India’s Covid-19 response is being led by the bureaucrats. Even Prime Minster Narendra Modi is relying more on the civil servants, directly interacting with them. But a large number of bureaucratic orders spelling rules and guidelines on a daily basis have also created chaos among many stakeholders, including businesses and the general public. According to PRS Legislative Research, there have been 4,130 executive orders from states and the Centre.
ThePrint asks: 4,000 rules in 4 months: Are civil servants creating chaos in India’s Covid-19 management?
India’s bureaucracy has always been a paper tiger — failures have only become sharper in Covid crisis
President and Chief Executive, CPR
Much of India’s bureaucracy is steeped in what political scientist Akshay Mangala has characterised as ‘legalistic’ norms. Norms that promote a bureaucratic culture of strict adherence to rules, hierarchies and procedures, often at the cost of local needs. Files, paperwork orders and notifications embedded in the grammar of hierarchy are classic instruments through which legalistic bureaucracies function.
Our civil service embodies precisely these characteristics. Anthropologist Nayanika Mathur rather evocatively draws on this legalistic, paper-based mode of functioning to describe the Indian State as a ‘paper tiger’. There are occasions when papers can serve as important tools of empowerment for citizens. The Right to Information Act is a classic example of this power – when the file becomes transparent, citizens have the power to question government and demand accountability. But powerful as they can be, they are also a source of distancing the government from people in the language they use and a source of great confusion – as we have seen these last few months with the multiple orders and clarifications being issued – which have often prevented government actors to fully absorb instructions being given.
To be fair to civil servants, they are using the only instruments they have in responding to this crisis – orders and notifications. The confusion comes from historical bureaucratic capacity failures. They are just sharper in this moment of crisis.
Bureaucratic response has been overkill, vast number of orders an obstacle in the fight against Covid-19
Former IAS officer
India’s bureaucratic response to the Covid-19 crisis has been a bit of overkill and could have been simpler and more straightforward. Reforms in the bureaucracy have always been about simplification of procedures. Instead, recent orders have tended to be long and phrased in ways that are difficult for an ordinary government servant at the field-level to understand.
I see the proliferation of orders and notifications and attempts at micromanagement as a return to a regime of permit raj. For example, the Uttarakhand government banned the movement of four wheelers. Now imagine the case of a senior citizen wanting to go buy groceries but only has a four-wheeler. S/he has to get a pass after downloading a complicated app just to go get food.
In Lockdown 2.0 and 3.0, there could have been just lists of “dos and don’ts” and a simple identification of places, like malls and places of worship where there is usually crowding, to be closed. It could have been a two-line order. Instead, there were details right down to which industries could open and whether liquor and paan shops could operate — and these come with their own host of permissions.
At the same time, it would be fair to say that India has escaped the worst of Covid-19 outbreak. However, whether this outcome was simply on account of the government’s decisions is a little early to comment on. Bureaucrats have a tendency of getting into control mode with long-winded details. A tendency that needs to be reined in.
Civil servants have done a great job in managing Covid-19 crisis. Don’t beat the warring soldier
Former IAS officer
Indian civil servants have done a great job — granted it could have been better — in containing the Covid-19 crisis. Their role should not be diluted — don’t beat the warring soldier.
The Disaster Management Plan in place allows for a decentralised district level arrangement with the state and Centre, in quick response mode to the needs of the district. This document is to be updated every year for shelter camps, food supplies and a list of civil societies and government buildings that can be used in a disaster. It indicates who is to do what and when, at the time of a disaster.
Covid-19 has created peculiar circumstances. States are at the frontline, many of them effectively, but assistance is required from the Centre. However, instead of the large number of orders from the Centre, a bottom-up approach would have been better. District and states could have been in the driving seat with the Centre assisting their needs. Then again, if migrants were allowed to go home in the first place, the handling of the crisis would have been much easier.
The Indian bureaucracy has done a good job, but unlocking containment areas and reopening the economy will now need attention.
4,000 orders were issued to provide dynamic solutions. Some chaos is inevitable in a deadly crisis
Lalit K. Panwar
Vice Chancellor, Rajasthan ILD Skills University and former IAS officer
Covid-19 crisis is an unprecedented global pandemic of a very serious nature. A dynamic problem needs a dynamic solution based on fast-changing and growing numbers of infections. These 4,000 notifications and executive orders were issued to address the crisis pan-India with all its demographic and geographic variations. Looking at the global scenario, India has managed the crisis very well. Our fatality rate is not very high and we have an impressive rate of recovery of infected patients.
I don’t think civil servants have created chaos. On the contrary, they have risen to the challenge and managed the crisis fairly well. In such a deadly crisis, some kind of chaos is inevitable and we can call it an occupational hazard.
Extreme steps like lockdown and social distancing are new to Indian citizens. Therefore, their reaction has been driven by panic, resulting in chaos but gradually, civil servants have been able to contain coronavirus and restore calm. Now, we are slowly and cautiously limping back to normalcy with a “new- normal” lifestyle and work culture.
India’s steel frame may be partly dented and rusted but it is very much intact and working.
By Pia Krishnankutty, journalist at ThePrint
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