Covid-19: Indian bureaucrats rise to the occasion

Richa Mishra | Updated on April 23, 2020

IAS officers have been at the front line of the fight

When a crisis strikes, the response has to be agile, innovative, and collaborative. Who would have thought the Indian Civil Services, usually reviled for its red-tapism, could be so speedy, responsive and efficient? It’s early days yet, but India’s bureaucracy has so far distinguished itself at the frontline of tackling Covid-19.

Today, everyone knows Bhilwara’s District Magistrate Rajendra Bhatt, the man who ably tackled the contagion in the area, or Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, whose daily briefings have allayed the nation’s fears, or Joint Secretary in Ministry of Home Affairs Punya Salila Srivastava, and many more.

If you talk to these IAS officers, they just shrug and say, “This is what we always do”.

For years working quietly in the background or shouldering the blame for the slips or miscalculations of political masters, today it’s the IAS’ moment to shine.

How should this visibility be seen as? Especially in the backdrop of significant Civil Services reforms and a huge debate on whether the Services need to be trimmed?

Dilip Cherian, a communications & political advisor, sees the debate in three ways: “One is that you have realised once again the crucial role of the District Administration. It requires both knowledge of law and what is feasible on the ground. See, who manages, for example, a famine — a problem that cannot be resolved immediately. Understanding the government’s own rules and regulations is ingrained from the beginning only in this cadre of Service.

“Secondly, they know the ground-level reality intimately. Knowing your district is the key to finding solutions. But things can become a challenge, when Babus taking the call don’t know enough,” says Cherian, adding “identification and quantification of the problem is key and solving it is core to the bureaucracy.”

Designed for crisis moments

Cherian’s third point, shared with him by Abid Hussain, the legendary Babu, is that, “our bureaucracy is designed to tackle crisis. From the days of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), to the time when they were replaced by the IAS, the design assured that they are quick to handle any crisis.” Cherian’s argument is supported by Ashok Jha, former IAS official, who says, “It is not just today but over the years, the Service has been contributing silently. The difference between now and earlier years is that their contribution was never highlighted as Civil Servants preferred to remain anonymous. Whether it was the refugee crisis in 1971 or localised floods and droughts or national policy formulation and implementation, the Service was, and continues to be, the backbone of administration.”

Sanjeev Chopra, Director of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the training ground for Civil Servants, says, for an IAS officer, challenges at the district and State level always remain, as governance is of key importance to implement policies. Chopra, who is also the Vice-President of the IAS Association, adds, “They have to take all other stakeholders, including panchayats, health services, labour officers and police, along. IAS, Indian Police Service and the rest all have to work together, support each other. Besides, as India grows in size, implementation of law will be important.”

Aashish Chandorkar, a public policy commentator, feels that in the last few days, administrative machinery has risen to the occasion, working hard to contain the coronavirus spread. “The IAS covers a broad spectrum of areas today — policy making, policy design, day-to-day operations and local administrative control. There is no doubt several officers have distinguished themselves on the execution side in the last few weeks — and even otherwise.”

“The reform needed is more on the policy side, where specific domain knowledge can be blended with understanding of the system. Areas such as finance, agriculture, healthcare, can benefit from specialist policy making and getting in a practitioner view to the government,” he stresses.

Published on April 23, 2020

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