As the dust settles in five election-bound states and the cows return home, it’s time for somber introspection. Cows never care for any pandemics or wars, burials or cremations, doctors or deaths. They only follow their master and spend time on the ranch. That’s what makes some lives so different during election time. Those who travelled to rallies fell over each other’s shoulders to have a glimpse of majestic leaders from the country’s capital coming to speak to them. Their sloganeering broke the sound barriers as inebriated party workers in a ravenous craving for victory turned legitimate ‘super spreaders’. The coronavirus didn’t have to wait long for its scintillating performance as these rallies, led by the very team that was supposed to control such a viral disaster in our country, made its task easier. The Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority and the Minister of Home Affairs, the offices which coordinated and led the fight against the coronavirus by issuing office memorandums and notifications to update information and resources were commanding the blitzkrieg. Sensing such liberty in the air, people threw away their masks and state governments started winding up their revamped response infrastructure laid out during the first wave. People took warnings from concerned citizens simply as doomsday prophecies. Corona season was over and the election season lighted a new spring of hope.
The Election Commission behind this colossal gaffe went to the Supreme Court for the erasure of the Madras High Court’s ‘murder charge’ against it, which many think is an understatement. It was then told by a worried Court to accept bitter questions raised in the process of judicial scrutiny on matters of public interest such as its oversight of the pandemic’s ruinous spread. In fact, a two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court has been holding almost daily video conferences to hear petitions from hospitals invoking the constitutional right to life and it remains overloaded with petitions from concerned citizens and distressed relatives of Covid patients, unprecedented and unparalleled in the country’s courtroom history. This is being attended by officials from the state as well as the Centre. While doctors are breaking down in hospitals on seeing avoidable deaths due to shortage of oxygen, medicines and ventilators, judges are also losing their cool at the mismanagement and allegation-brawls between officials in e-courtrooms. India has lost some of her top minds, leading professionals and committed doctors to the lethal second wave of Covid which most people believe was avoidable if the government had been better prepared.
Such a catastrophe was forewarned as the WHO had already declared during September-November 2020 that a second wave will affect the Mediterranean and European regions for sure. It later expected new variants to affect Canada too. China had taken the warnings seriously and started mass testing and more effective contact tracing through regulated and limited lockdowns to avoid the killer second wave. The British variant had already reached India while the findings on Brazilian and South African variants added to fears. Despite the WHO’S repeated warnings against lowering guards and becoming complacent, the country was made to feel festive with the boisterous IPL at the Narendra Modi Stadium, the declaration of elections on 26 February, and the Kumbh Mela which saw 3.5 million people converging on its first day alone, while in the later days that number increased to more than 4.8 million.
Nature always warns humanity before a catastrophe. A new variant was detected in India in early December last year, following which the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on 25 December established a top science research group called the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG). It constituted a grouping of 10 national laboratories to carry out genomic sequencing and analysis of circulating the Covid viruses, collecting epidemiological trends with genomic variants. INSACOG found 771 variants of concerns (VOCs) in a total of 10,787 positive samples collected from 18 states across the country. As per the information shared by INSACOG on its website, 736 of the samples were found positive for the British variant, 34 samples were South African variants, and one sample of Brazilian lineage was also detected. India was already seeing a viral bomb and there was no lack in our research institutions to have a deficit of epidemiological information about what India was heading towards, whatever be the explanations later from decision making bodies. INSACOG alerted the National Centre for Disease Control of the Health Ministry on 10 March against a more contagious variant which would spread very fast and infect a large population. There was still ample time to wind up election rallies and take back Kumbh orders. Nevertheless, the government went ahead with its historically long election process in multiple phases and most cabinet ministers, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Disaster Management Authority preferred to keep decisions on hold till the return of top leaders to their offices from highly charged and sufficiently draining election meetings.
All this was happening in the midst of a fatal surge of Covid-19 cases. The total number of cases across the country swelled during the period of intensive election conglomerations across the country (roughly 1 March to 1 May) and specifically in election-bound states. The country-wide numbers surged from around 12,000 cases and 30 deaths to 3,71,041 cases and 3,319 deaths. In the five states where election rallies were held, a huge convergence of people in the open, mostly without masks, happened. In West Bengal, where the Prime Minister alone held more than 18 meetings with a crowd exceeding hundreds of thousands in each, Covid cases surged from 201 with 2 deaths to 17,512 and 103 deaths. The Tamil Nadu story was worse as cases increased from a mere 470 to 19,588 and deaths increased by 25 times. During the same period, Assam and Puducherry, where deaths were limited to 23 and 19 saw a deadly rise by 130 and 17 times, respectively. Kerala, despite its much superior healthcare and hospital system, also saw a surge from 3,496 to 32,805 cases and from 5 to 48 deaths. Much of the election crowd either returned to Delhi and Mumbai or passed through these two states leaving behind a trail of infections which in the face of an unresourced government brought a deadly collapse of record proportions. The country which had held its head high by exporting 66 million vaccines to 95 countries till 16 April, including necessary drugs such as paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), was now seeking the same from other countries. India has some of the best doctors in the world and one of the largest vaccine production capacities, but nothing helped as the health system collapsed in a heartbreaking scenario of desperation, despondency and death.
What went wrong with the leadership whose slogans such as ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ (Possibility, thy name is Modi) and ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (participatory and inclusive development) were being relished so well? Do administrators have a constitutional responsibility to act in time without waiting for directions from their political masters? Can our country reclaim a responsible and responsive administrative system which remains less influenced by the whims of political masters? The Supreme Court in 2013 had given a clear verdict in a writ petition of TSR Subramaniam and others v. Union of India where ten retired civil servants had invoked Article 32 of the Constitution, highlighting the necessity of various reforms for the preservation of integrity, fearlessness and independence of civil servants at the Centre and state levels in the country. Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan had issued certain directions to shield administrators from political influence based on the principles recognized by Rule 3(3)(ii)(iii) of the All India Service Conduct Rules, 1968 and as implicitly recognized by the Santhanam Committee Report, 1962 (Section 6, sub-para 33[iii]). To keep the bureaucracy free from ideological sycophancy, the Parliament was directed to immediately enact a Civil Services Act, setting up an independent Civil Services Board for the Union Government under Article 309 of the Constitution. Strong Prime Ministers always reduce administrative initiatives and gradually get clogged by a non-meritorious scum of officers around them. One could go on to name a long list of institutions in this country where bureaucracy has unquestionably succumbed to the tide of a strong regime even in the past. The catastrophe which follows has taken its deadliest toll this time in the country and should act as a wakeup call to bring reforms.
Three suggestions which can prevent the recurrence of such a disaster in the future have to do with systemic reforms in governance. First, the flow of information should not be blocked at any point and individual responsibility should be fixed on officials identified for doing it. Second, every institution should be governed through an increasing decentralization of authority at the Secretary, Joint Secretary and Director levels so that points of delay are detected and addressed in time. Third, the NDMA should reclaim its independence from the Home Ministry and work as a professional body of experts which is open to quick decisions on collaborations, information sharing and issuing early warnings against impending disasters. The world is changing faster than the hold of amateur political masters and one can definitely carve a brighter future if the government incorporates the suggested changes in the system. People can be better safeguarded even if they drop hopes of Arcadian bliss!
The author is President, NDRG and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU.