The Babus Have Taken Over Corona Fight

The classic BBC television sitcom, Yes Minister, superbly captures the intriguing relationship between politician and bureaucrat. In one memorable sequence, Sir Humphrey Appleby, tells his minister James Hacker, “You are not here sir to run this Department.” An offended minister responds angrily, “What do you mean by that? I think I am the man in charge, the people think I am too!”. The bureaucrat is unfazed: “With respect Mr Minister, you and the people are wrong!” “And so who runs the department?’ asks an exasperated minister. Sir Humphrey smiles, “I do!”

We have our fair share of real life Sir Humphreys in this country, all-powerful bureaucrats who have controlled the wheels of power, often behind the anonymous ‘steel frame’ of bhavans and secretariats. The post-liberalisation narrative has attempted to suggest at times that bureaucrats matter less to policy making, a gross misunderstanding of the reality. Yes, the dismantling of industrial licensing may have withdrawn some of the discretionary powers of the earlier licence-permit raj but there are still an enormous reservoir of powers that lie with the bureaucrats, especially in a crisis. And as the events of the last six weeks have shown, rule-based power can be a dangerous weapon when matched by an opacity in decision-making.

Since the middle of March, when the Covid 19 red alert was first sounded, the country has been effectively run by a small group of bureaucrats, deriving their power and legitimacy from the Epidemics Disease Act 1897, a colonial era legislation that was enacted to control plague in the nineteenth century. Section 2 of the Act allows for ‘special measures to be taken by the Centre to prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease.’ When read together with the National Disaster Management Act, it effectively ensures that the fate of 1.3 billion Indians is being determined by file-pushing bureaucrats in North and South Block. “Delhi knows best” is the mantra that now holds a nation together.
It could be argued that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, that when faced with a once in a century pandemic, the country has no choice but to invoke stringent laws to ensure the effective implementation of a national lockdown. There can be little argument that the lockdown was a useful and necessary step taken to at least buy some time in the fight against the virus. But enforcing a lockdown to save lives through bureaucratic firman and a policeman’s danda is one thing, creating the conditions to protect livelihoods is quite another. Where inflexible rule-making was needed six weeks ago to get the entire citizenry to fall in line, today there is a genuine risk that the bureaucratic maze being created in a colour-coded India will only make any calibrated exit from the lockdown that much more complicated. Take for instance the confusion over E-commerce delivery systems. By initially denying E-commerce companies any door to door delivery services, then creating distinctions between essential and non-essential services, then further distinguishing between red, green and orange zones, while constantly issuing clarifications on its own orders, the government machinery has only acted as a barrier to relatively safe access of goods (the joke in media circles is that the home and health ministries should be renamed ministries of ‘clarification’!)

While fear of the law is a crucial element in enforcing a lockdown, it cannot also become an excuse to create a surveillance state in the guise of law enforcement. Take for instance the panic amongst entrepreneurs, small and big, when the home ministry’s guidelines seemed to suggest that anybody, from a chief executive to a worker can be sent to jail and a factory closed down if there is any violation of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. The apprehensions of a return to a danda-driven ‘licence-permit’ raj at the ground level forced the home ministry to issue another clarification that while workplaces were to follow social distancing and standard health protocols, there would be no attempt made to ‘harass’ industrial units.

That the coercive state often lacks a human face is amply proven by the manner in which the deepening crisis of migrant labour movement has been handled. A singular lack of empathy for the plight of migrants has marked almost every government step, the latest being the controversy over providing free rail journeys to those who wish to return to their villages. The initial rail ministry note is written with an officious zeal that betrays a complete absence of compassion for those living on the margins. Take Clause 11 ©: ‘the local state government shall handover the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the railways.’ Its almost as if the mighty Indian state is a cash collection centre and migrant workers are faceless citizenry who must pay up or stay back in their congested urban sprawls. Did it really require a Sonia Gandhi intervention for governments – be it at Centre or State – to recognize that providing a free and safe ride home maybe the least they can do for those who have been the worst victims of an extended lockdown?

Maybe the Congress interim president’s remarks were politically expedient – Congress-ruled states have also been accused of not doing enough for migrant labour -- but they also signal the need for greater political involvement in the fight against corona cutting across party lines. Truth is, there has been almost a moratorium on political activity in the corona aftermath, as if any form of netagiri is seen to be against the spirit of the times that call for national unity and solidarity.

And yet, the absence of dissent and dialogue is dangerous for democracy and only allows for a creeping authoritarianism to take over decision-making. Why cant the top politicians of the country – state and Centre – come together to form a National Task Force against corona? A truly diverse and democratic society cannot hand over all powers to unelected bureaucrats, or indeed, to a highly centralized state apparatus. The babus, both in Delhi and in the districts, are key players in the fight against corona and many of them are men and women of high integrity and professionalism who have done sterling work. But the bureaucrats often lack the mass connect with the citizenry and are at times prisoners of their own red-tapism driven systems. Which is why we need more, not less political involvement in the difficult months ahead. The Sir Humphreys have run the nation for the last six weeks; its time for the Peter Hackers to now stand up to be counted.

Post-script: Earlier this week, a book seller friend of mine rang up excitedly to say that he was opening up his shop in an upscale Delhi market. A few hours later, he informed me dejectedly that he had been asked to close down once again by a local municipal official. Reason? “Only shops that sell school and college books can open, not general book stores!” he lamented.

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