New Delhi/Bengaluru: Two Nobel laureates, a former RBI governor, retired IAS officers, a filmmaker, politicians, health experts, policymakers. Experts of different stripes have been engaged by at least a dozen Indian states to guide them through the Covid-19 crisis and help them chart out plans for economic recovery thereafter.
Some states have formed as many as three task forces as they set out to navigate the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and its grave economic toll.
From Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Kailash Satyarthi and former RBI governor C. Rangarajan, to former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former finance secretaries Hasmukh Adhia, Arvind Mayaram and Vijay Kelkar, banker Deepak Parekh, noted cardiac surgeon Dr Devi Shetty, and film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, this galaxy of experts will help different states devise individual exit strategies, besides suggesting health interventions and long- and short-term economic measures to bring investments into a Covid-battered economy.
The advice on offer is not for the states’ benefit alone. It’s also helping the central government as it tries to find a way to ease the lockdown’s chokehold on the economy without putting public health at stake.
The Covid pandemic has caught the entire world by storm, driving even developed nations against the wall. The formation of these teams, say observers, is an acknowledgment from the executive that the challenge at hand is too massive for it to handle alone.
Looking for expert guidance
Last week, the Vijay Rupani government in Gujarat became the latest to set up such a task force, forming a six-member committee under former Union finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia to lay out a post-Covid economic roadmap for the state.
A statement issued by the government said the task force’s mandate includes making sector-specific recommendations after getting estimates of financial losses suffered, and suggesting ways to attract foreign investment.
Other states that have formed Covid-related task forces are Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, among others.
Although many of the task forces are still working on their reports, some of the recommendations from others, including those in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kerala, have already been implemented.
Their advice is routinely shared with the central government and it has helped formulate the guidelines announced after the end of each phase of the lockdown.
For example, the central government’s plan to allow states more say in deciding policies regarding their containment zones was based on the recommendation of some of the task forces, including those in Rajasthan and Kerala.
The recommendation that the lockdown be continued in hotspots, where a large number of cases have been reported, came from the Karnataka committee under Dr Devi Shetty. The suggestion that restrictions on public transport continue until at least 30 April also came from the same panel, just before the first phase of the lockdown (25 March-14 April) was to end.
A suggestion from the Rajasthan task force under former finance secretary Arvind Mayaram, that the manufacturing and services sector be opened up to unclog the supply chain, create demand and boost spending, was also considered by the central government before announcing the latest guidelines for the fourth phase of the lockdown on 17 May.
“If there is no spending, no buying, where will revenues come from? So, we have suggested specific measures for a phased reopening of the economy,” Mayaram had told ThePrint before the fresh guidelines were issued Sunday. “The state government has accepted some of the recommendations. Even the central government is considering them, along with inputs given by other states. before announcing the post-17 May guidelines,” he had said.
The Mayaram committee also recommended allowing public transport like taxis with up to three passengers in the orange and green zones, which the state government has already implemented.
‘Establishing a new order’
Talking about the task forces, a senior Punjab government officer said they were a demand of the times. “When there is a crisis of this unprecedented nature at hand, it does not require tweaking of the law here and there. You are looking to establish a fundamentally new order, so the political executive and the bureaucracy need experts to help them take decisions,” the officer added.
Experts say many a time, the government may not be equipped to come up with solutions to a crisis of the magnitude of Covid-19, and that is why formation of these task forces becomes the need of the hour.
“The making of these task forces suggests that the government is rightly admitting that it does not have all the answers,” said Nitin Pai, co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based think-tank on public policy.
“The Covid crisis is at once a health, economic, labour, migrant, agricultural, food and hunger crisis,” Pai added. “So, at one level, their formation is an acknowledgement by governments that they do not necessarily have the expertise.”
It is also a question of legitimacy, Pai said. “Some decisions that need to be taken may not be popular, but if there are apolitical experts recommending it, it lends a kind of legitimacy to it.”
D.K. Srivastava, chief policy adviser at EY India, said the existing available resources with many of the state governments “are very limited”.
“This is where the advice given by some of the specialised task forces comes in handy. Many have a mix of international experts, who bring a global perspective, and Indian ones, who are old hands in policymaking,” he said.
A former Finance Commission member, Srivastava said an economic task force, for instance, would have to factor in the central government’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic relief package while suggesting measures that the states can take for their recovery.
