COVID Crisis: Why Govt Must Shed ‘Bias’ & Rope In External Experts

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the country’s prominent political personalities, including Congress President Sonia Gandhi, on 5 April. Three days later, he held a virtual meeting with political parties’ parliamentary floor leaders. Sonia Gandhi addressed letters to Modi offering ‘constructive suggestions’.

Through all this, it seemed for a brief moment that setting aside competitive politics, the political class was rallying together to unitedly combat COVID-19. Alas, the hope has been belied and the usual bickering has resumed, which is leading to coordination difficulties between states despite Modi’s many virtual meetings with chief ministers. The confusion accompanying the resumption of domestic flights could have been avoided if the political class had truly set aside its differences at this challenging time.

Also Read: Migrant Worker Hitchhikes 1,800 km, Finds Home Damaged in Cyclone

Does India Have Systems, Structures To Allow For Sound Decision-Making By Leaders Amid Crisis?

But beyond the politics of COVID-19 and its attendant crises, Indian political and administrative classes must ask themselves this compelling question: Has India developed systems, structures and practices that capture the comprehensive information, analysis, assessments and options needed to ensure sound decision-making by the political leadership – especially in critical situations?

The government’s responses to COVID-19 and its decisions relating to the lockdowns and their implications, particularly the plight of the migrant labour, makes this question urgent.

In seeking a response, first, let’s look at the nature of the country’s decision-making apparatus. The political leadership, which is responsible for taking decisions, hears many voices with competing sectional and economic interests. It is influenced by its own experiences and ideological predilections. It also, usually, has a finger on the pulse of the people. While all this is important in forming the political leadership’s opinion, it often relies on the bureaucracy, especially when confronted with emergencies and crises.

Also Read: Migrant Crisis Amid COVID Is Why We Need ‘Journalism of Misery’

  • Has India developed systems, structures and practices that capture comprehensive information, analysis, assessments, options to ensure sound decision-making by the political leadership?
  • The government’s responses to COVID-19 and its decisions relating to the lockdowns makes this question urgent.
  • There is greater acceptance of technical expertise in areas relating to the physical sciences, but not so for the social sciences.
  • Did the existing administrative system know precisely the extent and nature of the presence of migrants in different parts of the country?
  • It is necessary that political leadership be given accurate data so that decisions aren’t taken on surmises, but on a rationale backed by facts and figures.

What Stops Bureaucracy From Taking ‘Bookish’ Advice?

The bureaucratic leadership is generally experienced and able, but it is set in its ways and wary of outside advice. There are consultative structures in place in many areas of bureaucratic functioning, but for a bureaucrat, a premium is always on the ‘practical’. There is generally disdain for advice perceived to be based on ‘bookish’ knowledge even if it emerges out of field experience and research.

There is greater acceptance of technical expertise in areas relating to the physical sciences, particularly where they are founded on exactitude – but not so for the social sciences.

These propositions are relevant to the COVID-19 situation. It is good that the government began taking some measures to try to stop the ingress of the virus into India from January itself, when the World Health Organization (WHO) itself was lax in assessing its dangers. Once the WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic on 11 March, the government enhanced its responses. At that stage, epidemiologists and virologists were making dire predictions about the devastation it would wreak in India if the government did not take tough measures to break the infection’s chain of transmission. By mid-March, the virus had exploded in some major European countries, taking their advanced medical systems to breaking points, and resulting in large numbers of deaths.

Also Read: ‘Not Without My Cycle’: How 4 Migrants Took Home Their Prized Item

We Still Don’t Know Who All Modi Govt Consulted On Impact of Lockdown

It is not publically known if the government consulted only its own epidemiologists and virologists, or experts outside the system too. What is clear is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took expert scientific advice very seriously even though on 25 March, when the first lockdown was imposed, India had only experienced 618 confirmed cases and 13 deaths. This was a rational and reasonable decision.

The manner in which the lockdown was imposed has become controversial because of the movement of migrant labour from the cities.

It is especially here that questions arise about structures, systems and government practices, for it is not known who all the government consulted on the impact of the lockdown on the people, and the likely response of their different sections in urban and rural areas.

In his speech to the nation on 24 March, Modi focussed on the reasons that made it necessary to impose the lockdown, and the need for people to remain confined to their homes. He also recognised that “this crisis has certainly brought on a very difficult time for the poor”. He assured that the government was “constantly striving” to address their problems. There can be no quarrel with any element of what he said, but there was no focus on what immediately emerged as the main lockdown issue and which continues still — the movement of migrant labour on foot over hundreds of miles to their villages. The only thought that recurrently comes to my mind is the title of that haunting South African novel which has become a metaphor for agony: ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’.

Also Read: India Now Among the Top 10 Worst-Hit Countries by COVID-19

Did Administration ‘Precisely’ Know the Extent & Nature of the Presence of Migrants Across India?

Obviously and correctly the government did not want those from rural India working in urban areas to move to their homes for fear that they would carry the virus back with them. If consultative systems and structures involving social scientists including experts in the psychology of migrants existed, they may have warned that it was not enough to ground the trains and buses to stop their move back to the security of their homes. That other urgent measures had to be taken to assure migrant workers that their welfare would be guaranteed where they were working – that their desperation was real and not a result of politics – that these were not issues of law and order but of human group behaviour.

Another question arises: Did the existing administrative system know precisely the extent and nature of the presence of migrants in different parts of the country?

The emphasis here is on precision. It is necessary that the political leadership be given accurate data so that decisions are not taken on surmises and impressions, but on a rational basis backed by facts and figures. For all this to happen, the administrative actors have to shed their biases against ‘bookish’ knowledge of the social scientists, and incorporate them in providing inputs on society and people’s responses to political decisions. That will not come about unless our governance systems shed their current biases.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsAmphan Robs Fisherfolk of Their Livelihood in Bengal Village . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.