The spread of Covid-19 pandemic in India in the past three months has been variously described and compared. The most cited comparison has been the spread of Spanish Flu in 1918. It has been looked at largely from the lens of being a health issue. In doing so we miss a very pertinent point that the spread of pandemic in 1918 was in an India which was a colony and the counter led by a government which was colonial, not accountable to the dying masses.
Fast forward to 2020, we have elected governments at all the three levels – grassroots (panchayats/municipal bodies), states and the Centre. The model so far has been that the Centre has limited its role to being a nodal agency as far as prevention and containment at Ground Zero goes. It has allowed the state governments to variously draw their roadmaps suitable for implementation at the district level.
This model has so far worked and avoided any major friction between the Centre and even opposition-ruled state governments. The cheerleaders on both the sides though may not agree and keep creating cacophony on the various television channels.
Some have blamed the Centre of going for models of autonomy and delegation in an area where blame was likely to come its way and thus shirked from taking the overall responsibility. It would be incorrect to mention that Centre has shirked from its responsibility and has not effectively intervened where the crisis was perceived to be going out of hand of the state government.
The most noticeable case in point is city government of Delhi, which pushed the capital into a grave crisis through its irresponsible acts and mismanagement of the situation. The Centre could have used the options of Articles 355 and 356 and brought the state directly under its control and/or suspended provisions under Article 239AA, as provided under the National Capital Territory Act, and nobody would have really complained.
The Centre, however, in its wisdom decided to use the provisions of Disaster Management Act of 2005. Soon after the number of deaths caused by the pandemic crossed 1,000 mark in the national Capital, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Anil Baijal appointed a six-member advisory committee to suggest effective measures to the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak in the city and to guide the augmentation of hospital beds.
The L-G, who heads the DDMA, thus came to take effective control of the Covid control measures in the city. Since the L-G reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, thus the role of Home Minister Amit Shah.
In the past fortnight, the biggest way forward has been setting up of a 10,000-bed capacity Covid-19 care facility in Delhi's Chhattarpur. The hospital is called Sardar Patel Covid Care Centre and has over 3,000 doctors and nurses mobilized from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and other Central Para Military Forces to look after the smooth functioning of the facility.
The creation of the facility is a testimony to the failed governance in pandemic situation under Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. His deputy Manish Sisodia in a lame defence of Delhi government's failure to prevent and contain the spread of epidemic in the city has said that Delhi lacked experienced health workers.
Sisodia is functioning as health minister as his colleague Satyender Jain recuperated from Covid-19 infection at a corporate facility and has just been released from the infirmary.
The statement by Sisodia and city health minister Jain taking refuge in a private hospital are substantial evidence of the failed health governance system in the city. Delhi doesn’t have dearth of health infrastructure especially given a large number of hospitals which were built during the 15-year Sheila Dikshit regime.
If there is lack of healthcare workers, it’s the Kejriwal government which is to be blamed for it. Instead of appointing doctors and nurses, the government to build a popular electoral narrative, rather strained the existing tertiary healthcare facilities by attaching Mohallah clinics to them.
The Kejriwal government has often tom-tomed the fact that Delhi's per capita income is three times that of the national average. Which is true also; not only far richer, Delhi also has more hospitals than many of the regions where the virus has spread. But if there is lack of care givers, it reflects on the misplaced priorities of the government.
The politics of subsidy espoused by Kejriwal to win popular support, has emaciated his government of financial sinews.
The money spent on buying votes through giving subsidies to power supply companies would have been well utilized to strengthen the healthcare infrastructure in the city.
Similarly, the Delhi Government building a false tale around the Mohallah clinics, showcasing them as initiatives of strengthening healthcare, has left them with egg on their faces. The ill-conceived Mohallah clinics proved to be the sources of infection as the pandemic spread in the city.
The NCT Act provides that other than matters of law and order and land, the governance of other subjects be transferred from the Lieutenant Governor to the elected government. The validity of this arrangement has been upheld by various courts from time-to-time. Under the current situation, the subject of health has also been taken back from the elected government by the Lieutenant Government, albeit using the disaster management act. This arrangement is unlikely to change in the near future or till the end of the pandemic.
The fallout of the pandemic on matters of governance is thus there for all to see. It has exposed false narratives and forced change in Centre-state power sharing arrangement. In times to come it may lead to permanent change in the provisions of the NCT Act, especially as these provisions gave the current Delhi government, to cover-up its failures, the gall to make the Capital of India out of bounds for the citizens of the country.
The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst. Views expressed are personal.