Trial by Fire: Can Uddhav Thackeray handle Maharashtra's Covid-19 nightmare?

India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about Uddhav Thackeray's handling of the Covid situation, as Maharashtra becomes the epicentre of the pandemic in India, in the June 15, 2020 edition of the India Today Magazine.

 |  4-minute read |   05-06-2020
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Being the financial capital of the country, Mumbai has often been labelled the New York of India. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world, it has also come to share the dubious distinction of being the city with the highest number of corona infections and deaths in the country with its American counterpart.

One of every five Covid-19 deaths in India these days is in Mumbai alone. Maharashtra has come to account for 35 per cent of the total infections and 42 per cent of the total deaths in the country due to Covid. Its health system is in danger of being overwhelmed. The three states most affected by the coronavirus — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — are also India’s wealthiest, most industrialised states. The intersection between health and wealth is as pronounced in Mumbai, India’s Maximum City. The country’s banking, finance and entertainment capital is also its ground zero in the pandemic. What has made the island city a breeding ground for infections is its peculiar geography and decades of neglect. The 30 million people of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region live in an area of 6,355 square kilometres. The National Capital Region of Delhi, by comparison, has 46 million people living within 54,984 square kilometres. What’s worse, 45 per cent of Mumbaikars live in slums, packed into no more than eight feet by ten feet tenements. The failure of the state to provide low-cost housing over the past several decades is now coming back to haunt it. Social distancing norms are impossible to follow in slums that have now turned into disease clusters.

main_cover_060520014822.jpgIndia Today June 15, 2020 cover, Trial by Fire.

With the largest concentration of industries in India and a higher contribution to GDP — 15 per cent — than any other state, Maharashtra is not just the epicentre of India’s current health crisis but also of its economic revival. How it deals with the crisis will determine the future of the entire country. It is a Herculean task which leaders across the world are grappling with, to mixed results. The outbreak has killed over 380,000 people and wiped out over $8 trillion from world economies. The pandemic, whose numbers continue to surge, has tested the capacity of global health systems, the resilience of many nations and the efficiency of their healthcare systems. But more than that it has been a test of its leadership.

As much of the responsibility of combating the pandemic in India has shifted to the state, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has become the man in the hottest seat. Six months ago, his challenge was to cobble together an unlikely alliance of political partners — the NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena. Now, it is to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state. As India’s most urbanised state — 70 million of its 120 million people live in cities — Maharashtra is also the most vulnerable. Ninety-five per cent of its Covid-19 cases have been recorded in 25 cities. The pandemic has overburdened the already stretched healthcare system. It had only 69,000 hospital beds as against a requirement of four times the number at the end of April.

Thackeray has been the working president of his party since 2003 but, as the first member of his family to hold elected office, he is a novice when it comes to administration. His governance skills have been put to severe test while handling the pandemic. He has been criticised for relying excessively on his bureaucracy. His officials have come up with some bright ideas, like taking over 900,000 hospital beds, including some 8,500 ICU beds in 37,000 hospitals across the state, and creating large quarantine facilities in the city. They, however, face an uphill struggle as Covid-19 cases in the state are projected to rise to over 160,000 by the month-end. Also, being a state government — which is not the same as being the ruling party at the Centre — comes with its own set of tensions.

Our cover story, ‘Trial by Fire’, put together by our Mumbai bureau comprising Senior Associate Editor Kiran D Tare, Executive Editor MG Arun and Assistant Editor Aditi Pai, examines the chief minister’s challenges.

“Uddhav Thackeray is introverted and extremely cautious, the exact opposite of his father, the late Bal Thackeray,” says Tare, who has followed the state’s politics for 15 years. “He works with a close circle of advisors that includes his wife Rashmi, and relies heavily on his bureaucrats, insisting that all files be first signed by his chief secretary Ajoy Mehta before he initials them. His son Aaditya Thackeray’s role so far is limited to handling his social media campaign, particularly his Facebook outreach.”

There’s a lot hanging in the balance in this battle. Maharashtra is not just another state fighting the pandemic. It is one of India’s economic engines, accounting for 30 per cent of all the direct taxes collected across the country. India’s economic fortunes are inextricably linked with those of the state. In that sense, Uddhav Thackeray’s battle is a national one.

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Writer

Aroon Purie Aroon Purie @aroonpurie

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the India Today Group.

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