New Delhi: The hard knock dealt to India by the second Covid wave — taking the case total to 2,40,46,809 and deaths to 2,62,317 (since last year) — may suggest no one is at the controls of its response to the pandemic. But, there are at least 15 committees, both scientific and bureaucratic, that are currently overseeing India’s Covid-19 strategy.
Apart from the meetings and discussions held by these panels, at least 67 review meetings were held by the Prime Minister or his office between January 2020 and May 2021 to take stock of the situation.
Of these, 48 meetings — between January 2020 and December 2020 — were listed out by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in an affidavit dated 23 April 2021 in the Supreme Court.
In May, there have so far been six review meetings. There were 10 in April, and one each in March and January.
The records of all the 66 meetings are available in the public domain. There may have been many more PMO meetings on Covid-19 whose records are not in the public domain.
The PM’s interactions included other related meetings — like the one with vaccine beneficiaries in the PM’s Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi on 22 January and the workshop he addressed on 18 February with 10 neighbouring countries on India’s “Covid-19 Management: Experience, Good Practices and Way Forward”.
There were also numerous review meetings chaired by the cabinet secretary through the duration of the pandemic. However, beyond the bird’s eye reviews, it was these committees and task forces of scientists or civil servants or both, and also politicians, that have been in charge of the Covid-19 management brass tacks.
Shaheed Jameel, chairman of the advisory panel of INSACOG, one of the panels advising the government, quit Sunday. He had been critical of the government for its denial of the role of a mutant variant in the current Covid surge in India.
Some of the 15-odd committees were formed as far back as February 2020, when India had only reported three “imported” Covid cases. One predates the pandemic, while some others are of more recent provenance. Their role spans a wide gamut, from vetting vaccines to coordination with the private sector.
ThePrint reached the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare by email for a comment on the committees and their role, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.
Here is a brief description of some of the committees.
National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation
The NTAGI is the highest technical body that evaluates data on new and upcoming vaccines or reviews data from the ones already rolled out, when that is needed. This is a standing committee that helps the Union Ministry of Health with technical guidance on immunisation. It predates Covid. The NTAGI now has a Covid working group that looks specifically at data on coronavirus vaccines. It is headed by Dr N.K. Arora, Director of INCLEN Trust, an international network of healthcare professionals.
The committee is also supposed to analyse reported adverse events following immunisation (ARFIs) and explore links with vaccines, or the lack of it.
National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19
The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 is co-chaired by NITI Aayog member (health) Dr V.K. Paul and Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan.
NEGVAC, which has members both from the scientific community and the civil service, acts as the final vetting authority on decisions related to the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, but its word is by no means the last.
For example, when vaccinations opened up for older age groups, NEGVAC had wanted the cut-off to be 50 years but the Government of India decided to start with the 60+ age group from 1 March.
Task force headed by Principal Scientific Adviser
In April 2020, the central government constituted a task force headed by Principal Scientific Adviser Prof. K. VijayRaghavan to encourage R&D for vaccine manufacture. This committee, too, is co-chaired by Dr V.K. Paul.
“The task force has made the DBT (Department of Biotechnology) a central coordinating authority for vaccine development and their main work will be to identify a pathway for vaccine development,” the Union Health Ministry said in a statement in April 2020.
“For this work, a dynamic list of national and international organisations working for vaccine development is to be made, their progress is to be monitored and facilitation at government level is to be done by them.”
ICMR Covid-19 task force
This is a group of experts — from within and outside the government — who are supposed to give guidance to the government on the Covid-19 pandemic and how to manage it. It is co-chaired by Dr Paul and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director General Dr Balram Bhargava.
“The NTF comprises 21 members, including technical/domain experts from the government and outside the government. Predominant expertise in the task force is from public health and/or epidemiology. Given the complexity and implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has experts from medicine, virology, pharmacology and programme implementation domains, as well,” the health ministry said in a statement in June 2020.
In April 2020, 11 empowered groups were formed to spearhead various aspects of Covid-19 management. In September last year, the number was pared down to six. It has since risen to seven. The groups have been constituted under the National Disaster Management Act 2005. Headed by Dr Paul and several other senior officials — including NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, Guruprasad Mahapatra, Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, and National Health Authority (NHA) CEO Dr R.S. Sharma — these groups look after various aspects of the pandemic right from medical infrastructure to vaccination and coordination with the private sector.
Group of ministers
In February 2020, a group of ministers was constituted under Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan as a symbol of the “political commitment at the highest levels of the government, led by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi” for leading the “government’s response against novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19)”. “India is prepared through its various timely measures and sturdy systems of surveillance for novel coronavirus,” the health minister said at the time.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) is a grouping of 10 national laboratories, and was established by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in December 2020. The 10 identified laboratories of INSACOG Consortium report their sequencing results to the Central Surveillance Unit (CSU) of National Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC), from where it is shared with the state surveillance units (SSUs) of IDSP by the CSU through email and meetings.
INSACOG has a high-level Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee, which “provides guidance and oversight to the consortium specially for policy matters”, and it has “a Scientific Advisory Group for scientific and technical guidance”.
More panels, more delays?
Speaking to ThePrint, experts in the field made a general observation — not about these panels — that more committees often mean more delays. They also noted that decision-making in the central government is centralised.
“There is a saying, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’. You have to make the system functional, delegate authority,” said a former civil servant.
“If all decisions come from the PMO, then, even if you have 35 committees, nothing will work. As a rule, more committees means more delays. But how they have worked or whether they have worked can only be analysed if one looks at the minutes of these meetings,” the retired civil servant added.
Said a second expert, “There are empowered committees galore. Despite all these, decision-making is centralised.”