New Delhi: Around 60 per cent of IAS officers who took part in a survey in August and September 2020 said the low virulence and spread of the Covid-19 infection in India could be attributed to limited testing or the inability to capture the true numbers due to underreporting driven by stigma.
The survey, titled ‘The Pandemic and Public Administration: A Survey of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officers’, was conducted by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and featured responses from 526 serving and 44 retired IAS officers.
The largest percentage of respondents — 36.3 — blamed limited testing for the low spread of the coronavirus, while 23.4 per cent cited underreporting. Only around 20 per cent respondents said the nationwide lockdown was responsible for the low spread of the coronavirus, while another 20 per cent attributed it to natural causes.
The survey also reported that while 54.9 per cent of the IAS officers said the public complied with the national lockdown due to understanding and willing cooperation, 45.1 per cent felt that it was the fear of the law that made them do so.
Other important responses included 72 per cent of the IAS officers saying any officer refusing to take up an assigned role due to risk or vulnerability should face penal action.
On the questions raised over the centrality of the Union government in the pandemic response and the relative subordination of state governments, a striking 83 per cent of the surveyed officers backed the states’ stance, saying they must have the autonomy to formulate their own responses based on their needs and capacities.
‘Rising to the challenge’
CPR’s IAS officers’ survey is important, given the fact that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the service’s role in India’s governance and administration increased further. With most people including politicians staying home for their safety, the health, economic and social crises were handled by collectors/magistrates at the district level, chief secretaries at the states and union territories’ level, and empowered groups of secretaries at the national level.
Most of the officers surveyed were of the view that the “Indian state and bureaucracy rise to the occasion and respond well in times of crisis, demonstrating capabilities to mobilise, motivate, innovate and communicate that are unfortunately missing in action in its routine functioning”.
The IAS officers felt the autonomy given to them due to lack of political interference in administrative actions, and the consequent ability to deploy all resources to a single cause, enhanced their performance.
On the widespread criticism that civil servants received for issuing thousands of confusing and/or contradictory orders during the lockdown, the surveyed officers expressed a low regard about the capabilities of the political executive to adequately and effectively communicate with the Indian public.
“Indeed, when it came to effective communication with the public, speeches by politicians ranked as the least effective mode, even below government orders and guidelines,” the survey report stated.
Blaming the public, influential persons
However, a large number of officers said the public needed to be held responsible for the state’s incapacity. “While civil servants express relatively greater confidence in the state’s ability to ramp up resources and deliver on infrastructure, to an extent, their responses reveal a strong recognition that the state is much less successful in critical aspects of public service delivery such as behaviour change communication, which become vital during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the CPR report stated.
“But, strikingly, much of the responsibility for the state’s incapacity is placed by officers on the public itself and on societal values and practices,” it added.
The pressure on IAS officers to give special treatment to influential persons also didn’t seem to have abated during a worldwide crisis either.
“The pressure to compromise on one’s values and the rules in the course of service was accepted to be high even at this time of grave crisis,” the report said, adding that 36.8 per cent of the surveyed officers said if they had refused to grant travel permits to influential people, they would’ve invited adverse consequences.