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The next twelve months will be crucial from a governance point of view in Madhya Pradesh, India. An adaptive response that relies on a multi-level governance framework (centre-state-local government) will be crucial in dealing with an exit strategy post the lockdown scenario in India. The risks are enormous, especially when one thinks of how to balance the COVID responses with environmental, social, and economic concerns.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan reviews the facilities which will be granted to coronavirus-affected patients, during a nationwide lockdown, at Advanced Institute Of Medical Sciences in Bhopal, Saturday, March 28, 2020 | PTI

As the first trains emerge in India carrying migrant workers to their native places, I write this article after carefully tracking the many developments in the country, especially concerned with governance responses to the COVID 19 crisis that is unfolding in front of our eyes. I track the various developments and decision making in Madhya Pradesh since the Coronavirus outbreak started in India, and compare it with similar responses in Odisha state, which seems to be currently leading in terms of adaptive response and decision making in the face of this pandemic.

The political soap-opera in midst of Covid19

In late February and early March, news spread around the disappearance and dramatic ‘rescue’ of Congress MLAs in Madhya Pradesh. By this time, India had only six confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The political drama continued and reached its peak when the Health Minister of the state disappeared and surfaced in a resort in Bengaluru on March 10th. Then the usual ‘resort-politics’ took its course, resulting in the resignation of the sitting Chief Minister and appointment of Shivraj Singh Chouhan as the next chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

By then, six cases were detected in the state, and Bhopal city was in lockdown. Chouhan was reluctant to appoint a cabinet and decided to run a one-man show to deal with the emergency. By the end of March, the state had 66 confirmed cases, with curfews in the main hotspots in Indore and Bhopal.

The real challenge began in early April when an IAS officer from the Health Department tested positive. To make matters worse, the Principal Secretary, Public Health, and Family Welfare tested positive the next day. Many other IAS officers were forced to be in quarantine, leaving the state with a single political leader and no real decision-making force at ground level.

Fragmented governance

The real challenge began in early April when an IAS officer from the Health Department tested positive. To make matters worse, the Principal Secretary, Public Health, and Family Welfare tested positive the next day. Many other IAS officers were forced to be in quarantine, leaving the state with a single political leader and no real decision-making force at ground level. By now the lack of decision making and the sheer lust for power in the middle of a pandemic started to bite back the state and its people.

The state was approaching nearly 200 cases by the first week of April. In the next week, the disease spread among healthcare professionals in AIIMS, Bhopal, and the government-run Gandhi Medical College forcing many departments to go into quarantine. Additionally, the already vulnerable state of Bhopal Gas tragedy survivors meant they were at an even higher risk. Four survivors who were ailing with respiratory illnesses succumbed to the virus in the second week of April.  

In response, the state government seemed clueless till April 13th when a BJP task force was constituted to deal with the crisis. By now, the damage was already done, with the state reeling with more than 700 cases. The numbers escalated fast since then, and even the half-baked manipulated figures on 18th April, reported by a leading newspaper dented further any hopes of the credibility of official figures. With the state now reaching well over 2000 cases, a large part of the rapidly escalating numbers can be attributed to the almost criminal inaction by the state in the last four weeks.

A tale of two states

A comparison between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Odisha with regards to various governance and technical decision making at the state and district level reveals how proactive governance helps to deal with a crisis; and how lack of it can lead to dismal corners.

The initial response to the COVID outbreak in Madhya Pradesh seemed to be on track till the political drama unfolded. The first high-level meeting was held by both states at almost the same time in early March.

Both states also detected their first cases at around the same time in mid-March. In fact, by the first week of March, Madhya Pradesh already invoked the Public Health Act, 1949, and made moves to establish a 10,000-bed quarantine set-up.

Covid19 Thermal Check up in Madhya Pradesh
Medics conduct thermal screening and health check-up for Covid19 of government employees as they arrive to resume work at Vindhyachal Bhavan in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh on
May 4, 2020.   | Photo Credit: PTI

On the other hand, the Odisha government upped its testing facilities and took a significant decision, highly pro-active. The state declared COVID 19 as a ‘state disaster’, paving the way for the government machinery to become active since the state has sufficient experience in dealing with disasters. Playing to its strengths, between mid-March and mid-April, Odisha government took a series of governance-decisions that have been largely effective in dealing with the crisis (the state had less than 150 cases at the point of writing this article).

In the same period, precious time was wasted due to inaction in Madhya Pradesh. The period of absolute ‘tamasha’ between early March and mid-April in Madhya Pradesh is what I prefer to call as the “Missing Middle” since no significant action was carried out during this time.

‘Adapting’ to an uncertain future

This is possibly a once-in-a-century phenomenon that we are experiencing as a society. I am by now tired of using the term ‘unprecedented’ in my emails to friends and colleagues. The next twelve months will be crucial from a governance point of view. An adaptive response that relies on a multi-level governance framework (centre-state-local government) will be crucial in dealing with an exit strategy post the lockdown.

The risks are enormous, especially when one thinks of how to balance the COVID responses with environmental, social, and economic concerns. The virus has brought to the surface various inherent inequities in our society, that get easily lost in the dominant ‘ethnicity-religion-class-caste’ based political discourse in our country.

We are facing a three-fold issue for the future – of complexity, uncertainty, and inequity (that gets manifested in informal governance patterns). Three things come to my mind. Firstly, we must reflect on our state responses to a crisis of this nature in the future. For example, the current Disaster Management Act is not sufficiently prepared to take on ‘long-term’ disasters such as a year-long pandemic, or ‘decades’ long climate change.

Secondly, we must build good infrastructure to establish better risk communication based upon community engagement at the local scale. The benefits are many, the infrastructure will help us deal with the equally damning issue of climate change that will surely hit us in the near and far future.

Finally, we need new modes of adaptive governance that are built on principles of anticipation, learning and adaptation. It is high time that both the centre and states start to focus on collective co-evolution of various institutions in our city and regional planning systems.

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