As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the State-level lockdowns batter the economy, Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das this week noted that the impact of the second wave is likely to be less severe than the first one. He said that businesses and people have started to adapt to lockdowns and that the hit to demand would be much lower this time. In a conversation moderated byPrashanth Perumal J., Radhika Pandey and Vivek Kaul discuss the two COVID-19 waves and how they have impacted the economy. Edited excerpts:
How do you see the RBI governor’s assessment of the current economic situation compared to last year?
Radhika Pandey:The nationwide lockdown last year in response to the first wave of the pandemic resulted in a severe supply shock. What we are seeing now is not a severe supply shock but a demand shock. The second wave, because it is highly transmissible and ferocious as compared to the first wave, has created a lot of uncertainty, pessimism and loss of confidence among households and businesses. It will take time for people to start recovering because it has created a lot of uncertainty. So, that’s the key difference between the first and second waves. The second wave also affects supply to some extent, but it is primarily a demand shock. Last year, what we saw was that during the first quarter, savings increased as people were not able to spend because of the lockdown. But in the second quarter, we saw that savings declined and consumption spending picked up. It is difficult to say whether that will repeat this time. So, we might not see a steep V-shaped recovery that we saw last time.
How do you see the impact of the second wave in terms of the magnitude of the economic slowdown?
RP:Unlike last year, there won’t be economic contraction this year. In fact, there will be positive growth, but most forecasters agencies are paring down their growth forecast because nobody anticipated the severity of the second wave. If we look at the GDP level, we won’t be able to reach the pre-pandemic level this year, but as compared to last year, there will definitely be growth.
Vivek Kaul:The key difference is that growth this year will essentially be on a slow burner. We will not see a contraction because last year was really bad, but growth will be extremely slow. And economists will have to keep revising their numbers. One key thing is the fact that almost all governments in India missed the second wave and they had to hurriedly put lockdowns in place. I don’t see governments opening the economy up very quickly due to the fear of a third wave. Before the second wave, all economists were saying that FY 2021-22 GDP should cross the pre-pandemic 2019-20 GDP. I don’t think that will happen now.
Would you agree with the assessment that we are looking at a prolonged slowdown?
RP:Yes, if you look at the U.S. and the U.K., they have already vaccinated a considerable chunk of their population, and now they are opening up. That is not happening here in India as only 3-4% of our population is fully vaccinated. Even under the most optimistic scenario, it’s not possible to reach the pre-pandemic GDP level this year. We may see progress on vaccination only in the initial months of 2022. That’s why the economic recovery will be a protracted affair. In terms of magnitude, the decline won’t be too steep. But in terms of duration, it will take a lot of time because of all the uncertainty.
VK:A significant section of the population has spent a large amount of their savings to fight COVID-19. A lot of people have also ended up in debt. There is no agglomerated data on this, but there is enough evidence going around if you keep your eyes and ears open. These families will find it difficult to spend. Then there is this great fear of a third wave. Even if people have the money, whether they are in the psychological state to go out and spend is a question well worth asking.
Does the Indian state possess the capacity to effectively deal with pandemics through vaccination, testing, etc.?
VK:If you leave out the few southern States, much of India doesn’t really have a health system. And the inequality across States is simply mind-boggling. One example that I often use is a comparison between Kerala and Jharkhand. And I do that because the population of Jharkhand is slightly more than that of Kerala. Kerala has close to 60,000-65,000 doctors while Jharkhand has around 5,000-6,000. If you go into other numbers such as the number of nurses and beds, you will realise that there is a great deal of inequality across the country. This is not something that can be set right overnight. It’s not just about spending more money. There is a whole host of other supply-side issues and this obviously cannot be set right overnight.
There are two issues here. One is whether the Indian state has the capacity to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. No, it doesn’t and that has become very obvious by now. The second question is whether it has the capacity to give vaccines. The situation is not as bad on that front. The vaccination problem can be taken care of even in the short term, as long as the vaccine supply becomes available.
