New Delhi: From Tamil Nadu to West Bengal and Bihar, the top IAS officers across states are shattering the hierarchy of governance as they have become the centre of all decision-making in the fight against Covid-19.
With the urgency of the pandemic necessitating the elimination of procedures to speed up decisions, the chief secretaries of states are taking the lead over MPs, MLAs, and even ministers, in the administrative response to C0vid-19, and reporting directly to chief ministers.
The office of the chief secretary is the highest administrative position in states, and they serve as the apex coordinators of all departments.
Equivalent to the rank of secretaries in the central government, the office of the chief secretary is the ultimate position an IAS officer can rise to in states — a position that has come to wield even more power and influence since the country was locked down on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sample this: At a televised meeting of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha last week with industry chambers and representatives from micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), the chief secretary said a proposal made by the industry representatives could be sent to the MSME secretary. However, CM Mamata Banerjee immediately weighed in and said the proposal should only come to the chief secretary.
In Tamil Nadu, Chief Secretary K. Shanmugam was credited with mounting a quick response to the pandemic. Within 10 days of the state diagnosing its first Covid-19 case on 7 March, the chief secretary had issued an elaborate set of instructions to all government departments and institutes, and called for the constitution of ‘contact tracing teams’ in districts, procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), use of thermal scanners at entry and exit points of railway stations, and setting up of helplines, among other measures. This, even before the second case was reported on 19 March.
Now, the state administration is being lauded for having among the lowest Covid-19 death rates despite accounting for the third highest number of cases.
‘An administrative, not political, crisis’
Officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), chief secretaries, on average, gather 30 years’ experience in pure administration before rising to the post. However, even as the top-most officers of the state, they are subordinate to the political class.
Speaking to ThePrint, several senior IAS officers said the new turn in the role was in stark contrast to ordinary times, when a chief secretary’s job is largely limited to grievance redressal, transfers and postings, with most files being approved by different ministers, before they ultimately go to the chief minister.
“Sometimes, the chief secretary would not even know something was being done until the very last moment,” said a senior IAS officer from Punjab.
The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have altered this convention, even if temporarily. This, officers say, is because even politicians realise that administrative acumen is a greater asset in such a crisis.
“What the country needs right now is administrative and not political acumen, and the bureaucracy is way more well-versed with that than the politicians… So, obviously, it is they who are at the forefront,” said an IAS officer from West Bengal.
“Covid-19 is an administrative, not political, crisis, that’s why you see the predominance of the bureaucracy in every sphere.”
The aforementioned IAS officer from Punjab explained that a crisis of current proportions required quick decisions.
“Generally, all decision-making is based on long-established and lengthy protocols — approvals need to be sought from the ministers, files travel from all levels,” said the officer.
“Now, we don’t have the luxury of time…We need quick coordination among all departments, and there is no time for approval from ministers.”
Covid-19, the officer said, “is not just a health crisis, it is a crisis that requires constant inter-departmental coordination – food distribution, procurement of medical equipment, handling migrations, enforcing a curfew…”
“In such a time, it is not and cannot be business as usual. Departments and ministries cannot be working in silos with each secretary reporting to their minister,” the officer added.
This is why, the officer said, “the chief secretary… has become the central point of all decision-making because it is the job of the chief secretary to ensure coordination as the head of the state cabinet secretariat…”
“It is just that, in ordinary times, this level of coordination is not always needed,” the officer added.
It is, however, not just inter-departmental coordination within states for which the chief secretary has emerged as the fulcrum.
A senior officer from Tamil Nadu said the chief secretary had become the “one-point contact” between the central government and states too.
“All executive meetings held by the union home secretary or the cabinet secretary involve chief secretaries…There is absolute centralisation of power in the chief secretary’s office, which is not only unavoidable, but necessary,” the officer added.
There are no proposals these days — just execution by the state administration, which is headed by the chief secretary, the officer added. “Earlier, all administrative decisions would be vetted by the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO), now that does not happen — it cannot,” the officer said. “The chief ministers are also not interfering…Since it is a crisis situation, approval from the political executive is seen to be a given.”
‘Stamp of safety’
While the constant need for coordination among departments is one reason, there is another less obvious reason why every decision is being routed through chief secretaries, added the officer from Punjab. All secretaries and senior officers, the officer said, felt safer if a decision had the chief secretary’s stamp.
“For example, in Punjab, there was a decision on testing kits that was taken… It was seen as a hyper-technical decision, so the chief secretary was not involved,” the officer said. “But when there was a problem, the chief secretary had to come to the rescue for damage control.”
In Bihar, an official said the role of ministers, in particular, had become negligible. All the business is being carried out by secretaries in their departments, who are reporting to the chief secretary, who is ultimately reporting to the chief minister, the officer said.
It helps that the lockdown has been invoked under the National Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Act, which empower the administration to call the shots during the crisis, an officer from West Bengal said. “So, in that sense, the orders of the chief secretary have statutory backing.”
In the current scheme of things, it is not just the chief secretary, but the entire administrative framework or the bureaucracy that has become all-powerful, the officer added. “You see, the politicians — the MPs and the MLAs are all indoors…” the officer said. “Politics has taken a backseat.”
With inputs from Madhuparna Das