India is in great distress because of the ‘killer’ second wave of Covid and people are shaken up with the fear of the unknown amidst a crumbling medical infrastructure — witnessing deaths in large numbers for lack of oxygen and hospital beds. While the elected political executive governing the Centre and the states is under scrutiny for not taking certain policy measures in time to cope up with the pandemic, there has to be some questioning directed also at the administrative machinery of the states in the matter of implementing the guidelines of the Centre on the health emergency.
Leadership of the Civil Services advises the policy makers and also coordinates implementation of the Government’s decisions. The matter of whether inputs provided by it to the political masters were duly considered, cannot be easily fathomed but it can be rationally believed that ‘wise counsels’ would be rarely disregarded. In the context of the corona pandemic, it is logical that the health experts would receive prime attention but this would not be considered as something happening outside of the system led by the top bureaucracy.
In the final analysis, therefore, the fact that there were major roadblocks in the implementation of the policy decisions taken in regard to the production, transportation and distribution on the ground of all resources vital for the handling of the crisis, calls for a quick examination for corrective actions — both punitive as well as those meant for augmentation. This national level challenge is of long range and it is never too late to make up for the shortcomings and shortages revealed so far — a lasting plan of action it is hoped will be framed expeditiously.
Traditionally it is the Cabinet Secretary, the topmost bureaucrat of the Government of India dealing with state governments, who provides the administrative umbrella under which all lines of flow of vital data from the states — these would cut across the ministries handling different subjects — and channels of directions going down to authorities on the ground, would operate. Both Cabinet Secretary and Home Secretary, who administered the National Disaster Management Act, are the top leaders of the IAS, the famed Civil Service of India and they realised that the district administration headed by the DM-SP duo was best placed to implement a national plan in its jurisdiction since these officials on the ground were also in seamless communication with the Centre and the State headquarters on all matters of national importance.
The young IAS and IPS officers manning the district are the natural nodal points for both sending up information of the district and executing a directive in their area. The DM has senior officers looking after health, education and public distribution in the district and it would be possible for him or her to send up in quick time a map of the district showing the number of hospitals big or small with bed capacity, quantity of oxygen cylinders in the district with production potential if any and the location of vaccination centres there. Logistics of despatch of emergency supplies would be smoothened by this first step since even airlifts could be considered for rushing the supplies to state or divisional headquarters for onward movement by road to the needy districts. There is no establishment big or small, in public or private sector, which would not give correct information to the DM in public interest. The SP would step in to prevent smuggling or black marketing of essential supplies and keep the crime situation under control — the corona pandemic has enlarged the incidence of local crime because of ‘restrictions’ and the ‘desperation’ of the people in economic distress. As a policy of governance, India needs to go back to the districts — there is no politics involved in this.
A second revelation in this crisis has been of the cumulative malady of lack of accountability of the heads of any public service establishments existing closer to the people. It is seen that the crisis in a hospital — which happened to be part of a big chain — was being explained by the chairman of that business enterprise and not by the superintendent or the CEO of that individual centre. Decentralisation of accountability cannot go with centralisation of decision making — what happened at the hospital front was rooted in the deadly combination of profiteering and internal corruption, reflected in the stories of ward boys arranging oxygen cylinders from the back door, and lack of fear of punishment. All through the ongoing national crisis not one wrongdoer at any level has been hauled up which itself is a commentary on governance. The nation must inculcate the psyche amongst the heads of establishments and enterprises that they were to govern them in an autonomous but transparent mode — be it a university, a hospital, a public distribution centre, an employment bureau or a licensing authority. Oversight of the district administration is extremely important in ensuring that this happened.
Finally, a learning for the present as also for the future is that we must be aware of the new expectations the pandemic has created in the public mind about the performance of our law and order authorities. A health disaster is a national concern and it is testing the fundamental role of the police of helping the distressed and coming down hard on law breakers who were exploiting the situation for personal benefits. High-handed treatment of hospital staff towards an ordinary patient to favour somebody else — all within the knowledge of the local police — recovery of hoarded oxygen cylinders and vaccines without any arrests in the follow-up and harassment of vendors by the constabulary during the restrictions, could produce a multiplier effect in generating an anti-police environ. Pressing into use police resources for helping the desperate citizens would go a long way in correcting that situation. The police machinery may also have to remain prepared for anticipating any mass protests or resort to public violence by some desperate people in the event of the present crisis getting prolonged beyond a point. The pandemic highlights the people’s expectations of a constructive role of the police as a guardian of the society.
In a bid to mop up every resource for handling the unprecedented corona crisis, the Government of India has moved to tap the Army’s known efficacy for taking up a challenge — even in the civilian sector — and given special financial powers to the Commanders to manage hospitals, oxygen manufacturing plants and logistic issues. This is being done as the civilian machinery is overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic. The army is used to coming in aid of the civil administration in countering manmade threats like terrorism and it is not abnormal that it has been invited to step in for handling a natural disaster like the corona emergency.
The learning from this is that the nation must, while emphasising on the creation of infrastructure, get on with the business of building adequate medical infrastructure as well — with private partnership wherever possible — and generate jobs for medical and paramedical trainees. In this country there will always be a demand for hospitals and nursing homes and these will be financially self-sufficient, even though they might not generate ‘business like’ profits. The policy framework for India has to be a healthy mix of ‘free market’ and ‘welfare’ approach. The pandemic has witnessed the political will of the leadership to take major decisions without losing time but it has certainly exposed the limitations of the machinery of execution down the line in coping up with a national challenge of this magnitude. The pandemic has tested decision making, coordination and delivery and has brought lessons to the government and the people alike on their respective share of responsibility in producing an integral non-political response to a national crisis.
And yes, let me commend as a man of science that everybody must drink enough water because water is hydrogenated oxygen that reaches the cell through osmosis, jacking up the oxygen level and take to deep breathing with emphasis on exhalation (to throw out carbon dioxide) that directly improves the access of oxygen to lungs. The moral of the story is that every citizen, not the government alone, has to contribute to the fight against the virus.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)