How civil servants are leading India’s fight against Covid-19

IAS officers, blamed for everything wrong with the bureaucracy, are working round-the-clock doing whatever it takes to stop the spread.

 |  7-minute read |   07-04-2020
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“We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.”– Lucius Anneaus Seneca

As someone, who has worked with public sector professionals and has a healthy appreciation of what many civil servants do every day, often with limited resources, I am often a minority when it comes to countering babu-bashing in TV discussions, social gatherings, industry roundtables, and even at times with my family.

I could, therefore, not help but notice how the unfolding Covid-19 tragedy has brought them to the centre stage, earning them appreciation from the very people who were on the other side of the fence.

2_690_040720011920.jpgIndia's civil servants are working hard on all fronts in these trying times. (Photo: Reuters)

Historical context is essential, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel said, “You will not have a united India if you do not have a good all-India service which has the independence to speak its mind, which has a sense of security... The Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service, which will keep the country intact.”

One begins to appreciate the importance of institutions and the people who make the institutions during these challenging times.

The Indian Civil Services system, a legacy of the British Empire, played a significant role as the lead integrative agency in the concept of India, whether it was as collectors and magistrates, or later on, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

They were powerful and dominant, not just because of the power vested in them by the Constitution, but on account of their informal network and camaraderie that went beyond the districts and states that they were serving.

Over time, however, Civil Services started losing its shine, coincidentally aligned to the emergence of the regional political system in India. But 72 years after India’s independence, it is this steel frame which is leading India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The comeback of IAS as the frontline - unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic - starts as one would expect right from the top at the PMO, which has been widely reported now as the nerve centre working closely with the Ministry of Health.

It is no coincidence that Civil Servants lead most of the committees set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to suggest measures, including managing immediate fallout of the lockdown, expanding healthcare facilities, putting the economy back on track, among others.

untitled-1-1_040720011824.jpgRajiv Gauba has been instrumental in simplifying procurement processes. (Photo: PTI)

Leading the charge is Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba. He has been instrumental in simplifying procurement processes, approvals and certifications to quickly increase the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators. He is leading efforts by interacting directly through video conferencing with chief secretaries and health secretaries of all the states and union territories, and district magistrates. This helps in essentially breaking the ‘compartmentalised intelligence’ and ‘vertical hierarchy’ of a system that needs to evolve, especially in the wake of how technology has transformed our world.

Joint Secretary at Health, Lav Aggarwal, is perhaps now known to every Indian who watches TV. A soft-spoken, IIT Delhi mechanical engineer whose press conference at 4 pm is the most critical daily news that we all eagerly look forward to. While holding a press conference is a crucial activity, the team is virtually running a neural network in the Ministry of Health under the leadership of Secretary (Health) in its fight against the virus.

untitled-1_040720011635.jpgLav Aggarwal is perhaps now known to every Indian who watches TV. (Photo: ANI)

In the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, the Chief Secretary was given an extension, to help fight the pandemic and the government has left everyone surprised through their deft handling of the crisis. The Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, Praveen Pardeshi, has shown that his capacity to excel works across party borders (he was the personal secretary to former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis).

The two together have come out as the leading warriors for Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s government. In Andhra Pradesh, Jawahar Reddy and Pradyumnahave made sure that each foreign returnee and their primary contacts were traced and checked twice a day and mobilised a large number of mobile Rythu Bazaars and pressed them into service to ensure easy availability, while adhering to social distancing norms. The efforts have ensured a zero lag between a suspect and testing.

While in Gujarat, Dr Jayanti Ravi, Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, with the help of district authorities, is using technology to trace infected people and their families.

In Lucknow, Mukesh Meshram, tied up with the Akshay Patra Foundation and organised a community kitchen which prepared and distributed 25,000 meals to the underprivileged across the city. While in Ranchi, a young DM, Rai Mahimapat Ray, is working with NGOs to provide one-month of free comprehensive ration to the most vulnerable. Nikunja Dhal, Secretary of Health and Family Welfare Department, Odisha, returned to his duty just 24 hours after the demise of his father, exemplifying ‘duty before self’.

While India was lighting diyas a couple of days ago, Power Minister RK Singh, an ex-bureaucrat himself, his PS Manoj Kumar, and other senior officers were present in the control room, ensuring that the load management of the grid was seamless.

It is impossible to enumerate all the efforts in a single article as this list simply goes on. But one thing is for sure, these warriors have put back the trust of people into the famed steel frame of India.

Covid-19 has given us reasons to appreciate what this steel frame of India does, but I am also a believer that you cannot drive looking at the rear-view mirror. We need to look ahead and use this time to re-imagine bureaucracy for the 21st century.

Many countries, including the UK, have run a programme called Reimagining Government to stay relevant. India also needs one. At a time when there is a steady increase in specialists being laterally hired to support the government, the bureaucracy needs to re-evaluate approaches that need to be transformed and create a framework that enables breaking the silos for effective results.

Reimagining Bureaucracy needs to be underpinned by recognising how India is changing – an India which is younger and more confident and would not bow down to authority alone; an India which is increasingly digital and no longer willing to fill out forms in triplicate; an India where the political system demands results daily and not in annual confidential reports of bureaucrats; an India that has increasing respect for experts who get things done and not their mark-sheets or the exams they passed, and finally, an India where the society applauds capitalism but not crony capitalism.

At the heart of the transformation lies the need to enhance the capacity of our civil servants.

One of the companies I worked for had an interesting policy that essentially pushed senior management for more hours of learning. I always thought I was very good and that is why I was at the top. This made me question, why do I need these learning courses?

I still remember how my coach put it across: “Because you, as the leader, have the maximum impact and your ineffectiveness will permeate the organisation.”

I do think, capacity-building of civil servants that is built on a framework that promotes learning, innovation and knowledge transfer and is not generic but sectoral and that allows evidence-based policy formulation is a must for this steel frame to continue to be relevant.

The unfolding crisis has displayed the strength of our steel frame to support a large and diverse country like India. The ‘ring of service’ has started turning the wheels of India, slowly but surely. It’s time we gave them back the due.

(Abinash Chaudhary, vice-president, Public Policy at Primus Partners, has also contributed to the article.)

Also read: DailyOh! When PM asked for diya and BJP leader responded with katta, to why it is a pink supermoon


Nilaya Varma Nilaya Varma @varmanilaya

The author is the Co-Founder & CEO of Primus Partners. With a career spanning of about 25 years, he has led large transformation programs and worked with governments in more than 20 countries.

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