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4,000 rules in 4 months: Are civil servants creating chaos in India’s Covid-19 management?

India’s Covid-19 response is being led by civil servants, but the large number of bureaucratic orders on a daily basis have created chaos among businesses and the public.

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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

Yamini Aiyar
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

Padamvir Singh
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

Aruna Sharma
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.

Also read: Is govt right to send migrants back on trains as lockdown eases & economic activity resumes?

By Pia Krishnankutty, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. The biggest issue with the the bureaucracy in India is the mind set. I think right from the selection, they have a sense of entitlement and no practical experience. Not only during covid, for any kind of system, order and circular are so drafted that an ordinary person can never understand. Even if some genuine officer make a good system, they will bring further notification, circulars that nobody can imagine. I think they knowingly do that so that there is always scope for confusion and corruption, because the orders can be interpreted in many ways.

    These people should be forced to work in small organisations for training, or the minimum work experience in private sector should be mandatory before joining or appearing as officers.

  2. single vegitable market was closed to avoid people gathering ,and several markets opened in a particular city. a’After three days all vegitable markers including retail veg markets were closed, and only whole sale veg was permitted in new bus stand. when retailers were forced to close shops, who will buy whole sale veg. The next day again several veg market were allowed.this is one example hiw6 the admin function.

  3. Civil Servants have been issuing orders without much application of mind and looks like are interested in mere optics that action is being taken in regard to Covid. To give an example in NCR even Doctors going for duty are being lathicharged at borders and are being stopped. On top of that the DMs and police of those states suggest that arrangements should be made to stay in state where hospital is. In this state of stress, staying with family for these Covid warriors should be the priority of the state. On one Sunday we beat thalis and on one we have fly past and flower showers on hospitals, but on other same doctors were treated as if they were criminals when they were going for duty or coming back from duty

  4. It’s true that the Indian class of IAS, mostly, are inefficient and incapable class of people, who have usurped a position and authority un-comparable to their capabilities. When they visualise that they are about to fail they call upon the Army to do their job. Once done they jump in to take the credit. In Covid 19 too some use of the defence forces, some at the exhuberance of our inefficient but who buttered the toast on the right side in his career, is now being seen. They hold all Secretary level jobs of the health department but appear to have been sleeping about the oncoming and lurking dangers of Carona virus when China, Veitnam, Tiwan, Singapore and some other countries were getting affected. Even when first case in Kerala was seen they were found wanting in effective response.

  5. Do we know how many things we learn in the first four months of the birth ? And what do the call ones those do not learn?
    Do we only need sensational headlines, even when entire world is sitting in ignorance about the Covid-19.
    India’s bureaucracy has its problems, many of which were encouraged by our fathers who benefited from them and the current breed of politicians who continue to use it like their personal servants and the Babus oblige them.
    But today is not the time for general criticism, point out specific for immediate correction.

    • Dude seriously!! when will the criticism be apt? Better visit a govt office be it bsnl, electricity dept or any other and exp how the babus create havoc in ur life and that’s the main point. Modi 1.0 was terrific actually laying the foundation of grass root level foundation work but modi 2.0 has veered away from its development agenda allowing the babus to undo all the gud works by modi 1.0 . Caa, NRC, Press and periodicals cold be left for later stages when u had addressed the elephant in the room i.e., babu work culture.

    • Actually, Indian bureaucracy has lost its very essence. By seeing new IAS and also some old ones, I feel that they lack knowledge of very culture of the country as well as the action which would benefit people. They are most of the times acting in their whims and fancies. They do not respect elderly. They do not think practically. They think in dreams and then act upon. They do not know suffering if a poor man. They consider themselves master of all. The colonial legacy. However there are few who are very reasons ke, humble and very dynamic too, but their number can be counted on fingers. The very training process appears defective.

  6. India’s bureaucracy would have been a joke if not for the tragic fact that it is the greatest obstacle to any progress in this benighted country. The bureaucracy like much of the government exists only for itself. Not for nothing has it been rated the worst on the planet. Sacking the whole lot would not only save tax payers money but also ensure that India gets a move on.

  7. IAS, IPS, IRS and IFS are the most over-rated central services as they do no good for the country; if they are paid high salaries for drafting silly-looking government circulars, the GOI can hire plenty of script writers from the movie industry, and the literature-teaching circles at a much lesser cost. There has to be professionalism, honest work with no red tape and decisions made on the basis of credible data. These babus cannot do any of these professionally.

  8. Civil servants have been bookish even in the best of times; now, with Corona-virus lockdown, their pens have been inactive and collected a lot of rust, like the idle minds of yore. So, what is to expected? Draft a statement, release it in a hurry, add modifications and reissue. All of these are of no consequence to their confused minds and frivolous actions. Their role in maladministration of India for 73nyears has been very detrimental to its economic development.

  9. The real fight against coronavirus is being waged by health professionals, police, sanitation workers and those keeping essential services going. The bureaucrats are getting in the way, issuing imbecilic orders and making life difficult for the hapless citizens. Examples abound: lack of planning prior to the lockdown, leaving millions of poor stranded; inability to procure sufficient PPE for health workers; the decision to charge impoverished migrant workers rail fare to travel home. Such bungling is all the bureaucracy can do – they are generalists with no particular skills, an appalling work ethic and accustomed to ordering others around. Perhaps, after the pandemic, the government can retrain most of them in some useful skills, evict them from their comfy offices in the secretariats and send them to the tehsils and districts to do some real work like running schools, supply depots and so on.

  10. India’s bureaucracy is consistently rated the worst in Asia. I think the issue goes beyond drafting skills, although many circulars and directives are clumsily worded, difficult to comprehend by the lower level functionaries who will be required to implement them. In a dynamic, constantly changing situation, some updating is inevitable. However, a lot of the criticism coming its way is merited.

    • Jaiprakash Narain famously referred to the IAS as the most entrenched trade union in India. They are an under-skilled, under-performing cabal primarily interested in feathering their own nests, and in ensuring their control over all levers of power in order to do so. They make Indian governance – or the lack thereof – the laughing stock of the world. It is time the government overhauled the system to reduce the power of the IAS, bring in professionalism and accountability, and provide proper service to the citizens.

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