New Delhi: Last week, the Uttarakhand government relieved Nitesh Jha, a 2002-batch IAS officer, of his charge as the principal secretary, health, and transferred him to the irrigation department.
He was replaced by Amit Singh Negi who had been handling disaster management and planning in the state.
Jha had been favoured by BJP governments at the Centre and the state — he served as the personal secretary of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the Modi government’s first term — but he is among a number of principal secretaries, health, to have lost their jobs in the middle of a pandemic.
Just two days before Jha was shifted, Bihar principal health secretary Sanjay Kumar was shunted out to the tourism department. So is the case in West Bengal, Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, where the top most health department civil servant officer has lost the post, either for allegedly mishandling the crisis or, according to the opposition, simply to divert public criticism from the chief minister concerned.
ThePrint lists the principal health secretaries who have been moved out in the Covid-19 crisis.
Sanjay Kumar, Bihar
The 1990-batch IAS officer was considered close to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and was the face of the state’s fight against Covid-19. Sanjay Kumar held regular updates on Twitter and attempted to improve Bihar’s poor testing rates.
His transfer is all the more startling as he came out unscathed last year, when the Bihar health department faced severe flak for the death of nearly 200 children due to encephalitis in Muzaffarpur district.
A civil servant in the Bihar health ministry told ThePrint that Sanjay Kumar was not on the best terms with Health Minister Mangal Pandey. The trouble in the ties boiled over when Kumar sacked Satendra Narayan Singh, the head of the Patna Medical College and Hospital’s microbiology department for dereliction of duty on 9 April. The health ministry, however, revoked the doctor’s suspension.
Another flashpoint was the posting of doctors in their home district. Kumar did not agree with the minister following reports of doctors taking advantage and not reporting for duty.
“The health minister used the Covid handling as a case against him and put pressure on the chief minister to transfer him,” the IAS officer quoted above said.
Even the opposition slammed the transfer. RJD leader Tej Pratap Yadav tweeted that the “scores of the truthful and the liar were not matching and hence, saheb (Pandey) changed the captain midway through the match. He (minister) was already inauspicious but now he has also turned out to be dishonest”.
सच्चे और झूठे का "स्कोर" मैच नहीं कर रहा था इसलिए कोच साहब ने बीच मैच में ही कैप्टन चेंज कर दिया..!
अमंगल तो थे ही बेईमान भी निकले।।
— Tej Pratap Yadav (@TejYadav14) May 21, 2020
Vivek Kumar, West Bengal
The Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal transferred Vivek Kumar, the state’s principal secretary, health, on 12 May. The 1990-batch IAS officer now heads the state environment ministry.
Kumar had been under fire for the state’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
An inter-ministerial central government team, which has visited Bengal for on-the-spot assessment of the Covid situation in April, had expressed disappointment at the functioning of the health department then headed by Kumar. The team also slammed the state government over its poor testing and high mortality rate that was then 13 per cent.
Sources said Kumar was behind the constitution of a death audit committee on 3 April, which would certify if a patient had indeed died of the coronavirus. The committee had caused a political storm as opposition parties, particularly the BJP, began alleging that it was an attempt by the state government to fudge Covid-19 data.
Following the furore, the government on 2 May altered the audit committee’s mandate, saying that it will no longer certify whether a patient died due to coronavirus or due to co-morbidities.
The BJP, however, believes that Kumar’s transfer is another attempt by the chief minister to “hide her mismanagement of the crisis”.
“Mamata is protecting herself by transferring bureaucrats,” said Sayantan Basu, the BJP general secretary in West Bengal. “Everybody knows in Bengal that every single move is decided by Mamata. She is the health minister and she can’t escape her responsibility of mishandling the Covid fight.”
Jayanti Ravi, Gujarat
Of all the IAS officers on the list, Jayanti Ravi, the Gujarat principal health secretary has not lost her job but she no longer handles the state’s Covid-19 crisis.
Gujarat is among the worst-affected states in the country, with the pandemic exposing its much-vaunted development model.
As of Monday, the state has 14,056 cases with 858 deaths.
The state high court Saturday pulled up Health Minister Nitin Patel and Ravi for their handling of the crisis. The court particularly singled out the “pathetic” condition of the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad, calling it “as good as a dungeon, may be even worse”.
The court also wondered if the health minister and the health department had any idea of the problems doctors and patients were facing. It also asked if the health minister had interacted with medical officers and staff members in person.
But Ravi no longer handles the state’s Covid-19 crisis. In the first week of May, the state government appointed senior IAS officer Pankaj Kumar to guide the state health department in its Covid-19 management.
It also appointed senior IAS officer Dr Rajiv Kumar Gupta to handle the crisis in Ahmedabad and brought in senior civil servant Mukesh Kumar from Gandhinagar to serve as the Ahmedabad municipal commissioner replacing Vijay Nehra.
But Jayanti Ravi also found herself in controversy after it was found that the software application, for tracing Covid patients in Gujarat, was developed by her husband’s company.
The Gujarat government has been using the software, Dr Techo, supplied by Argusoft, for over two years; it is installed in mobile phones of ASHA workers. Ravi, however told Ahmedabad Mirror, “It is done free of cost and use of the application was to track Covid-19 patients. It was stopped after Government India launched its own application and all the data was transferred to that application.”
N.B. Dhal, Odisha
The Odisha government had on 13 May shifted its principal secretary, health and family welfare, N.B. Dhal. A 1993-batch IAS officer, Dhal was transferred to the energy department.
The transfer had raised eyebrows as the state government’s Covid spokesperson, Subroto Bagchi, had in March praised Dhal for rejoining duty within 24 hours of his father’s death.
But there were signs it was coming. In March, Chief Minister Navin Patnaik appointed additional chief secretary Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra as head of the department even as Dhal continued to serve as the principal secretary. Dhal had only taken charge in January 2020.
“Mohapatra is an old hand. He has served in the health ministry before,” said an official in the CM’s office. “Dhal was not properly coordinating with junior officers and doctors. He was a mismatch in this crisis and was replaced.”
Pallavi Jain Govil, Madhya Pradesh
After becoming chief minister for the fourth time, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has shifted health commissioner Prateek Hajela, principal secretary, health, Pallavi Govil Jain besides the NRHM director Swati Meena Natak on 1 April.
Additional chief secretary Mohd. Suleman now heads the state’s Covid-19 fight.
Jain was shifted because she flouted Covid-19 norms — she allegedly concealed information about her son’s travel history. He tested positive after returning from the US. Jain too tested positive and so did a number of her colleagues.
Nitesh Jha, Uttarakhand
Jha is the latest principal secretary, health, to lose his job. He was among the 16 civil servants that Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat transferred on 21 May.
A senior civil servant said that while Jha was “a favourite officer of the chief minister” he was now being made a scapegoat for controversies over travel permissions granted to an UP MLA.
“The chief minister is insulating himself from criticism for the decision to grant permission to UP MLA Amar Mani Tripathi and 11 others to travel to Chamoli on the pretext of performing ritual for the deceased father of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath,” the officer said.
“Jha’s name cropped up besides that of another senior bureaucrat Om Prakash who had granted permission for the entourage to travel in three cars.”
A senior officer at the Centre, however, said that transferring such high-profile civil servants serves politicians in many ways. “It is easier for politicians to avoid criticism by blaming and punishing bureaucrats for mishandling a crisis,” the officer said. “Sometimes they shift an officer to manage their own image. Sometimes, it is to send a message to the public that they are in control.”
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