There is a strong case for Modi to appoint a ‘Covid Czar’, whose job will be to see that all central ministries and states act in tandem to mitigate the crisis.
From most accounts, the Narendra Modi government has been largely proactive in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic which is now an escalating threat with detected infection crossing the 500 mark.
Most states, especially districts with proven cases of the disease, have been locked down, and schemes to provide the poor and day labourers with food, essentials and cash have also been announced.
There is also a task force under Finance Minister Nirmal Sitharaman looking at what needs to be done to provide relief to affected sectors and counter-cyclical stimuli to revive a flagging economy once the crisis phase of the pandemic is over.
Though the Centre has been slow in announcing monetary and fiscal measures to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic, the real problem though is not about the content of the measures announced (or to be announced), but their implementation.
Consider how easily the one-day #JanataCurfew quickly became an occasion for group festivity after the curfew ended. It came close to derailing the very purpose for which the Prime Minister asked people to stay indoors. Also, if each state is going to do its own thing and focus only on its own narrow interests, the national message will be lost.
There is a strong case for Modi to appoint a ‘Covid Czar’, a kind of empowered chief executive reporting only to the Prime Minister, whose job will be to see that all central ministries act in tandem to mitigate the crisis; he will also be the go-to man for states which want help from the Centre.
His job will be to ensure that all states are on the same page while dealing with the deadly virus. He has to make sure that the benefits reach the right people at the right time.
This Covid Czar could be a top bureaucrat, but the post would have more clout and profile if the person chosen is a private sector CEO with decades of credibility built into his or her CV. The main job of the Covid Czar would be to ensure effective implementation of policies, both at Centre and states.
The idea is to ensure that the economic measures announced by the Finance Minister, the health advisories announced by the Health Minister, the lockdowns announced by various states, and the ameliorative measures announced by both Centre and states get implemented with the minimum of loss in translation.
This Czar should also have a feedback mechanism to frequently check how things are actually playing out on the ground, which measures are working and which ones are not. He should be highlighting best practices in states that can be emulated by the rest.
Covid-19 is a national crisis and its dimensions go beyond just the immediate health emergency and the economic meltdown. It is a social crisis where the poorest of the poor may well get left out of the benefits if adequate care is not taken.
Also, once the crisis phase is over, the economy and society may not go back to normal. There will be a new normal which may be quite different from the past normal.
The Czar, who should have cabinet rank, should create his own team and Modi must make it clear that he has power to oversee and direct the implementation of what is decided in various inter-ministerial panels of ministers or bureaucrats.
The Czar should be seen to be speaking on behalf of the PM himself, and not just reduced to another bureaucrat whose writ does not run beyond his own office staff. But, of course, it would help if the Czar is a people person, someone who can get things done through persuasion, and not just orders.
The Czar's job description would include the following:
One, coordinating and announcing economic measures to alleviate the problems of companies, both big and small, over the next 90-120 days. The key ministries to work with are finance, commerce, MSME, infrastructure, health, and rural and urban development.
Two, bring all states and Centre on the same page, so that benefits to the poor and needy are not needlessly duplicated or wasted.
Three, creating sub-groups from various ministries which could include members from affected sectors, including non-government organisations working with the poor, to draw up effective policy interventions and overseeing their implementation.
Barring a serious worsening of the pandemic, the job of the Covid Czar should end somewhere between October 2020 and March 2021. Jobs created to tackle a specific crisis should not become ends in themselves.
Modi should use the Covid-19 crisis to create a new template for governance in time of public emergencies.