Focus on economic recovery
Going by the composition of the majority of the task forces, economic revival seems to be the top priority for states as they battle an extreme resource crunch in light of the lockdown.
In West Bengal, for instance, noted economist and Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee is part of the global advisory board set up by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to help the state draw up a policy for economic recovery.
“There has been a drastic dip in revenues because of the lockdown. With not much funds made available by the central government so far, we will have to think of innovative, out-of-box ideas to raise resources,” said a senior government officer. “That’s the reason for bringing economists like Abhijit Banerjee on board,” the officer added.
Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, has set up a high-level committee headed by former RBI governor C. Rangarajan to assess the impact of the pandemic on the state’s economy.
“The task force will identify potential investors, frame guidelines, formulate special packages and also make TN the most preserved destination in the country,” a statement issued by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami said.
With Tamil Nadu facing a revenue shortfall of Rs 10,000 crore in April alone, with almost no collection of taxes, a senior state government officer said the state is struggling for funds and hoping to attract investments.
On 11 May, Karnataka also set up a “special investment promotion” task force to woo multinational companies looking at shifting their base from China.
Headed by state chief secretary T.M. Vijay Bhaskar, the task force will also include representatives of companies and trade organisations from countries like Japan, Korea, France, Germany, US and Taiwan.
Politicians at the helm too
The response to the Covid-19 crisis differs from state to state. Punjab, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have more than one task force to deal with different aspects of the pandemic. Some like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra also have politicians at the helm of these teams.
Punjab has three task forces.
One is a regular administrative group that is headed by the chief secretary and the bureaucracy – they are carrying out all out all the day-to-day administrative functions. The second is headed by Montek Singh Ahluwalia and is responsible for coming up with long-term policy prescriptions – changes in labour laws, licencing laws, deregulation, illegal colony authorisation laws – for the state’s eventual recovery.
The third group consists of retired civil servants, and is somewhere in between the first two. Its mandate is to recommend ways to unwind the lockdown, and to open up the economy.
Maharashtra, which has recorded the maximum number of Covid-19 cases, also has three task forces. One comprises doctors, led by former KEM Hospital dean Sanjay Oak, to help the government monitor and ramp up healthcare facilities in the state.
The second one comprises mainly economists, industrialists, and former and current civil servants, to ready a post-Covid economic roadmap for the state. This includes technocrat Raghunath Mashelkar, former finance secretary Vijay Kelkar and banker Deepak Parekh.
The third committee comprises senior state ministers, including Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister Ajit Pawar and Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat, which will wade through the recommendations of the first two panels and suggest the ones that can be implemented.
Madhya Pradesh, which has seen over 4,500 Covid-19 cases so far, is mainly relying on politicians, while also seeking the advice of civil servants and Nobel laureate Satyarthi to supplement the decision-making.
Since the state had no health minister for several weeks amid the pandemic, owing to deep political upheaval in March that led to a change in government, a task force was set up under the state BJP president and other party leaders as a quick-fix solution. The decision proved counterproductive as Covid-19 cases shot up in the state.
“Filling up the task forces, whose sole job is to come up with expert solutions, with politicians is not advisable,” said an IAS officer from the state. “That can give an impression of both shabby optics and policy-making.”
A day later, on 13 April, the government set up another technical committee, headed by child rights activist Satyarthi and consisting of eight doctors, a retired IAS and a retired IPS officer, to come up with guidelines to battle the pandemic. They were also tasked with preparing guidelines on surveillance, sample collection, clinical management, isolation and quarantine.
However, until Tuesday last week, the committee is learnt to have met just once with the chief minister via video conference.
Not all recommendations accepted
The Kerala government set up a 17-member taskforce, headed by former chief secretary K.M. Abraham, and also including noted film-maker Gopalakrishnan.
In a report submitted to the state government on 7 April, the committee recommended a calibrated reopening of the economy after the first phase of the lockdown, which ended 14 April.
It was on the basis of this recommendation that the state government allowed opening of restaurants, buses and private vehicles in orange and green zones from 15 April, only to be snubbed by the central government
“The Union home secretary immediately wrote back saying that states can’t dilute central guidelines. Kerala was forced to withdraw the order,” a senior state government official told ThePrint.
Pai said the government is under no obligation to accept these recommendations, which he described as a potential source of concern.
“Another problem is, how are some of these experts actually appointed? What is their expertise?”