Embroiled in a pandemic whose scale and traction can only be described as overwhelming, many countries, including India, are on the lookout for successful ‘models’ to emulate in their Covid-19 response.
This search has led many commentators to draw on parallels from the past, most prominently from the 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu. By many measures, such a direct comparison would be rather sobering for what is yet to come: with the second wave in the winter of 1918 far deadlier than the first, the total death toll from the 1918 pandemic has been estimated to be 20-50 million worldwide. Among all countries, India had the heaviest death toll – around 10-20 million.
India’s current situation, like during the Spanish Flu, appears dire. The country now has the second-largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases globally— over 4.2 million. Its death toll is third-highest in the world with India recently recording 90,000-plus cases in one day. With the situation still deteriorating, pessimists may be wondering: will history repeat itself?
At first sight, such a historical comparison may appear far-fetched: mortality rates in 1918 were significantly higher across the globe; India was subject to the British Raj, leaving politicians and administrators largely unaccountable to the wider population that suffered the brunt. At the same time, however, much of the colonial administrative structure has exhibited substantial continuity: the ‘steel frame’ still forms the bedrock of India’s administrative service. As such, lessons from the historical State response may yield insights for modern day governance.
Role of district collectors
A recent study identified the crucial role of district collectors in mitigating the adverse mortality effects of the 1918 pandemic. By studying mortality patterns in over 1,200 Indian towns in conjunction with personnel data from the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the study found that towns in districts administered by an Indian district officer (DO) experienced 15 per cent lower deaths than towns under the jurisdiction of a British DO. Interestingly, these differences in mortality are even detectable when comparing towns along borders of districts run by Indian and British officers, suggesting that such factors are real and unlikely to be driven by difference in environmental changes.
Much of the effect appears to be due to the greater ability of Indian DOs in mobilising resources locally for disaster relief. DOs coordinated district-wide relief responses, together with civil society, as well as town and village authorities. Relief was dependent on and driven by public, religious, and charitable institutions. Indeed, the Government of India’s Sanitary Commissioner Norman White had stated: “Never before, perhaps in the history of India, have the educated and more fortunately placed members of the community, come forward in such large numbers to help their poorer brethren in times of distress”.
A key reason why Indian DOs were so much more effective, then, was their superior understanding of the local conditions — most British ICS recruits had never seen India before their first deployment. Their knowledge of local languages was also limited. Indeed, the gap in mortality is largest between Indian and British DOs appointed just before the pandemic struck – at a time when the informational advantage was particularly large.
What didn’t work then, won’t work now
Fast forward to today. The British administrators have long left, but local information and bureaucratic representation remain relevant for governance even today. Three contemporary features of public administration resonate particularly well with the historical findings.
First, bureaucrats with greater affiliation to the district in which they serve may be better placed to manage crises. IAS officers assigned as District Magistrates (DMs) often hail from different states. While such outside assignments may have benefits (such as greater impartiality), these officers may have comparably less local knowledge and social capital to smoothly coordinate state response, mobilise civil society and provide relief.
Second, transfers in the IAS are frequent. On average, IAS officers are moved almost every year. Transfers at such a high frequency leave little time for newly assigned administrators to build critical local expertise – essential during a crisis. Such frequent reshuffling may be particularly detrimental in times of crises.
Finally, there is the open question of decentralisation: how much power should the central government devolve to local governments? While centralisation is particularly powerful in coordinating responses on a large-scale, its Achilles heel is the lack of flexibility to tailor responses to local conditions. This tension is well seen in the Narendra Modi government’s decision to impose a blanket lockdown in March, and the increased call for a shift away from top-down approaches, implementing localised containment zones.
On 7 September 2020, the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (Central) Association was renamed as the I.A.S. Association, symbolically “shedding the baggage of colonial-era I.C.S.,” according to D.S. Mishra, Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary and president of the association. While shedding colonial baggage, insights from the British Raj may still prove useful. Bureaucratic representation helped alleviate public health outcomes during the 1918 influenza pandemic – and it may well do so today.
Guo Xu is Assistant Professor in Business and Public Policy, UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business. Ridhi Thukral is an MPhil student at University of Cambridge. Views are personal.
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