COVID-19 demobilisation: Lessons for public governance

A senior bureaucrat diagnoses what went wrong, why, and what needs to be done to avoid situations like mass migration during lockdown

GS Gill | April 2, 2020


#COVID-19   #coronavirus   #epidemic   #prime minister   #narendra modi   #healthcare   #lockdown   #maharashtra   #bureaucracy   #governance   #administration   #migration   #labour  
CRPF men distributing essential items in Baramulla of Kashmir earlier this week. (Photo @PIB_India)
CRPF men distributing essential items in Baramulla of Kashmir earlier this week. (Photo @PIB_India)

Demobilization, like its predecessor – demonetization, is another decision gone bad in implementation.  In both instances a careful public administrative action through its governance systems could have saved the magnitude of impact particularly on the most vulnerable sections of the society. The Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, exhibited exceptional and exuberant concern for his country’s people on both occasions by personally declaring the decisions from the wide media network. The PM’s objectives and concerns cannot be more genuine on both occasions. What then went wrong? Public administration or public governance systems of the country?

Demobilization of 21 days is a tough but necessary call to contain the deadly COVID-19. The  experience of countries where it struck earlier in the sequence of China, Iran, Italy, France, Spain and others had lot to weigh in favour of the decision. Fingers crossed, we are surely on a flatter curve and the effort of demobilization will make it shorter.
 
In these early days, there are many common eye-openers and lessons for future. First is the ever weakening system of public governance of the country which over the last 70 years has moved towards greater and greater centralization. We had well established systems of collectorates (which was called district magistrate or deputy commissioner in some states), but this kingpin in the entire administrative system has been progressively weakened by political tinkering in decision making. Incorporation of political ideology or thinking of the party in power into public governance is a prime requisite of democratic systems. But changing a well- established system through piecemeal decisions without an appropriate alternative has over the years left us with a juggernaut of public administration which sometimes works, sometimes stalls.

Coming back to the decision of demobilization, a look at statistics will show the magnitude of problem. (1) We have 130 crore people, (2) Most of them are in the working age profile of 21-51 years, (3) A large percentage of these people are living on subsistence levels, (4) A large percentage of these people are working away from their ancestral homes, living in cities they never belonged to but looked upon as sources of their livelihood, and (5) This working migrant  labour is concentrated in the metro cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai and A class cities like Pune and Nagpur.

With this magnitude of inter-connectivity and consequent complexity of the issues, the role of public governance system from ground level upwards is paramount. Let me divert your attention to briefly explain the two prevalent subsystems of this overall public government system. These are the revenue and police departments. In hierarchy the revenue department organized at its lowest level is called Patwari or Talati or other names in different states, to circle inspector to naib tehsildar to tehsildar to the SDO, SDM and finally the collector or district magistrates. Correspondingly, in the police department, there is constable, head constable, assistant sub-inspector reporting to sub-inspector or police inspector or station house officer (SHO), as it is called in some places, to the first supervisory level of sub-divisional police officer which is equivalent to sub-divisional officer or sub-divisional magistrate and finally to the district superintendent of police.

There was a system of development cadre introduced vigorously in some states but most states preferred to rely on only these two systems for effective public governance with district magistrate/collector/deputy commissioner wielding single point authority and responsibility. Without doubt, the complexity of human activities and urbanization of unprecedented scales needed changes and they have been made, albeit piecemeal. This provides a good background to analyze demobilization decision and its implementation.

Even at the cost of reiteration, I will say that the honorable PM’s intention, zeal and sincerity have not been properly felt down into the entire system. This has fallen far short of the requirements at the highest and also at the cutting-edge levels. Let us analyze these two levels.

Decision-making level
Good public governance is an accumulation of experiences/ incidents and remedies applied. These are repeated and reflected into the people at different levels. Just like in business administration, a good manager is a repertory of 5,000 different decisions or situations which he has learned over a period of time and applied from time to time. For a decision level of the magnitude of demobilization the best of such public administrators having dealt with thousands of such situations could have made a difference. A major instance is foreseeing large scale worker migration and plans in place before announcing the decision. Unfortunately, the highest level advisors in the public governance systems could not foresee this or its magnitude.

The second level of public governance system is the implementation level. The hierarchy above as I mentioned is already dysfunctional due to over centralization and extraneous factors. Nonetheless, years of experience and facing similar situations could have prepared for fast, practical and authoritative intervention.
Failure to realign the five major factors mentioned above and most importantly of the large number of migrant workers led to avoidance of misery and more importantly lack of faith and further alienation of these people away from public governance and political ideology.

The argument that issue was too big and too complex cannot be an alibi by public administrators ever. They are trained over years to handle this particularly the elite services, that is; the IAS, IPS, and their state counterparts. Each issue can be unbundled and demystified. The biological fact in that microcosm reflects the macro cause and also the philosophical one which repeats more or less the same meaning.

Analyzing these three inferences, the public governance at decision implementation level failed to grasp that (a) there is large migrant population in metros and A class cities, (b) hand-to-mouth subsistence levels of these workers and (c) appreciation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that safety and security of life is paramount. Needless to say, as of now the migrant workers are at the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

If analyzed and planned, all these can be handled. With whatever is left of our traditional public governance system, a plan to address all these activities above could have minimized, if not totally mitigated the migration.

Here I would like to make a mention of a small factual report which I would like to call my case study. Seven days into my first appointment in the IAS in August 1978 as assistant collector, Aurangabad, a decision to rename the Marathwada university as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar university was announced by the government of the time. The decision had political overtones to harness the sympathizers of the Dalit Panther movement. This decision led to spontaneous rioting in smaller town and villages which started getting further organized by both pro- and anti-decision organizations. Villages and small town level rioting affected the poor the most as in the present case and prompted large scale migration. This migration was later encouraged by some political groups. Therefore, the challenge before the administration was to stop the migration at source, provide for security and safety for those who are already on the move and adequate shelter and living conditions for those already migrated.

The collector of Aurangabad, Mr Jagdish Joshi, as was expected of his position and authority, organized a planned and actioned approach on all three fronts. The revenue machinery was moved to approach and advise all households in villages to discourage migration. With good briefings all these foot soldiers of revenue department consisting of patwaris, talatis and circle officers were able to cut down the migration to about 10% of the number of possible migrants.

The police was mobilized to provide safety and security in villages and to those who were already on the move. It is important to note that the police was not involved in halting migration and called to provide security and safety. The municipal authorities in Aurangabad town were mobilized to provide shelter. Within 6-7 days, things calmed down, partly due to efforts of the government and the then effective public governance system. It is not that it is the only successful case of peacefully stopping an exodus with minimum human misery which was possible due to swift decision making, swift actions and appropriate assignment of responsibilities. However, this would not have been possible if there was no robust public governance system which though much diluted, still existed and was performed.

G.S. Gill retired as Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Maharashtra, and is now Director, Urban Lab India.

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