How have the monetary and fiscal responses been this time as compared to last year?
RP:I don’t see any response, especially from the monetary side. They don’t have much space given that we are seeing bouts of inflation as well as growth slowdown and we are out of the global business cycle. In advanced economies, growth is picking up and as a result, inflation is picking up as demand comes back on track. As a result, we are seeing global commodity prices surge and we are seeing the impact of that on India’s domestic inflation. Last time the RBI cut the repo rate by 115 basis points, but today it is hard for the RBI to cut interest rates because inflation is going to rise even though there is a demand slowdown. It will be mostly cost push inflation where inflation is driven by crude oil prices and input costs. What the RBI can do is incentivise banks to lend to sectors which have been hard hit. But again, it all depends on whether banks are willing to lend because if we see the credit growth over the last few months, it has not actually been picking up as banks have become risk averse. There is greater scope for fiscal policy. Apart from free foodgrains distribution as was the case last year, one can allocate more funds for MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] given that there has been an increase in the demand for work. But given that India’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to somewhere around 90% and there has been a collapse in revenues, the ability of the government to spend is limited.
VK:If you look at the monetary policy, it hasn’t been able to do much over the last five to six years. They talk about cutting interest rates and people borrowing and all that. All that works in theory, but if you look at numbers, it doesn’t work. One of the things that the RBI has been talking about is how lending to small and medium enterprises needs to go up. Now, if you look at the lending to micro and small enterprises, it has not moved and the overall lending has been the same for the last six years. This is despite offering all kinds of incentives, lower interest rates, so on and so forth. Secondly, it also tells you about the state of the small and medium enterprises in the country. They have been struggling over the years. They have faced everything from demonetisation to the Goods and Services Tax. And now the lockdown. Also, the main purpose of the bank is not to revive the Indian economy, which is why monetary policy has not worked for quite some time now.
How do you see the migration of workers during the second wave when compared to the mass migration that happened during the first wave?
RP:What we saw during the first wave was an abrupt lockdown. This time it’s not so. Workers this time are taking a conscious decision to go back [to their homes]; it’s not just an abrupt response. That’s a key difference. The other point is that as compared to the first wave, this time the rural sector has been affected much more severely. That’s visible in the employment numbers. What we see from CMIE data if we look at the April numbers is that total job loss was somewhere around 7.35 million and out of that, 2.35 million people lost jobs in the rural sector. Last time, rural employment was in a much better position as compared to urban unemployment.
Also, urban workers are moving back to their villages. That has caused the increase in unemployment and MGNREGA is not able to absorb workers, which has resulted in a huge mismatch between demand and supply. In some cases, we also find that, even though work is offered, people are not taking it up because of fear surrounding the virus.
VK:Also, a lot of people who went back last year never really came back. That has probably also added to the unemployment pressure in the rural areas. Obviously there is no way to measure this. But I think that is another factor at play. And, as Radhika pointed that, the question is even if you increase the allocation to MGNREGA, and create more jobs, will people turn up because the chances of infection go up? This is a tricky situation. Last year we were able to spend our way out of trouble by spending to create economic activity. This time around it is a little difficult to implement.
What should the government do to put a permanent end to the pandemic and help the economy recover fully?
RP:There are some short-term measures to be taken and then there are some medium-term and long-term measures that are within current state capacity. One is to ramp up the supply of vaccines and ensure that more people get vaccinated. We should increase the daily pace of vaccination which has recently slowed down due to shortage. Unless that is done, the recovery will be protracted. The other thing is to seriously think about structural reforms, especially in healthcare. The pandemic has exposed the limitations of the healthcare system. There has to be some way of building medical infrastructure, which is not going to happen overnight. But there has to be careful and serious thinking.
