger against Gates and his foundation in India. As early as April 2021, Gates received flak for expressing his reluctance about sharing COVID-19 vaccine technologies with developing countries like India. After severe public criticism in India and abroad, BMGF Chief Executive Officer Mark Suzman officially supported a temporary waiver on vaccine IP.
Gates has also been criticized by Indian farmer groups, who have been protesting on the border of the national capital New Delhi for six months. The farmers are protesting against controversial laws promoting privatization of agriculture passed by the Hindu nationalist government, and they see Gates as a supporter of such efforts. Dainik Jagran, one of the largest Hindi newspapers in the country, reported on June 8 that farmers burned an effigy of Bill Gates at one of the protest sites due to his support for the privatization of agriculture in India.
India’s civil society organizations revealed last month that Microsoft India will unfairly benefit from Sections 4-2, 5, 7 and 17-2a of the controversial Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act of 2020, one of the laws farmers have been protesting against. Farmer organizations and internet privacy advocacy groups showed that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between Microsoft India and India’s Ministry of Agriculture could potentially give Gates’ company access to a database of 50 million Indian farmers and their land records maintained by the government. It is important to flag here that BMGF is also involved in several agricultural programs across the country.
Bill Gates and the BMGF’s close relationship with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no secret. In September 2019, the BMGF conferred the “Global Goalkeeper Award” to Modi for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBM or Clean India Mission), a flagship program that built 110 million toilets in five years. While SBM has improved overall health indicators in India, the program came under criticism in 2017 by Leo Heller, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. “Open defecation free mustn’t be human rights free,” wrote Heller as a part of his end of mission statement in India.
The move by the BMGF was also criticized by several human rights groups in India and abroad, which pointed to Modi’s crackdown on civil liberties and dissent in India. Despite severe criticism and protests, the BMGF went ahead with conferring Modi with the award.
When Gates visited India in November 2019, he met Modi and several other government officials. This also marked the re-entry of the BMGF in India’s Health Ministry through the Modi government’s approval of a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) between the Department of Health & Family Welfare (DOHFW), the government of India, and the BMGF on cooperation in the field of health. India’s then-Home Minister Rajnath Singh, one of the most powerful members of Modi’s cabinet, also urged Gates to adopt 1,000 villages in central India affected by left-wing extremism back in 2017 during a meeting in New Delhi.
In his exclusive interview to the Press Trust of India (PTI) during his visit in November 2019, Gates praised three vaccine manufacturers in India – the Serum Institute of India (SII), Bharat Biotech, and Biological-E. All three private and for-profit vaccine manufacturers have been beneficiaries of world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination program by the government of India. SII has been receiving BMGF grants since November 2012. It received an additional grant amount of $4 million in October 2020. Bharat Biotech received funding of $19 million from the BMGF in November 2019. Biological-E Limited has been Ba MGF grantee since 2013. It received funding of #37 million dollars in April 2021 from BMGF.
The vaccination program dependent on these BMGF grantees has been criticized in India due to its inaccessibility, profiteering, and encouragement of free market policies for life-saving vaccines. Despite funding from the foundation and even by the Indian government, the private vaccine manufacturers are making high profit margins in India’s vaccine market. India’s opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), has accused vaccine manufacturers of amassing profits of $17 billion from COVID-19 vaccines. After criticism from India’s Supreme Court, civil society, and politicians, Modi has reversed multiple clauses from country’s vaccination policy and capped the price of the vaccine to prevent profiteering. However, many problematic aspects remain in the COVID-19 vaccine policy.
It is not just civil society, farmers groups, and human rights activists who have flagged concerns and expressed anger about the BMGF and Gates in India. The opposition has even come from Modi’s political allies. In April 2018, Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) – an affiliate of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangha (RSS) – urged Modi to remove then-BMGF India representative Nachiket Mor from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) board, citing a conflict of interest. Alleging that the BMGF was working to further interests for foreign multinational companies, SJM urged the government of India’s agriculture, health, planning, child welfare and finance ministries to keep “such outfits at bay.” SJM also requested Modi to reconsider accepting the award he was given by the BMGF in September 2019 for same reason.
The BMGF had been also put under the scanner by the previous central government led by the INC. In 2013, India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare, comprising of members across political lines, held the BMGF-funded Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) guilty of violating regulatory and ethical norms laid down by the Indian and U.S. governments for clinical trials. The committee investigated the role of the BMGF and PATH in the trial of HPV vaccines on children in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh and Vadodra district of Gujarat, during which seven children died. Although the government did not find any connection to the vaccines in the deaths, it did uncover ethical failings in the subsequent investigation. The government of India responded by restricting the BMGF from country’s immunization program. But years later, the BMGF continued to work with India’s Health Ministry through its Immunization Technical Support Unit (ITSU).
In 2021, the BMGF and its grantees are active all over India, working in sanitation, health, agriculture, and family planning. Since Modi came to power, the foundation has approved 363 grants across government departments, NGOs, think tanks, private companies, universities, and research institutions in India. As anger against the Modi government grows for its mishandling of the pandemic and economic crisis, trends suggest the backlash against the government-allied BMGF will also increase proportionately.