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How Did Govt ‘Let’ COVID Crisis Worsen? Anil Swarup Explains

Our habit of not engaging with the states has led to much of our problems today: IAS Officer (Retd) Anil Swarup 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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(As told to Indira Basu, Asst Editor, Op-Ed, The Quint)

Let us look at the overall COVID pandemic situation in India from a more fundamental standpoint, before we get down to the specifics (of vaccine shortage, other kinds of shortage, etc), because, without understanding the context, it may not be appropriate to come to conclusions. First of all, let us admit the fact that whatever is happening now is totally unprecedented.

It has never happened in any country, more so, never in India. I think our habit of not engaging with the states is responsible for creating much of the problems we are witnessing during the pandemic. I'll give you an example. There have been situations in the past where we have taken the states into confidence, not fought with them; that's what the federal structure is all about.

Differences of opinion are but natural, but we must attempt to build consensus.

Modi Govt’s Earlier Efforts at Consensus-Building Among States

Let me give you examples of this government’s ability to build consensus, which it did on two (notable) occasions, one of which I was personally involved with. I was not involved with the other. The first example is that of the coal block auctions. As of today, all the coal exists in states which are ruled by the political opposition.

In 2014 things were slightly different — a number of opposition states like West Bengal and Odisha had coal. The option then was to take the bull by the horns and badger the states into submission. The other option, which, under the leadership of Mr Arun Jaitley we decided upon was, to strategise: we decided, ‘let us talk to them and convey a value proposition to them’.

I am explaining this because we seem to have forgotten about it.

So, what we did was to work out a strategy — of reaching out and explaining to each state government our proposition.
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How to Bring Opposition States on Board

In my book ‘Ethical Dilemma of a Civil Servant’, I explain in a chapter how we interacted with the Chief Minister of Odisha and convinced him into believing that what is being done is for their benefit, and he supported the bill in the parliament. I even met Mr Mallikarjun Kharge, who was the Leader of the Opposition. I had worked with him in the Labour Ministry. I went to meet him at his residence. I'd never meet any minister, or for that matter any politician, for any personal requests, but on this occasion, I went to his residence. I sought an appointment, which he gave since he knew me personally.

I said to him, ‘Sir, I have come to make a request to you. I know you will not be able to support this bill in the Parliament. But I have come to request you, that if you can somehow manage this situation — that the MPs in the Rajya Sabha don’t walk down to the well. If they do that, then the bill will not be discussed.’

He didn't assure me anything but as luck would have it, when the Bill came for discussion, the Congress MPs did not walk into the well, and the bill was considered, debated and cleared. There is a method which must be followed. We did that under the leadership of Arun Jaitley, who took the initiative of interacting with Mamata Banerjee and all other Opposition leaders.

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‘This Govt First Wants the Headline Before Doing the Groundwork’

The second example is that of GST — this was a very hard nut to crack. It was the sagacity of Mr Arun Jaitley that he could bring all the states on board. What has happened is, post-2016 is that we have got into a mode of confrontation with the state governments. That brings me to a current situation. When these state governments are looking at you with suspicion, not necessarily always correctly, then you have situations like the Farm Bills, you have a situation like the crisis of vaccination today (with regard to differential pricing, roll-out, allocation, etc).

Imagine a scenario — if someone was to sit with the chief ministers at the political level and the Cabinet Secretary along with the Chief Secretaries at the bureaucratic level, issues have a better chance at getting resolved. This interaction is critical.

There is also the issue of accepting the limitations. For example, if there is a limitation of supply of vaccines in the country, let it be known, accept that as a fact — no one is going to hang you if you do that. But we want to say that we have everything, and then we can deliver little, we will have an additional crisis to deal with.

The other problem that I see with this government is that there is an eagerness to make announcements. They want the headline first before doing the groundwork. Now, if there is a shortage of COVID vaccines, just accept it, and then plan on the basis of the current availability. It can be done.

But if you announce and then discover — or at least appear to discover — that you are short of vaccine supplies, then you have a problem.

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Governance Is All About Managing Shortages. So, What Went Wrong During COVID-Related Shortages?

You know, the entire government structure works through shortages. It's not the first time — I mean today it is a different crisis altogether, at a different scale, but the basis on which any governance stands is that of surplus. What is governance? Governance is management of shortages, and management of shortages happens if you have trust in each other. If there is a fundamental trust deficit — for example, that between Delhi and the Central Government today — the Delhi folks earlier said that only 1/3 of the oxygen that they required was provided. Now, why should this battle be fought through the media?

In the case of coal, because I was personally involved, we never ever made a statement to the public at all. Today, the problem is of a communication gap.

You and I cannot do much about these shortages; we can try to improve the supply. I can tell you, in the best of circumstances, we would still be short of supplies. It’s all a question of how we manage these shortages.

You can manage shortages only if you don't claim that you have everything in repeated statements. The second step that is required is transparency. If you don't have transparency, people will suspect you even if you're in the right. Speak the truth. If you can be transparent, if you can have trust, I think this issue can be managed. Unfortunately, we are overlooking the importance of these aspects.

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‘We Can Still Revive the Spirit of 2014’

We can still revive that spirit of 2014. I am not asking the government to do anything new — just do what you have already done. Demonetisation, 8 November 2016, was the day when everything changed. The failure was never admitted, but it brought in the sense of insecurity that impacted future conduct.

First of all, intensive and continuous dialogue with the state governments should happen. Everything is not lost as yet. The government should attempt to rebuild the confidence. There are bound to be differences of opinion, but consensus-building should be attempted as was done during 2014-16 .

Politics apart, this is a crisis. The Prime Minister should appeal for a discussion to sit down and chalk out their differences (between Centre and states). That is an appeal that should go from the Prime Minister — and not just to tick off another chief minister. The other problem is that everything seems to be happening through PMO. We seem to have forgotten that there is a Cabinet Secretariat, and we have one of the finest officers as Cabinet Secretary. This centralisation is another problem.

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‘We Are Losing Out On A Huge Opportunity Today’

My angst today stems from the fact that we are losing out on a huge opportunity. Our PM is really an accomplished leader. And, in my personal experience, a person who listened. I remember that I was even invited to discuss an issue that didn’t directly relate to me as Secretary, School Education. This interaction was with regard to health insurance.

The Ayushman Bharat scheme that you have today is the consequence of that interaction with the prime minister.

The prime minister heard me out for nearly twenty minutes, and then he agreed to something over which he was initially getting flustered in earlier meetings.

(Anil Swarup is Former Secretary, Govt. of India, and the author or ‘Not Just A Civil Servant’ & ‘Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant’. He’s the Founder-Chairman of Nexus of Good Foundation. He tweets @swarup58. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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