VK:I think the only way to prevent another lockdown is to concentrate on providing the number of vaccines that the nation needs. You have a lot of these influencers going around who have all kinds of opinions on the disease. It has to be ensured that this kind of rubbish doesn’t go around. It is also important to ensure that the right messaging goes to the country. Another big fear is that even though there is huge demand for vaccines, this is largely from the cities. Once that demand is exhausted, one needs to ensure that vaccination continues. It might make sense to incentivise people who come and get vaccinated with rice and wheat or by depositing some money into their Jan Dhan account. These issues need to be thought about, and right now, nobody is thinking about them.
The nationwide lockdown last year resulted in a severe supply shock. What we are seeing now is not a severe supply shock but a demand shock.
Crises are of many kinds and come in different shapes and sizes. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that is one of a kind, but it is at such times that the true qualities and grit of a nation and its leaders manifest themselves. It demands a mindset very different from carrying out surgical strikes or indulging in bombing expeditions on terror targets inside Pakistan. Today, when India looks to those in authority to provide the necessary kind of leadership, unfortunately, this is nowhere in evidence. If this continues for much longer, it could prove highly detrimental. The leadership must not evade its responsibility and should brace itself for the difficult period ahead. The transition will not be easy.
What is, perhaps, proving rather problematic is that during this time of human travail, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership is confronting another crisis which could have a more direct impact on the party’s future. This crisis centres around whether the BJP needs to make changes and adjustments to what it has been accustomed to do in conducting the affairs of the country since 2014. Triumphalism, which has been the BJP’s stock-in-trade for many years now, having met its Waterloo in the recent Assembly Elections in the States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu may need a reset. For a party that seemed to carry everything before it till now, effecting a change may not be easy. What kind of an impact it might have on the affairs of the nation is also a matter of conjecture.
Still no complete plan
Coming first to the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact — COVID-19 has now been with us for nearly 18 months. As yet, the nation has not seen a comprehensive strategy emerging from Delhi to deal with the situation. Numerous statements have been issued at different levels, and several meetings have been held from the Prime Minister downwards, but it is evident that all these are a poor substitute for a well-thought-out strategy.
Most glaring is the flip-flop on the policy concerning vaccination — which is the nearest substitute for a strategy — for the nation is still trying to come to terms on how the authorities will conjure up even the several million doses needed to vaccinate the vulnerable sections of the population in the 18-44 age group. The situation is further muddied by reports of cover-ups regarding ‘missing deaths’ — a damning indictment of all those responsible — considering that ours is a civilisation that treats death and the dying with the same veneration as the living. Distorting statistics can hardly take away the pain of those who have lost their loved ones.
Fault finding has grown
In the meantime, as the facts and statistics surrounding deaths become grimmer, fault finding between the Centre and the States on how to manage the pandemic has only intensified. Anyone familiar with India’s democracy would find it difficult to believe that we function under a federal Constitution (which has no doubt many unitary characteristics). Harmony between the Centre, and specially those States headed by Opposition parties, is conspicuous by its absence.
Finding the right strategy may not be akin to nuclear science, but it could prove difficult for those in authority — mainly those in Delhi — to effect a metamorphosis in their thinking, and adjust to methods needed to implement suggestions, which involve taking the States into confidence and incorporating their suggestions and ideas. This is, perhaps, the biggest stumbling block today, and given the current style of functioning of those in authority, it may be difficult to envisage such a metamorphosis taking place. It is, however, imperative that this is done before it becomes too late.
Election results and fallout
While the pandemic rages, what is perhaps of greater concern to the BJP leadership in Delhi is that the aura of electoral invincibility that had existed since 2014 seems to be dissipating at this time. Predictably (from their point of view), the consequences of this could prove to be dire, and this, possibly, is the main priority for the party’s high priests. It is difficult to believe that the BJP’s leaders would take kindly to the trouncing that the party has received in West Bengal, despite putting everything into its campaign in that State — with the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the party President spending days campaigning in that State — and allow Mamata Banerjee to enjoy the spoils of victory. The defeats in Kerala, where the party failed to win a single seat, and in Tamil Nadu, where it won a handful of seats, are, perhaps, less galling but would still hurt. Retaining power in Assam and a win in the Union Territory of Puducherry provide little comfort. One can only envisage what has greater priority for the BJP today: dealing with the pandemic or redesigning its strategy to win elections in the future.
