New Delhi: Last month, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) appeared to take direct charge of the Covid situation in Varanasi, PM Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, as the second wave started to gain pace in Uttar Pradesh.
The PMO sent one of Modi’s most trusted lieutenants — former IAS officer A.K. Sharma, now a BJP MLC in Uttar Pradesh — to supervise the hotspot district. The decision is paying off, say officials in the district.
Till the first week of May, Varanasi was among the top five worst-affected districts of Uttar Pradesh. State government figures pegged the number of fresh infections at 1,637 on 20 April, with seven deaths. On 25 April, the numbers rose to 2,057 cases and 15 deaths. This month has seen a dip in cases and fatalities.
As of Thursday, the total active Covid cases in Varanasi stood at 4,818, with the daily death figure below 10. It reported 240 cases on Wednesday, 326 on Tuesday, and 286 on Monday.
This is in sharp contrast to other districts in Uttar Pradesh, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s former Lok Sabha constituency Gorakhpur, state capital Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, and Unnao, which continue to grapple with the pandemic as also a shortage of beds, oxygen supply and medicines.
Uttar Pradesh recorded a total of 6,725 cases and 230 deaths within a 24-hour period, according to the data released Thursday, with the active cases estimated at 1,16,434. The state saw 7,336 new cases and 282 the day before.
Speaking to ThePrint, multiple civil servants in Lucknow and Varanasi, as well as a legislator, said the PM’s constituency could have been experiencing the same chaos as the rest of UP but for the “timely decision” to bring in Sharma to take charge of the situation.
One of the PM’s closest aides, Sharma has worked with Modi since his days as chief minister. He was secretary in Modi’s Gujarat Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) and joined the PMO as joint secretary after his 2014 win.
In April 2020, at the peak of the migrant crisis triggered by the Covid lockdown, he was appointed MSME secretary. Nine months down the line, Sharma took voluntary retirement to join the BJP. Soon afterwards, he was nominated as a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council.
Sharma, it is said, got down to work in Varanasi soon after his arrival on 13 April, summoning top officials of the district administration, municipal corporation and police to take stock of the situation.
Within a fortnight, he is learnt to have set up the 24×7 Kashi Covid response centre, which had real-time data on not only the total caseload but the number of beds available in each hospital, oxygen demand and availability, and stocks of medicines like remdesivir.
He is also credited with implementing individual oversight mechanisms from the block to gram panchayat levels to ensure enough samples are getting tested, as well as to distribute medicine kits to those infected and showing mild symptoms.
Adding heft to his words was the fact that he was seen as a representative of the central government, district administration officials said.
According to district officials, it’s not as if Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is not keeping a tab on Varanasi. The district was among the first that the CM visited after he recovered from Covid-19 and came out of isolation on 30 April. He reviewed the situation on the ground and gave a slew of directions to officials to ensure that people don’t suffer because of shortage of beds or oxygen.
But unofficially and for all practical purposes, officials said, it was Sharma who called the shots. “It’s kind of a parallel system in Varanasi under Sharma, where everything is being coordinated by the PMO,” said a senior civil servant posted in Lucknow.
In a tweet on 19 May, Sharma said the credit for whatever good had come off Covid management in Varanasi could be attributed to the PM’s guidance and blessings and the PMO’s complete support.
वाराणसी के कोविड व्यवस्थापन में जो भी अच्छा हुआ वह मा० प्रधानमंत्री श्री नरेंद्र मोदी जी के निरंतर मार्गदर्शन एवं आशीर्वाद से तथा @PMOIndia के सम्पूर्ण सहयोग से हुआ। कृतज्ञ पूर्वांचल की तरफ़ से हार्दिक धन्यवाद।
— A K Sharma (@aksharmaBharat) May 19, 2021
ThePrint reached Sharma for comment through phone calls and WhatsApp messages but there was no response till the time of publishing this report. District magistrate Kaushalraj Sharma, too, did not respond to phone calls on his official number.
‘Keeping Varanasi from descending into chaos’
Senior IAS officers in Lucknow said it is unprecedented for an MLC to take control of the situation in a district, and call up top officials of the local administration for meetings to take stock and give directions.
