It has often been said that India’s civil service, particularly the Indian Administrative Service, is the ‘iron frame’ which is sustaining the idea of India. Despite being panned for inefficiency, sloth and corruption – mostly with justification – India’s bureaucracy has, by and large, managed to stand up to the challenge when tested, whether by a severe natural calamity or by economic headwinds or war. However, given the increasingly chaotic response to the Covid-19 pandemic this has become open to question.
Already overstrained healthcare systems have more or less collapsed in the face of the massive surge in cases. People are dying – not just of the virus but because they are unable to access basic healthcare to fight the infection – hospital beds, medicines and worst of all, oxygen for the critically ill. In the face of a rising tide of justified public anger, the familiar blame game has started.
The Centre and state governments are blaming each other, while political parties have added fuel to the fire. Recent elections in several states, which were allowed to go ahead despite the clear danger of the virus spreading out of control, and ‘super spreader’ events, ranging from mammoth political rallies to entirely avoidable extravaganzas like cricket matches, have only served to make matters worse.
While politicians will do what they do, the failure of the administration to come up with a coherent and co-ordinated response has been particularly glaring. From an opaque and delayed vaccine approval process to a mismanaged procurement and distribution programme to the failure to ensure proper delivery, leading to catastrophic wastage of vaccines amidst shortage, to the complete failure to anticipate and plan for the oxygen crisis all point to a badly corroded ‘iron frame’.
The latest instance is the panicked announcement of the opening up of vaccination to the 18-years-plus age group, followed almost immediately by most states cancelling such bookings due to a lack of vaccines, points to a failure of governance cutting across the board, from the highest echelons to the humblest local governments.