The defeat in West Bengal does convey a certain message, but it is uncertain whether the BJP, in its present frame of mind, would heed the message. It is more likely that the party may seek to reinforce the tactics it had employed, which had enabled it to raise its tally of seats from 3 to 77 (now 75), in the belief that more rather than less, would produce desired results. This would be a mistake.
The history of Bengal is replete with instances where attempts to capture power, ignoring the ethos of Bengal, have hardly produced results and at best has led to a pyrrhic victory. Bengal has not forgotten either the tactics adopted by the East India Company — or the role of Mir Jafars — and, hence, suitably adjusting electoral tactics to prevailing winds are more likely to yield results. Consequently, it would be best if the BJP were to introspect on the reasons why it failed so conspicuously in West Bengal, despite having nursed a desire to capture power in that State since 2014. Otherwise, it would indeed be a sad day for democracy and India.
Polarising politics, accentuating the communal divide, employing the idiom of Hindu majoritarianism, etc., are electoral tactics that could, and have succeeded in certain States and in certain situations. It has often been observed that what might well succeed in certain States in the northern parts of the country may not be the recipe for States such as Bengal or many of the southern States. To cite a quotation, “But could saxifrages or soldanellas gemming a pasture in the High Alps thrive if planted in Egypt?” The extent to which Delhi misread the Bengali mind in the recent election is a sad commentary on Delhi’s understanding of Bengal and its politics. Even a fleeting acquaintance with Bengal’s electorate would confirm that Bengal did not fit into any kind of political straitjacket. For decades now, its politics has revolved round underdevelopment and related aspects.
Among other misjudgements made by the BJP on this occasion, which are best avoided in the future if it hopes to do better or capture power in Bengal, is to appreciate that Bengal’s politics contain a mixture of cultural exclusivism, a certain eclecticism, and a belief in their superiority. A far more nuanced approach, rather than muscular tactics are, hence, likely to produce positive results. Among other misjudgements best avoided in the future is that Bengal — in common with Kerala — give women an exalted status. The denigration of women leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, hence, created an adverse reaction and widened a chasm that existed already.
There is unity in diversity
If the ruling dispensation in Delhi fails to heed the lessons that require to be learnt from the handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the outcome of the elections in West Bengal, the country may have to pay a heavy price. Bengal is not India, but it is a microcosm of India in miniature. Dealing with the pandemic at one level and managing the shifting democratic scenario at another level will demand dexterity of a certain kind which is not evident in the ruling dispensation so far. Image managing will certainly not be enough, nor for that matter, exaggerated claims to having achieved success. Neither of them is a substitute for real progress. The handling of the pandemic nationwide and the resort to a blame game has already created a divide and damaged relations between the Centre and the States. The current bias in the exercise of power has to be eschewed for the nation is truly mired in a serious crisis.
Above all, if India is to be retrieved from what many believe is a perilous state of affairs, there are many miles to go in which the Centre and the States must decide to go hand in hand. The ‘unity in diversity’ slogan must be adhered to in its true spirit if India is to survive and succeed.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal
As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ravages India, many bitter home truths and fault lines have been starkly exposed. One of these is the abysmally poor state of the country’s health infrastructure. World Bank data (https://bit.ly/3u4cHfg) reveal that India had 85.7 physicians per 1,00,000 people in 2017 (in contrast to 98 in Pakistan, 58 in Bangladesh, 100 in Sri Lanka and 241 in Japan), 53 beds per 1,00,000 people (in contrast to 63 in Pakistan, 79.5 in Bangladesh, 415 in Sri Lanka and 1,298 in Japan), and 172.7 nurses and midwives per 1,00,000 people (in contrast to 220 in Sri Lanka, 40 in Bangladesh, 70 in Pakistan, and 1,220 in Japan).
