New Delhi: When the Narendra Modi government announced a 21-day lockdown across India to contain the spread of Covid-19, it said that “incident commanders” will be deployed in each district to implement the mammoth exercise in every nook and corner of the country.
The Centre’s guidelines said that the district magistrate will “deploy Executive Magistrates as Incident Commanders in the respective local jurisdictions” in order to implement these containment measures.
“The Incident Commander will be responsible for the overall implementation of these measures in their respective jurisdictions. All other line department officials in the specified area will work under the directions of such incident commander,” it further elaborated.
These incident commanders are young IAS officers, still in their late 20s or early 30s, who are posted in sub-divisions across India’s 700 districts. With an average of 1-2 years of experience, they were given the responsibility of locking down an entire country block by block.
They immediately sprang to action, ensuring that people did not come out of their homes, those with travel histories or symptoms were home-quarantined, the supply of essential goods was maintained, and hoarding and black marketing was checked. They also worked on aggressive contact-tracing of positive cases and sealing borders of districts and sub-districts.
While some aspects of the lockdown were planned at the top or senior levels, day-to-day challenges and unanticipated situations meant these officers were taking on-the-spot decisions to keep a country in lockdown running as smoothly as possible.
ThePrint spoke to several of these incident commanders to understand how the mammoth task was achieved.
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Planned crisis management
When PM Modi announced that the country would be going into lockdown in his televised speech for the nation on 24 March, people had just a few hours before they were restricted to their homes.
However, within the administration, processes had been working for days to prepare for it.
“Within the administration, we knew that an extreme step like a lockdown was in the offing since Holi,” said Pankaj Ashiya, who is posted as an SDM in Nashik, Maharashtra. “By the 8th or 9th of March, we had already made teams at the block-level of Block Development Officers (BDO), Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), school teachers, etc. who were told to plan for the lockdown in advance.
“Basic planning of how to enforce a lockdown was done … Then on 24 March, when the lockdown was announced, and officers were made ‘incident commanders’, it was just a matter of getting started,” he added.
Getting started meant work days lasting more than 18 hours a day, and staying alert 24×7.
In districts like Bhilwara — which had earlier emerged as a hotspot of the disease — measures like “ruthless containment” meant a war-like clinical management of the situation.
“At every level, tasks were divided,” said Athar Aamir Khan, who is posted as a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) in the Badnor sub-division of Bhilwara.
“At the district level, there was a war room consisting of the DM (District Magistrate), SP (Superintendent of Police), Additional Collector, Principal Medical Officer, and a few others — the whole district-level planning was done at this level,” Khan said.
“Then at the SDM-level, there is another 24×7 control room which keeps a check on everything from ration supply, surveying of people, contact tracing, quarantining and general grievances,” he added.
In addition to the SDM, control rooms at the block level consist of the DSP, BDO, Station House Officer (SHO), and tehsildar, Khan added. The members of this team are called “Corona captains”.
While these officers supervise activities, there are other members who work in three shifts through the day to keep the control room functioning 24×7.
Under the Corona captains are more grassroot-level workers who actually execute the decisions made — the “Corona fighters” — panchayat education officer, revenue officers, patwaris (the local official who maintains ownership records and collects taxes), Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), Anganwadi workers and government school teachers.
The Corona fighters are responsible for all the heavy-lifting when it comes to actually executing functions like round-the-clock monitoring of those home-quarantined, surveying people with symptoms, and providing ration packs consisting of basic food items like dal, masalas, sugar, wheat, etc. to daily wagers.
“The entire government machinery at the lowest levels is being used to manage everything,” Khan said. “There have been tasks that people don’t even know … Like we have flying squads, which are teams of people who have to immediately rush to a spot if more than four people are seen anywhere … the whole exercise has needed micro-managing at the lowest level of the government,” he said.
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Crises within the crisis
Communication and directions from the Central and state governments have been very clear, said the young officers. However, the incident officers have still had to make decisions on their own time and again.
“We had to use both coercion and appeal to enforce the lockdown,” said Richie Pandey, a 2016 batch IAS officer appointed as the deputy development commissioner in Patna. “There has been a high degree of decentralisation at play … While the big decisions were being taken at the top, the DM’s and subsequently the SDM’s office has really been at the centre of management,” said Pandey.
“Not everything can be streamlined during a crisis,” said a young officer in a district from Maharashtra who did not want to be named. “You cannot wait for orders and approvals for everything,” he added.
“For example, the government will tell you that vegetable markets will remain open … But at the top level, they cannot factor in exactly how crowded or congested a market is,” the officer said. “So I, at the sub-division level, decided that bus stops will be turned into vegetable markets where vendors can sit at a distance from one another since they are open spaces and no buses are plying.”
Several other officers who spoke to ThePrint also mentioned using the same technique to ensure social distancing at vegetable markets, indicating that there has been a constant exchange of ideas, mostly through WhatsApp groups, among officers — all of the same age and experience who find themselves in the same boat.
“We have stayed in touch through out WhatsApp groups — sharing idea, experiences informally,” the Maharashtra IAS officer said.
Despite the government’s meticulous planning, the crisis threw up unanticipated problems that could simply not have been planned for at the top.
“The medical staff was in a state of panic at the time of the lockdown. They thought that the government will force them to work no matter what … We had to repeatedly assure them that their lives would not be put in a jeopardy … And frankly, that was hard because we didn’t know anything for sure either,” said the officer from Maharashtra.
Ashiya, the SDM in a subdivision in Nashik, threw light on how the outbreak taught them to make use of “informal channels”.
For example, when shops selling essentials had shut down due to panic or authorities were having trouble convincing people to stay quarantined at home, local politicians had to be requested to convince people.
Another young IAS officer from Tamil Nadu said not just local politicians, but even local religious leaders needed to be roped in to connect with the people.
“You only learn crisis management on the job, it is not something that can be taught … In deeply religious societies, the best way to convince people for such a big lifestyle change is to get their religious leaders to tell them that — no book or no teacher can teach you that, only a crisis can,” said the IAS officer.
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