The tsunami of Covid cases which have been overwhelming our hospitals highlight one classical failing of all bureaucracies.
The country’s public health and medical establishment handled the Covid 19 pandemic quite well till about the end of February this year. By 22 February, fresh cases had come down to 10,584 per day; the number of daily deaths had declined to 78; and of all the tests carried out, only 1.9 per cent were positive.
By 25 April, the situation had changed dramatically: the number of daily cases surged to 3,52,991; the positivity rate shot up 10 times to 19.8 per cent and the figure of daily deaths increased 36 times to 2,812.
How come then the government, with all the expertise at its command failed to anticipate this tidal wave, and has been struggling to cope with it?
One answer lies in the very organisational form of bureaucracy: sociologists have observed that as a form of organisation, it works best when the rate of change is slow.
When, however, the pace becomes very rapid, as it has recently, most bureaucracies find it difficult to respond. Before the current crisis in India, the UK, USA, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal experienced similar breakdown of systems.
Such a situation arises when the demand for certain goods — in the present pandemic, oxygen, life-saving drugs, hospital beds, ICUs, vaccines etc. — far exceed the supply.
Firms which produce these goods have a certain inherent production capacity to expand up to a point, but not beyond.
Death and destruction inevitably follows when they cannot. This can be obviated only if the surge is anticipated and preceded by months of efforts to augment production capacities and supplies.
But if raw materials required for production are scarce and imports are hard to come by, even these efforts will yield only limited results.
The present dispensation has committed errors of judgment; but to be fair to it, disaster struck within two months. During the earlier part of this period, quite apart from the Central and State governments, the political parties, the citizenry, the media and all the other stakeholders had been lulled into believing that the virus was on its way out, as it had been on the wane for months, before tragedy struck.
Adar Poonawalla summed up the government’s plight best. Even God Almighty, he said, could not have been able to predict the ferocity of the second wave.
There was a warning of such a wave, and of mutant variants, but there was no whisper of their being so lethal. Under these circumstances, no government could have handled this situation easily. Still, if political accountability has to be determined, the buck must stop with the Prime Minister. Also, internally, an inquiry should be carried out to ascertain how current forecasting and planning models could be improved to predict, plan for, and cope with, such disasters in future.
Even today, it is possible — as Rajendra Bharud, Collector of Nandurbar has shown — to deal with a pandemic effectively, through local initiative and sharing of best practices.
His district had a surplus of oxygen supplies and hospital beds even at the height of the crisis.
In future, when life begins to limp back to normal, we will have to get used to an extremely rapid rate of social and technological change. Covid-19 has already ushered in many permanent changes in our lives; organisations, both public and private, need fewer employees and less office space.
Employees do not need to commute for work daily. Patients can consult their doctors through teleconferencing, and executives find that they hardly have to travel inter-city for business meetings.
After the pandemic, our bureaucracy must be prepared to face much bigger challenges, as part of the new normal. Officials now routinely use computers. If they begin to write their own notes and orders, the requirements of stenographers will decline. Paperless offices will require very few peons and office space.
On the other hand, to make sense of the enormous increase in information available now on all subjects, the demand for analysts, familiar with artificial intelligence and other modern techniques of data analytics will increase.
Many low value-adding jobs at the bottom of the pyramid — 89 per cent of the employees of the Central government who belong to clerical cadres do such jobs — may have to be sacrificed for analytical roles at the middle and higher echelons of organisations.
Bureaucracies may thus require considerable change of organisational form, processes and skill sets.
Organisational structures in the Brave New World of the future may well be leaner, meaner and flatter and decentralised — a far cry from the traditional, precedent-based hierarchical structures on which Max Weber placed so much faith for delivering the benefits of a modern welfare state.
No, Lord Keynes, we’re not all dead in the long run; we have to plan for it.
Hardayal Singh retired as Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, Delhi in 2007 and thereafter was Ombudsman to the Department in Mumbai till 2009.
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