This situation is a direct result of the appallingly low public health expenditure. The latest data narrative from the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Ashoka University, shows that this has been stagnant for years: 1% of GDP 2013-14 and 1.28% in 2017-18 (including expenditure by the Centre, all States and Union Territories) (https://bit.ly/3bw3O7Y).
Health is a State subject in India and State spending constitutes 68.6% of all the government health expenditure. However, the Centre ends up being the key player in public health management because the main bodies with technical expertise are under central control. The States lack corresponding expert bodies such as the National Centre for Disease Control or the Indian Council of Medical Research. States also differ a great deal in terms of the fiscal space to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic because of the wide variation in per capita health expenditure.
CEDA has prepared an interactive graphic that allows users to see the inter-State variation in per capita health-care expenditure in 21 major States and how this has changed from 2010-11 to 2019-20 (https://bit.ly/3bw3O7Y). Kerala and Delhi have been close to the top in all the years.
Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, States that have been consistently towards the bottom of the ranking in all years, are struggling to cope with the pandemic, as a result of a deadly combination of dismal health infrastructure as well as myopic policy disregarding scientific evidence and expert advice. Odisha is noteworthy as it had the same per capita health expenditure as Uttar Pradesh in 2010, but now has more than double that of Uttar Pradesh. This is reflected in its relatively good COVID-19 management.
Given the dreadfully low levels of public health provision, India has among the highest out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditures of all countries in the world, i.e. money that people spend on their own at the time they receive health care.
The World Health Organization estimates that 62% of the total health expenditure in India is OOP, among the highest in the world. CEDA’s analysis shows that some of the poorest States (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha) have a high ratio of OOP expenditures in total health expenditure.
This regressive nature of OOP health expenditure has been highlighted in the past (https://bit.ly/33RpyXq). Essentially, this means that the poor in the poorest States, the most vulnerable sections, are the worst victims of a health emergency. The surreal and tragic visuals of bodies floating in the Ganga serve as a grim reminder that the poor have no dignity in life or in death. Families that have been stripped to the bone trying to save the lives of their loved ones cannot even afford a decent final farewell for them.
Government’s role critical
The inter-State variation in health expenditure highlights the need for a coordinated national plan at the central level to fight the pandemic. The Centre already tightly controls major decisions, including additional resources raised specifically for pandemic relief, e.g. the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund. The early declarations of victory over COVID-19 were very clearly credited to the central government. CEDA has shown that the first round of vaccinations, where the vaccines were procured by the Centre and distributed to the States, was marked by considerable inter-State variation, which was neither explained by the case load nor by the share of eligible (45+) population (https://bit.ly/3bx9Gh5).
Now that the disease is ravaging the country and the need for a coordinated strategy on essential supplies of oxygen and vaccines is acute, the central government has shifted most of the responsibilities on to the States, including that of procuring vaccines from the international market. This is inefficient, as the Centre can bargain for a good price from vaccine manufacturers in its capacity as a single large buyer (like the European Union did for its member states) and benefit from the economies of scale in transportation of vaccines into the country. Once the vaccines arrive in India, these could be distributed across States equitably in a needs-based and transparent manner.
Another benefit of central coordination is that distribution of constrained resources (medical supplies, financial resources) can internalise the existing disparities in health infrastructure across States. A decentralised management, on the other hand, exacerbates the existing inequities, as better-off States can outcompete others in procuring resources. This is evident in the vaccine procurement with various States floating separate global tenders.
A policy brief
In April 2020, CEDA came out with a policy brief, where among other measures, it recommended the creation of a “Pandemic Preparedness Unit” (PPU) by the central government, which would streamline disease surveillance and reporting systems; coordinate public health management and policy responses across all levels of government; formulate policies to mitigate economic and social costs, and communicate effectively about the health crisis (https://bit.ly/2RV4ywh). We had not foreseen the ferocity of the second wave; but knowing how deadly this is, our suggestion acquires even greater urgency.