“We are not aware of any official communication from the CM’s office about sending Sharma to Varanasi. The move is unprecedented. An MLC does not enjoy that kind of power or stature,” said the senior civil servant quoted above. “But in this case, it was obvious that directions had come right from the top. It is the PM’s constituency.”
The officer, however, was quick to add that sending Sharma to Varanasi was the right decision.
“After the initial chaos and mismanagement, see how quickly the situation was brought under control in Varanasi. I wish such a setup was there in other districts like Kanpur, which saw a lot of mismanagement. Both Covid cases and deaths have spiralled in Kanpur and some of the other hotspot districts,” the officer added.
That Sharma meant business became clear from the word go, say officials. “Marathon meetings were held not only with officials but elected representatives from Varanasi and other stakeholders to get a sense of the ground situation. Directions were given and specific responsibilities assigned to senior officials,” a senior official who attended multiple meetings led by Shrama told ThePrint.
At the very first meeting that he took on 14 April, he directed top district officials to increase the number of beds available in hospitals, a second official who attended the meeting added.
It was at Sharma’s initiative that the 750-bed Covid hospital was set up by the DRDO in Varanasi.
“Sharma was not seen by the administration as merely an MLC but somebody who has worked in the central government, and is in constant touch with the PMO. This ensured that whatever directions he gave were taken seriously,” the second district administration official said.
The official added, “He is basically the one coordinating directly with the PMO on the situation in the district. This also instilled a lot of confidence among the district administration and motivated the officials and staff down below.”
That the PM is himself keeping a close tab on the situation also ensured that everybody — be it the most senior officer in the district or the most junior staff in the field — delivered, the official added.
Besides holding frequent meetings, Sharma made trips to Primary Health Centres and Community Health Centres, hospitals and Covid control rooms to keep an eye on the situation.
While the Yogi Adityanath government launched a special Covid-19 testing campaign in rural areas from 5 May, in Varanasi, the district administration started conducting tests and distributing medical kits in villages from 1 May onwards.
“Till 15 May, we had distributed 1.17 lakh medical kits in 760 gram panchayats,” the second official said.
A third official said Sharma directed district officials to set up multiple layers of checking at different levels, both in urban and rural areas.
“Right from block to gram panchayat level, there is an incharge for everything, be it ensuring that enough samples are getting tested, to distributing medicine kits to those infected and showing mild symptoms. Rigorous meetings are held on a routine basis to check that officials are delivering on the ground,” the official said.
Giving an instance of the follow-up done at the meetings, the official added, “It’s not that we just distributed the medical kits and forgot about it. We have registered the name of individuals who have been given the medical kit along with their mobile number, so anybody can call and check about their condition.”
Surendra Narayan Singh, a BJP MLA who represents Rohaniya, one of the assembly seats under the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, said “there are no two opinions that Sharma ji’s administrative prowess at the Centre helped resolve many tricky issues here — be it ensuring that hospitals have enough oxygen supply or medicines”.
“His 24×7 involvement helped improve the system here,” he added.
Helping other UP districts too
Officials say that, soon after coming to the district, Sharma used his connections in the central government to ensure all government hospitals in Varanasi were equipped with oxygen plants.
“All the oxygen plants were set up through CSR funds by different companies. This not only ensured that serious patients did not die gasping for oxygen but also went a long way in removing panic among the public. This boosted the confidence of officials as well as the public,” a fourth district administration official said.
Currently, Varanasi has an adequate oxygen supply to meet its total demand, the official added.
It’s not only oxygen plants. Sharma, through his Delhi connection, also arranged automatic RNA extractor machines for testing, besides oximeters and medicines, through the CSR route.
Although Sharma’s primary focus is Varanasi, he has been visiting and reviewing the Covid situation in adjoining districts of eastern UP, including Mau, Ballia, Jaunpur and Azamgarh, say officials.
“He has set up control centres in some of the other eastern UP districts and arranged medicines and other essential equipment like oxygen concentrators and oximeters for these districts too,” the fourth official said.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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