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The Tower of Babel

Ever since the pandemic began, orders have been issued, revised, modified or superseded by the centre. Will this micro-management and flip-flop approach help to tackle the health, economic and social crisis? By MG Devasahayam

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Since March 24, 2020, when the countrywide lockdown was imposed, the central government has been commanding, ordering and directing state governments and the people of India to do its bidding to contain the spread of the coronavirus. What is worse, governments are busy suspending/abrogating labour laws that at least gave some fig leaf of safety to India’s working population.

About a month later, the centre set up Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) to monitor compliance in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. A team visited Chennai on April 25. In anticipation, the Tamil Nadu government imposed a total and harsh four-day special curfew in the city that made no sense at all. The Team toured the city, held deliberations and went back pleased and satisfied. Ironically, on that day, Chennai  reported around 400 cases and now it is pushing 4,000.

West Bengal was different. Based on the IMCT report, Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote a stinging letter to the state’s chief secretary which inter alia said: “Instances of overcrowding in bazaars; free movement of people in large numbers without masks; bathing of people in rivers; people playing cricket and football; serious laxity in enforcing lockdown measures in containment zones; plying of riskshaws etc., without any restriction: These are grave violation of lockdown instructions and social distancing norms.” He specifically slammed the state government for allowing “specific groups in specific localities” in Kolkata and Howrah to violate the curbs as well as attack police and healthcare workers. Strangely, this “specific group” reference was not in the report given by additional secretary Apurva Chandra, who headed the IMCT.

Was Bhalla following the footsteps of Lav Agarwal, joint secretary and spokesperson of the health ministry? Every day in his press conference, Agarwal made it a point to describe the “huge role” played by Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat in the spread of the coronavirus throughout the country. On April 18, he declared that 4,291 of the 14,378 (30 percent) coronavirus cases were linked to the religious event and gave precise state-wise percentages. This was hitting below the belt. Agarwal stopped this charade only after India received a royal snub from a Saudi princess on April 19 and a resounding rebuff from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which said: “OIC-IPHRC condemns the unrelenting, vicious Islamophobic campaign in India, maligning Muslims for spread of Covid-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination and violence with impunity.” Pray, since when have civil servants been commandeered to serve the Hindutva hate agenda?

In command mode, the PMO and home ministry resemble more the Tower of Babel than Raisina Hill. Orders are issued, “revised”, “modified” or “superseded” so often that no one can comprehend them. For instance, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the entire nation on “house arrest”, it looked like an Alice in Wonderland “off-with-his-head” approach to governance. He said nothing except “social distancing” which sounded like a newly coined mantra. This created instant panic with huge crowds converging on shops and malls: that one night probably generated more cross-infection than the next three weeks. The same thing happened when Modi again came on national TV.

Since then, there have been several flip-flops and the biggest one concerned the movement of millions of migrants who got locked in cities without jobs, food or shelter. They had no means to live and overcome by penury, poverty and panic, the massive exodus started. After several weeks, on April 29, the home ministry issued orders allowing migrant workers, students, pilgrims, tourists, et al, “stranded” at “a place other than the place of their residence” to go back home. As state governments scrambled to book buses and trains to send migrant workers home, another missive came from the home ministry: “It is clarified that the MHA orders are meant to facilitate movement of such stranded persons, who had moved from their native places/workplaces, just before the lockdown period, but could not return to their native places/workplaces on account of restrictions placed on movement of persons and vehicles as part of lockdown measures.” This move, obviously done at the behest of “vested interests”, led to first allowing and then cancelling trains.

State governments, who were to bear the migrant burden, went into a tizzy. A senior Jharkhand official responded: “We are breaking our head over understanding what this means. We have requests from lakhs of workers who are stranded across the country. What are we supposed to tell them? Does this clarification mean they can come back home or not? I really don’t know.” Other states asked how they would determine who came where, when and for what reason? And what is meant by “just before lockdown”? Are they supposed to ask every migrant? This is micro-management taken to an absurd level.

The diktat that every migrant should be tested and certified “negative” before they are allowed to board a bus or train was also bizarre. Which state has such infrastructure or facility to test so many millions? And then there was the unsavoury fallout over charging rail fare to the penniless migrants. What is worse is that the policy of providing buses and trains to transport migrant workers was in chaos. In the event, millions of them are still trying to walk or hitch-hike in cement trucks and closed containers to reach their humble abodes. In the process, hundreds are dying either on the roads or on railway tracks. They swear they would rather “live on salt” than come back to cities devoid of justice and humanity. Proving them right, the solicitor-general told the Supreme Court that the migrant labour issue had been resolved and everything was hunky-dory. Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” lyrics come to mind: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

If that wasn’t enough, there were arbitrary decisions such as centralised colour-coding of districts into red, orange and green and declaration of “containment zones”. This was not based on analysis and understanding of local conditions and requirements and could lead to severe choking of normalcy and economic revival.

Worse has been the move of governments to suspend labour laws in the belief that it will help rope in those companies leaving China so that they invest and set up shop in India. This includes the BJP-ruled UP and Madhya Pradesh where major labour laws have been frozen. What a convoluted way of reviving the economy and generating employment.

Be that as it may, it now transpires that there has been no consultation with the national task force constituted by ICMR before the imposition and extension of the nationwide lockdown. Instead, an archaic mathematical model presented by a NITI Aayog member was relied upon. The task force, comprising 21 scientists, had met just hours before the announcement of the third phase, on May 1. Yet, they were not taken on board. This has brought to a boil the tensions between India’s scientific community and the central government.

There are reports that the centre raised a staggering Rs 12 lakh crore as loans from various sources. It has other resource avenues also. Yet, none of this found its way to the coffers of state governments which are being called upon not just to meet their normal expenditure but also the additional expenditure connected with the Covid crisis which is huge. GST compensation has not been paid yet and the centre has refused to enhance the borrowing limits of states. While state governments are being deliberately dried up, nothing is known of the way the centre is deploying its resources and where they are going. And while the PM CARES fund is sucking up public/private funds in a secret manner, there is no care for the needy. Furthermore, while starving them financially, the centre is pushing devious and predatory amendments to the Electricity Act and Environmental Rules to remove whatever role states have in these critical areas. This, being done in a stealthy and dubious manner, will have far-reaching consequences for the integrity of India and its continuance as a union of states.

Even in the sphere of disaster management (DM), India is wanting. Decentralisation is the essence of DM. Effective DM needs local knowledge and mobilisation of local men, resources, equipment and material. And this should be done expeditiously. The centre should confine itself to general guidance and resource/logistic support. Planning and directions are the responsibility of states while districts should do the implementation/enforcement. This is what the Disaster Management Act, 2005 mandates by creating DM authorities at the central, state and district/city levels to manage disaster situations effectively. But, by its micro-management, the Modi government has turned everything upside down.

When the lockdown started, coronavirus cases were around 600 pan-India. As on date, it is well over 60,000. After seven weeks of “centralised bungling”, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has discovered that lockdown has its socio-economic implications in addition to the health-related issues and “given the diversity of a country like India, it becomes essential to use this extreme strategy very judiciously’’. Is he snubbing the PM? And Lav Agarwal said an amen to this: “We have to learn to live with the virus.”

It is obvious centralisation cannot hold.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

Lead picture: UNI

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