Indians were already “one illness away” from falling into poverty (https://bit.ly/3oxXvWq). Families devastated by the loss of lives and livelihoods as a result of this pandemic will feel the distress for decades to come. The central government needs to deploy all available resources to support the health and livelihood expenses of COVID-19-ravaged families immediately. As and when we emerge on the other side of the pandemic, bolstering public health-care systems has to be the topmost priority for all governments: the Centre as well as States.
Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Ashoka University
Wielding power at the Centre comes with great responsibility. A major responsibility in a federal country with strong centralising features is to maintain the balance, as well as mutual respect, between political structures at the central and State levels. In particular, it is an obligation of the Centre to refrain from bypassing the elected leadership while dealing with States. Two recent developments have raised concern that the Centre wants to give instructions to officials functioning under elected State regimes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held two virtual meetings with district magistrates and State officials to review the COVID-19 situation. Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal held a virtual meeting to discuss the National Education Policy, and related matters such as the conduct of Class XII examinations with State Secretaries in charge of education. While such meetings may help the Prime Minister or any Union Minister get some feedback from the field across India, it is quite unusual for leaders in the central political executive to bypass their counterparts in the States. The Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education, Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi, took the right stand by not deputing any official to represent the State in Mr. Pokhriyal’s virtual interaction. The idea was not to boycott the meeting, but to say the Minister ought to have been included in a discussion on the NEP.
The Prime Minister addressing district magistrates, or collectors, does have a precedent. Rajiv Gandhi addressed the heads of the district administration in Uttar Pradesh, when it was under Congress rule, on the issue of Panchayati Raj. The defence then was that such direct interactions were permissible under the Constitution, citing Articles 256 and 257. These provisions stipulate that the States are obliged to comply with laws made by Parliament and also allow some directions from the Union government. If the Prime Minister belongs to one party, and the officials addressed are from a State run by another, there is bound to be resentment that the elected representatives of the State are being bypassed. In the present case, it is true that the Centre has a major role in the pandemic response. The Disaster Management Act has been invoked to specify guidelines on lockdowns, restrictions and relaxations and to ensure smooth medical supplies. However, it would be in the larger interest of the country if events and discussions are held in such a way that the political structures at the State are not seen to be undermined. There ought to be no scope for complaints, such as the one made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, that Chief Ministers felt humiliated when all of them were not allowed to speak to the PM in a virtual interaction.
At the open UN Security Council session on Sunday on the Gaza conflict, India, a non-permanent member, attempted a delicate balancing act by reaffirming its traditional support for the Palestine cause without abandoning its new friend Israel. T.S. Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative at the UN, expressed concern over the violence in Jerusalem and the “possible eviction process” of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and warned against “attempts to unilaterally change thestatus quo” in Jerusalem. He also reiterated India’s “strong support for the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution”. But India was careful not to upset Israel’s sensitivities. There is a direct condemnation of the rocket attacks from Gaza but no direct reference to the disproportionate bombing Israel has been carrying out on the impoverished Gaza Strip since May 10. India also did not make any reference to the status of Jerusalem or the future borders of the two states, in line with a recent change in its policy. Until 2017, the Indian position was that it supported the creation of an independent, sovereign Palestine state based on the 1967 border and with East Jerusalem as its capital that lives alongside Israel. The balancing did not appear to have gone down well with the Israeli side. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a good rapport with Narendra Modi, thanked 25 countries that he said stood with Israel, there was no reference to India.
