Bureaucracy to blame for Covid mess

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on June 17, 2020 Published on June 17, 2020

Underutilised resources Given their reach, post offices could have easily gathered information on the spread of Covid   -  BUSINESS LINE

It could have harnessed resources of the Railways to produce PPE kits, and postal services to reach money to migrants

In the preface to his classic study on intelligence gathering in India, Empire and Information, the late Sir CA Bayly, a well-known historian, talked of the paradox of how “an Indian government which was inquisitive and paper-obsessed as its colonial ancestor was constantly putting its foot wrong because it was seemingly so ill-informed about happenings in the states and localities.’

Never has this been more in evidence than during the ongoing Covid crisis we all are passing through. The stunning failure of the top levels of bureaucracy at the Central and State levels — far more than their political masters — to get their act together is one of the major the reasons behind the grossly inadequate response of government to the Covid crisis, which is getting worse by the day.

India has vast government systems with countrywide reach and terrific and well-tested managerial, supervisory and operational capabilities at its command. Each of these systems — be it in the railways, postal services or telecommunications, to name a few — is capable of immense feats of logistics, manufacturing, and intelligence gathering as well as information dissemination.

Missed opportunities

Through the Aadhaar, a massive digital database of the addresses of over a billion people, many with mobile numbers in the country is available almost on tap. So much so, that it was well within the capabilities of the government to keep up a constant flow of authentic information through mail, text and even voice messages, targeting migrants and their families. This alone would have significantly stemmed the panic resulting from rumours that brought them to the streets and put them on long walks home from cities across India.

Idling railway workshops across India could, during the lockdown, have been repurposed to produce PPEs and other medical equipment in large numbers for distribution through the country’s postal network, the largest of its kind in the world.

The Railways again, could have converted a significant number of air-conditioned coaches, possibly numbering more than 1,000, as hospitals on wheels in a short time. Parked at strategic locations to handle Covid patients, and manned by railway doctors, these would have brought succour to thousands. Just accessing rail reservations, even of the last six months, would have yielded enough information to determine the pattern of migrant labour movement across the country.

As part of a well-coordinated strategy to tackle Covid, the Railways could have got millions of migrants to their homes far more efficiently than any roadways at the start of the Covid crisis, while it was still manageable. That it has successfully moved over six million migrants to their homes in UP and Bihar in a few days is a remarkable testimony to its capabilities.

In the 4,00,000-plus strong Postal Services, the Central government has on its command a remarkable, mostly rural-based, organisation with over 1,25,000 outlets. These could have easily doubled as an efficient information gathering system to collect up-to-date village-wise data on the spread of Covid in rural India. The same postal network, given its intimate connect with citizens, could have even generated migration data from States like UP and Bihar to the rest of India.

Sadly, an organisation designed to reach money, letters and parcels remained underutilised at a time when its services were needed most. Right now, one of its greatest achievements has been the distribution of money to the needy through direct benefit transfers and an efficient Aadhar-enabled payment system. These are undoubtedly noteworthy achievements, but small change for an organisation through which well over 300 million citizens have saved about ₹7,00,000 crore.

Systemic failure

As the crisis unfolds, it is clear that a lack of understanding between the different wings of the government and of an awareness of the unique capabilities of each of them has come in the way of their working together to tackle the Covid pandemic much more efficiently, without the unnerving chaos and panic we have witnessed over the last several months. With the pandemic still a long way before petering out, there is now an urgent need for such coordination to be achieved in quick time.

While doing so, the government also needs to conduct an in-depth enquiry into why a system helmed by bureaucrats from all services, trained at government expense in top international institutions like Harvard and Oxford, landed a country and its people in an unprecedented mess — simply because it had no idea of how to make better use of the resources at its command. Additionally, the enquiry should also focus on why something so obvious as the need to target crowded urban clusters to stem the spread of the virus — Dharavi being an egregious example — was neglected until it was too late.

It will also be useful to find out why a government that was able to airlift thousands of Indians stranded in different parts of the world failed to get migrant labourers back to their homes in villages and towns, mostly in northern India, in quick time.

Better coordination

If there is one big takeaway from the messy manner in which governments at the State and national levels have handled Covid, it is the need for the government to develop coordinating mechanisms between its different wings that will automatically kick in during a crisis such as the one brought about by Covid. Such coordination needs no political will, as it is well within the capability of bureaucracy to achieve.

With the virus spreading more virulently than before, India’s bureaucracy has another chance to redeem itself and prove that it can manage the future course of the Covid pandemic much better than it has done so far. Will it seize the day?

The writer is a former Member, Postal Services Board. With inputs from people at various levels in different wings of the government. Views are personal

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Published on June 17, 2020
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