Saturday, August 13, 2022

Covid-19 Management: IAS Officers, the New Scapegoats?

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The inefficient handling of the lockdown has led the powers-that-be to hunt for scapegoats. How else does one explain the shunting out of officers involved in Covid-related work at the centre and states?

By MG Devasahayam

Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone shall triumph) is our national motto. If truth is to be told, world’s longest, largest and harshest pandemic lockdown in its fifth phase is a near-total failure. Covid cases, which were around 500 when lockdown started, have now crossed 300,000 even by official figures, which many experts feel are under-reported. Deaths, then around 10, are now pushing 10,000!

There was nothing but fear and panic and no education as to why “distancing” was necessary. In the event, a majority of the people did not get really locked down; it was more in defiance than in default. What really got locked down were the economy, livelihoods, liberty and human dignity. Millions are being stigmatised and ostracised, resulting in huge mental issues. On an average, the economy is losing Rs 40,000 crore per day with unemployment mounting from 11% pre-lockdown to 35% today.

However, the truth has uncanny ways of cropping up and in the long run, triumphing. This also applies to the “Boston Consulting Group (BCG)” stationed in the Union health ministry’s Covid-19 control room that is “privileged to work with government stakeholders in preparing for the fight against Covid-19 including scenario mapping, planning responses and analysing trends”. BCG has come up with a report that says that “between March 25 and May 15, about 36 to 70 lakh cases were avoided and 1.2 to 2.1 lakh lives were saved because of the lockdown”. There is no trace as to how the BCG arrived at these unreal numbers which are being assiduously marketed by government agencies, including the NITI Aayog.

This probably encouraged the solicitor-general to brand those speaking truth-to-power on the lockdown and the “miserable migrant workers” as “doomsday prophets” and “vultures” in the Supreme Court. He went on to say that some High Courts were functioning as “parallel governments”, little realising that Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution confer the same writ powers on the Supreme Court and High Courts. He also misinformed the apex court on March 31 that there was no “migrant labour” on the roads and everything was fine. Despite the best efforts, the truth cannot be obliterated.

While so, it looks as if the powers-that-be have conceded the pandemic failure and are hunting for scapegoats. How else does one explain the shifting of key secretary-level officers involved in Covid-related work at the centre and sudden transfers of health secretaries in the states? Several top IAS officers have been shunted out by both the central and the state governments in the middle of an unprecedented health and socio-economic crisis. In the last few weeks, food and consumer affairs secretaries at the centre, and health secretaries in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand, and commissioners of the Brihanmumbai and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporations in Maharashtra and Gujarat, respectively have been transferred.

Knowledgeable civil servants list several reasons behind the spree of transfers: scapegoating officers for inefficient management of the crisis; punishing those who failed to deliver; the optics of being seen as tough by the larger bureaucratic cadres and reclaiming of space by politicians which was yielded to administrators at the beginning of the pandemic. Surprisingly, some former civil servants are endorsing these scapegoating saying that as politicians are in the line of fire, they have every right to throw IAS officers around at their whim and fancy.

This takes us to the politician-civil servant relationship in India’s constitutional scheme of things. Responding to the grave crisis created by Partition and the post-British administrative vacuum, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1948 advocating the formation of an independent civil service in the functioning of which “political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum, if not eliminated altogether”. This was strongly opposed by chief ministers and many members of the Constituent Assembly. In his speech to this Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar thundered: “The Indian Union will go. You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All India Service which has independence to speak out its advice….” Sardar Patel had his way and the AIS (IAS and IPS) was established to be the bulwark of post-Independence governance.

In fact, the Founding Fathers had conceived the AIS as a counter-balance to “convulsive politics” and “self-seeking politicians” that would emerge in the years following Independence. AIS officers were expected to “give a fair and just administration to the country and manage it on an even keel”. To ensure this and safeguard them from the “vicissitudes of political convulsions”, these services were given constitutional recognition [Article 312(2)]. In fact, the Constituent Assembly had resolved to establish the AIS for “attracting to the highest services the best material available in the country transgressing political boundaries”.

It is in this context that the role played by the IAS in the pandemic needs to be analysed. The IAS is a professional cadre, trained and groomed to administer, manage and implement policies, projects and programmes decided upon by the government comprising of elected representatives. Being the only entity present in all layers of administration—sub-division, district, division, state and centre—in the IAS is best suited to efficiently manage any disaster from bottom to top. This would have happened in the pandemic also had there been proper policy direction and decentralised decision-making in place. Sadly, this was not so because in the past few years, India’s governance architecture has been torn and dismantled in a systematic manner.

Governance architecture in a “democracy” like India should be “society-centred” and includes the government, its dominant part, but also the business sector and civil society. All three are critical for sustaining human, economic and social development. The government’s responsibility is to create a conducive political, administrative, legal and living environment. The business sector represented by trade, commerce, agriculture and industry promotes enterprise and generates jobs and income. Civil society, represented by the voluntary sector, facilitates interaction by mobilising groups to participate in economic, social and political activities. It also resolves conflicts. Such governance is a joint venture and is important even during normal times for the country to be run on an even keel. But it becomes critical at times of disaster, more so the present pandemic.

And taking orders from the PMO, the ministry of home affairs has been shooting off orders (94 in 68 days @ 1.3 per day) reminiscent of demonetisation days. Abandoning professionalism and “Rule-of-Law”, police are taking day-to-day orders from agenda-driven “political masters” with IPS Officers acquiescing! We have seen Delhi and UP police making a spectacle of themselves!

Public health experts were also kept away and groups of them have come out in the open. A joint statement on Covid-19 by the Indian Public Health Association, the Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine and the Indian Association of Epidemiologists states: “Had the migrant persons been allowed to go home at the beginning of the epidemic when the disease spread was very low, the current situation could have been avoided. The returning migrants are now taking infection to each and every corner of the country; mostly to rural and peri-urban areas, in districts with relatively weak public health/clinical systems.” In the event, India is paying a very heavy price, both in terms of health and humanitarian crisis.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

Lead picture: UNI

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