For India, which voted against the creation of Israel in historic Palestine in 1947 in the UN General Assembly, ties with Israel have transformed since the early 1990s. In 2017, Mr. Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel and Mr. Netanyahu travelled to India in 2018. While Israel ties are on a strong footing, India cannot ignore the Palestinians for historic, moral, legal and realist reasons. Historically, India, which went through the horrors of 1947, opposed the partition of Palestine. Throughout the Cold War, it remained a strong supporter of Palestinian freedom, taking a moral and legal position against the Israeli occupation, in line with international laws and norms. It established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, in the context of improving Israel-Palestine ties after the Madrid Conference and the changes in the global order following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but never abandoned the Palestinians. India’s Palestine policy had realist underpinnings too. India has been energy dependent on the Arab world. It cannot alienate the Arab voices or be isolated in the General Assembly, where most member-countries oppose the occupation. These factors should have driven India to take a more emphatic position against both the indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel, in which 12 people were killed, and the disproportionate bombing of Gaza, which has claimed at least 230 lives, including over 60 children.
COVID-19 has tested the resilience of all public institutions. Despite its efforts, bureaucracy has emerged as a major concern for the ineffective response to the COVID-19 crisis. This inadequacy is the reflection of the outdated nature of public bureaucracy.
In the 21st century, democratic countries are still relying on traditional bureaucracies to perform public policy formulation and implementation roles. These bureaucracies have outlived their relevance. Weberian bureaucracy still prefers a generalist over a specialist. A generalist officer (IAS and State civil service officials) is deemed an expert and as a result, superior, even if the officer works in one department or ministry today and in another tomorrow. Specialists in every government department have to remain subordinate to the generalist officers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this weakness. Healthcare professionals who are specialists have been made to work under generalist officers and the policy options have been left to the generalists when they should be in the hands of the specialists. The justification is that the generalist provides a broader perspective compared to the specialist.
Traditional bureaucracy is still stuck with the leadership of position over leadership of function. Leadership of function is when a person has expert knowledge of a particular responsibility in a particular situation. The role of the leader is to explain the situation instead of issuing orders. Every official involved in a particular role responds to the situation rather than relying on some dictation from someone occupying a particular position. Weberian bureaucracy prefers leadership based on position. Bureaucracy has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Further, the rigid adherence to rules has resulted in the rejection of innovation. It isn’t surprising to see COVID-19 aid getting stuck in cumbersome clearance processes even during the pandemic.
The reform often suggested in India is new public management. This as a reform movement promotes privatisation and managerial techniques of the private sector as an effective tool to seek improvements in public service delivery and governance. But this isn’t a viable solution, not the least in India where there is social inequality and regional variations in development. It renders the state a bystander among the multiple market players with accountability being constantly shifted, especially during a crisis. Further, COVID-19 has shown that the private sector has also failed in public service delivery.
The most appropriate administrative reform is the model of new public governance. This model is based on collaborative governance in which the public sector, private players and civil society, especially public service organisations (NGOs), work together for effective public service delivery. There is no domination of public bureaucracy as the sole agency in policy formulation and implementation. As part of new public governance, a network of social actors and private players would take responsibility in various aspects of governance with public bureaucracy steering the ship rather than rowing it. During the pandemic, we see civil society playing a major role in saving lives. As part of new public governance, this role has to be institutionalised. It needs a change in the behaviour of bureaucracy. It needs flexibility in hierarchy, a relook at the generalist versus specialist debate, and an openness to reforms such as lateral entry and collaboration with a network of social actors. All major revolutions with huge implications on public service delivery have come through the collaboration of public bureaucracy with so-called outsiders. These include the Green Revolution (M.S. Swaminathan), the White Revolution (Verghese Kurien), Aadhaar-enabled services (Nandan Nilekani) and the IT revolution (Sam Pitroda). New public governance is the future of governance, especially public service delivery.
Zubair Nazeer is Assistant Professor (Public Administration) at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
“Are you shooting the messenger,” I asked the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader who told me a few days ago that the party would not allow the media to set the agenda for it.
His reference was to reports about the public outcry over the exclusion of popular Health Minister K.K. Shailaja from the new Kerala Cabinet headed by Pinarayi Vijayan. “The public sentiment is perfectly understandable. But see how the media tried to leverage it to create a narrative of the party being anti-women and undemocratic,” he said.
