Public dismay at the unprecedented surge of Covid-19 infections and deaths, together with the angst at the government’s inability to anticipate and take effective measures are understandable, aggravated by factors like inadequate oxygen supply to hospitals and vaccine shortage. But in this scenario of tragedy and confusion, public discourse remains largely predictable, around lack of accountability of public servants. Extreme language is being used, often ascribing criminal intent, for allowing Kumbh Mela and election-related public gatherings. Once the pandemic abates, hopefully in a few weeks, the stridency of criticism would also subside, but the central questions might remain unanswered.
As regards the accountability of public servants like ministers and officials, one moot question is whether it is the lack or fear of it. Officials are responsible for their actions to the ministers who in turn are responsible to the Parliament and the people. Every government action can be questioned in a court of law and criticised by the press. Besides, there are institutions like the CAG, CVC, and the CBI ready to pounce on decisions which according to them, were wrong or malafide. Then we have the Lokpal and parliamentary committees for oversight. One who has worked at the higher echelons knows how much of one’s time is spent preparing affidavits, drafting a reply to audit objections, briefing concerned ministers to answer Parliamentary questions, preparing rejoinders to adverse press reports and the like, leaving little time to ponder over and work on substantive issues. Moreover, accountability to multiple agencies creates a fear that stifles speed and kills individual initiative. In public service, maximum harm is caused by delayed action and knee-jerk reaction without adequate application of mind.
While these institutions to ensure accountability, at the collective and individual levels, have succeeded to a limited extent, the executive has learned to be more cautious and circumspect, devoting more time to procedure-compliance than to outcomes. Decisions are taken on the basis recommendations of groups and committees, and through layers of an established hierarchy ending with the minister or the chief/prime minister. Democratic governments are limited by these constraints, but in a large and complex country like ours where resources are scarce and public dependence on government so pervasive, systemic limitations often cause fatal damages.
Undeniably, there have been major errors of judgement, often arising out of general complacency, inadequate understanding of the virus behaviour, and plain stupidity. The point, therefore, is not to defend the government when the fissures of the system have been exposed and their implications staring at our face, but to ask why the healthcare system turned out to be grossly inadequate to meet the crisis, despite imaginative initiatives of many scientists and healthcare professionals, some district collectors and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation commissioner, for instance.
Akhilesh Tilotia’s recent book Through the Looking Glass: An Outsider-Insider’s Perspective on The Making of India [Leadstart, 2021] raises important issues about our policy-making process and suggests ways, among others, of reducing ‘private cost of public failure’. The need for obtaining the right information and using Big Data to understand systemic flaws in public service, and devising methods to improve governance has also been stressed from time to time.
The appalling level of our public expenditure on health, as a percentage of our GDP, and the fervent plea to substantially enhance it for the infrastructure to reach a semi-decent level, have been highlighted by every individual and forum over the decades. This is one key area which we neglected since independence. The pandemic has also brought to focus the shortcomings of centralised decision making in and the perils of having ignored decentralisation at the lower levels.
All these have led us to this unprecedented crisis. These fundamental issues are likely to be forgotten after the present emergency passes, till another crisis hits us hard. No amount of uncontrolled language, no degree of baying for blood, no demand for heads to roll - however understandable - would help us negotiate though. The more the attack on the system and the people manning it, the greater will be the propensity for self-defence. Consequently, neither would accountability be enforced nor systemic improvement achieved. What should then be done?
Firstly, the key political leaders should display greater sensitivity to public needs and aspirations - as distinct from hyper-sensitivity to criticism. Every great or mass leader since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time has been subject to the worst of abuse. With the spread of media, its volume and reach have expanded, not the viciousness. Admittedly, criticisms, sometime motivated and unjustified, do hurt. But this is a price to be paid by people in power. In fact, the higher leadership should meaningfully engage with the vociferous critics in resolving the national crisis together. The health minister’s response to a letter from Dr. Manmohan Singh, even if right on facts, does not reflect much grace.
Secondly, a forward-looking commission should be constituted comprising leaders of major parties and experts from relevant fields, that would take stock of the situation, of the various reports available and chart out a course for systemic improvement in the health sector. Government should commit to accepting and implementing the recommendations of the commission, within the next two years, instead of waiting for another catastrophe.
Thirdly, in prioritising expenditure in these hard times, projects that do not add substantially to public welfare or national development, such as the Central Vista project for instance, should perhaps be slowed down and the anticipated saving in expenditure diverted to health and education sectors, to the extent feasible. Even if symbolic, it is desirable. After all, rigidity or stubbornness is not the hallmark of a sensitive, confident government.
We have to be prepared for a long battle with Covid-19. While the severity would lessen, the problem is likely to persist. No amount of anger or blame-game will take us forward. If as a people we learn something the hard way and are in a position to design what would improve our public service system on a sustainable basis, that would mean crisis converted to an opportunity, a silver lining in this depressing scenario.
(The author is retired from the IAS as Principal Adviser (Education and Culture), Planning Commission, New Delhi. He has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP. Views expressed are personal.)