The nodal agency of choice, the ministry of home affairs, is a surprising pick to deal with what is foremost a health issue with social and economic ramifications.
Economic reforms were the last soft option to change the development trajectory of India. Unless harder administrative reforms are undertaken, the country will gravitate around the blinkered view of economists and the Hindu rate of growth.
It is premature to draw a balance sheet of how India dealt with the Covid pandemic. Its response is nevertheless insightful of the administrative framework used to deliver policy and programmes of the government. The nodal agency of choice, the ministry of home affairs, is a surprising pick to deal with what is foremost a health issue with social and economic ramifications. A legacy administrative framework developed by a colonial regime and continued mindlessly post-independence demystifies this choice. The primary function of the colonial bureaucracy was maintaining law and order. Typical of a law enforcement agency, the first response of MHA was lockdown or curfew. The primary frontline workforce understandably is the police. The choicest instruments are issuing show-cause notices and registering FIRs for deviations.
Distrust of people and institutions is a key attribute of colonial administrations. This explains decisions like initially barring private health providers from dealing with Covid, notwithstanding the fact that over 70% of India’s health infrastructure is with the private sector, be it hospitals or laboratories.
Other opportunities to leverage the private sector were also lost. For instance, feeding the poor in urban agglomerations. The hotels, restaurants and dhabhas were best equipped to take on the job. Yet, the state, with zero core competence, took on the function of running kitchens. It could have negotiated competitive pricing with a down-and-out industry but for the deep-rooted belief that the private sector is a swindler. In a similar vein, surface transport for goods, almost entirely in the private sector, was put off-road and only the state-owned Railways and a single airline were allowed to carry cargo.
From fear and distrust follows the instinct to centralise decision-making and concentrate power. Resultantly, the MHA became the fountainhead of all wisdom. Even central ministries were reduced to consultative status on matters pertaining to their core mandate.
Non-participative policy- and decision-making culture lies at the heart of legacy systems. The involvement of states and central ministries was post facto. Civil society and specialist agencies, health sector included, were left in the cold. The ministries of finance, commerce, labour and social justice would surely have had a point of view on the implications of a sudden lockdown piloted by the MHA. They just couldn’t have been oblivious of impact on migrant labourers, the destitute or the economy. Ironically, the dominant narrative of a law enforcement agency muted other perspectives until they became visible on the law and order radar.
Accountability deficit is another characteristic of colonial administrative systems which do not owe allegiance to the people and view them as mere subjects. Spelling out the duration of the lockdown, putting projections and real data on health, social and economic parameters and owning deviations will not even occur to such dispensations.
The cumulative impact of an administrative system designed to rule rather than serve the people is deeply alienating. Public hospitals closing doors to other patients, showering the destitute with disinfectants and throwing food packets with disdain at the starving manifest an officialdom alienated from the people. The all-pervasive equation of everything “sarkari” with free to be used, and misused, is the reciprocal worldview of the people.
The absurdity of the police- and MHA-led ‘one-size-fits-all’ response doesn’t even strike as an oddity. The underlying cause of suboptimal governance of India lies exposed in this moment of crisis. It undermines and underlines every quest of the nation without exception. For the political executive, it is very daunting to dismantle and recast its principal delivery arm in a compressed timeframe between two elections. Yet, an elected government will have to bite the bullet for India to realise its potential. Sooner the better, for at stake is the commitment and credibility of every government and every political party to “we the people.”