The leader said that a few years ago, at a State plenum, the party decided that the perceived permanence attached to parliamentary positions should end. “We have the examples of Tripura and West Bengal in front of us. That’s why we chose not to field anyone who’s had two consecutive terms in the Assembly, in the polls. The State Committee also decided that all CPI(M) members in the Cabinet would be talented freshers, to bring about a generational change,” he said.
He added that there were excellent Ministers in the last Cabinet who did not contest the election. Of the ministers who got re-elected, none was given an exemption. The party would not fall for “media propaganda,” he said firmly.
“An exemption to Shailaja Teacher alone would have had you [the media] crying foul that ‘the Kannur lobby’ was at work,” said another leader.
The mutual distrust between a large section of the media and the CPI(M) goes back a long way. As the party’s State secretary between 1998 and 2015, Mr. Vijayan had frequent run-ins with some media organisations which he accused of working in concert, like a ‘syndicate’, to destabilise the party. Locked in a factional fight with veteran leader V.S. Achuthanandan then, Mr. Vijayan spared no occasion to go hammer and tongs at a section of the media for its “concerted leakage of inner party happenings”. With the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party nationally, the media was also accused of furthering a “right wing agenda”.
Reporting on the CPI(M) in Kerala willy-nilly puts reporters in a spot when the leaders start wondering why a particular issue, a controversy or development was treated by the media in a certain way. To be sure, the media is not a monolith; those with the values of journalism intact are unremitting in questioning the establishment.
And the cloak of secrecy covering the CPI(M)’s proceedings hasn’t helped matters either. I told the leader that it is only natural for the media to wonder if the exclusion of Ms. Shailaja had anything to do with cutting her down to size, similar to what happened to the legendary leader K.R. Gouri.
He responded that the party has several talented youth, many of them women, at all levels, including in the Cabinet. “And there’s a mechanism to oversee the functioning of the government, to prevent concentration of power,” he said.
Gouri Amma wasn’t officially projected by the party as its chief ministerial candidate in 1987; going by party seniority, E.K. Nayanar was the natural choice. The media got it all wrong, another leader said.
Given the shared scepticism between the media and the party, it’s hard to know what actually happened in the party then or what has driven the policy shift now.
Great indeed are the efforts made in the Administration Report of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh for the year 1919-20 to proclaim the fancied failure of the Non-Co-operation movement and to revile the activities of the “extremist papers” that are described as carrying on a “campaign of hate.” It is also stated that the policy of “forbearance” followed by the Government has weakened the influence of the “extremist leaders” and strengthened the position of the Government. If the Non-Co-operation movement has met with “little success” and if the position of the Government is really strengthened by the noble policy followed, one fails to see the need for the series of proclamations, prohibitions and arrests launched all over the country. It is obvious that the nightmare of Non-Co-operation presses so heavily upon the bureaucratic bosom that it has been considered expedient to seek relief at least at the pronouncement of its failure and try to put down, if possible, the mighty movement by a series of repressive measures. This only shows how ignorant some people are as to the actual state of affairs and the penetrating power of the peaceful propaganda. The report after briefly describing the general economic conditions of the year refers to the work done with regard to the improvement of agriculture, industry and education.
Major Bahuguna, the only Indian member of the International Everest Expedition, died under tragic circumstances on April 18. And ever since the news appeared of how he lost his life, while descending from the expedition’s third high-altitude camp pitched at 7000 metres, a big controversy has been going on as to whether his death could have been avoided with a little more care and alertness. Bahuguna was a veteran mountaineer who was also a member of the successful 1965 Indian expedition to Everest led by Commander Kohli. He was also a member of the successful Indian expedition to Nanda Devi earlier and, only last year, he led the Saser Kangri expedition with distinction. He was specially selected to join the International Himalayan Expedition and he was aspiring to fulfil the ambition of his life of getting to the top of Everest, a distinction which narrowly eluded him in 1965.