Uddhav Thackeray’s Decentralisation of Power and Decision-making is Refreshingly Better in the COVID-19 Lockdown

Nagpur: Until a few days back, I may not have praised Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. But the more I hear his daily addresses and track his government’s swift decisions to tide over the COVID-19 crisis, the more I feel he is a boon in disguise for Maharashtra, even as we enter an uncertain territory.

Thackeray’s calm and composed style, and clarity of messaging in his seven-to-eight-minute daily addresses are reassuring. Some of his critics – certainly his erstwhile political allies – say he has no administrative experience to lead the state in these troubled times. But, so far, he has not at all looked hassled.

In the times of crisis, the language of the leader is as important as his or her conduct. In both, Thackeray looks grounded.

The chief minister was quick to switch to digital communication the day after his crowded press conference in Mantralaya made a mockery of social distancing and made a really avoidable, rightly criticised, spectacle. Every day, he goes live through social media to inform the state about where we stand, the new decisions taken, and the reasons why they had to be taken. While doing so, he humbly admits to existing gaps or shortcomings.

But for the lack of planning in sending thousands of migrants and footloose labourers from the major cities including Mumbai to their respective home states, the Maharashtra government has been quick in taking decisions that ought to have been taken in public interest. Footloose labourers suffer unprecedented pain all over the country while desperate to reach their home in far-away states – millions are still walking.

Maharashtra was shut down much before Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced the 21-day countrywide lockdown at a four-hour notice. The state’s lockdown was gradual – from March 16 to 22, the government gave over 110 million people short but much-needed time to mentally and physically prepare for staying inside their homes for what could possibly be a long duration. The initial period for staying inside our homes in the state was until March 31, but Modi’s Tuesday night (March 24) address stretched it to April 15.

That night, people resorted to panic buying because of the confusion the PM’s speech led to. Thackeray tweeted immediately, clarifying to the people not to panic because the guidelines in the state remained unchanged.

Maharashtra has 124 corona positive cases as of Thursday. Thackeray’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis suggests a key decentralisation of decision-making and delegation of powers and responsibilities.

From the Mantralaya to the Gram Panchayat, from cabinet ministers to the district collectors and tehsildars, every authority has been given a stake in decision-making for his or her sphere, keeping in line with the broad policy objectives: while maintaining social distancing by remaining inside the homes to avoid spread of infection, maintain efficient and sufficient delivery of essentials, food, medicines, groceries, services. He brought down the working staff in the government from a hundred per cent to a bare minimum five per cent, leaving the management of it to the local bosses. Where it is absolutely unnecessary, the CM asked the offices to be completely shut down.

When the initial steps to deal with the outbreak were taken, post the detection of the first few cases in the state, the Maharashtra legislature was in its budget session. When it ended on March 21, the intent was clear that the state was slowly headed for a lockdown – first the four cities, then the major urban areas, followed by the entire state, and in the end, halting all the inter and intra-district movement of people for work or otherwise.

The three-party government that Thackeray leads came up with a broad state-wide framework for the lockdown, but left it to the district collectors to devise their contingency plans keeping in view the evolving situations in their respective districts and other socio-economic challenges. A series of orders, including delegation of financial powers to the divisional commissioner, maintenance of a special fund with the district collectors, to avoid any delay in clearance of files, meant that some quick decision could be taken on the ground. Many collectors have deployed different plans in their districts, while sticking to the framework – that is to maintain the lockdown, while allowing for the free movement of essential commodities and services.

Responses to evolving local systems have been rightly varied.

In Chandrapur, for instance, the collector decided on the fixed time in which the grocery and food stores will remain open. In Pune, diesel and petrol pumps have been ordered to stay open for a particular time period given that people crowded them in the initial days leading to their regulation. Inter and intra-district movements have been regulated. Some collectors came up with plans for turning certain facilities and buildings into ‘COVID-19 Hospitals’, while in some cases they started food and shelter homes. In Nagpur, the collector has asked private hospitals not to charge money from poor patients in emergencies; the government would foot their bills. It took a couple of days for the administration to come to terms with the new normal, but as the things settle down, new delivery – even transportation for the essential service workers and doctors – systems are slowly falling in place.

Challenges remain on containing the spread of coronavirus infection and dealing with the emerging economic shocks, of feeding the migrants and the abjectly poor, of supporting the physically challenged and economically weak and vulnerable sections of the society, of keeping the medical services open. And of ensuring the movement of farm commodities that have just been or are about to be harvested.

On the top of this, the spectre of heavy and incessant rains looms over several parts of Maharashtra in the next few days, going by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast.

Apparently, the chief minister himself, health minister Rajesh Tope, who has been on his toes to deal with this crisis, finance minister, Ajit Pawar, and the chief secretary, meet every day in Mantralaya to discuss the state-wide scenario, and engage with the secretaries of different departments, divisional commissioners and district collectors through video-conferencing to deal with the region-specific challenges they face. Decisions are quickly taken and orders immediately issued.

Thackeray, the CM, looks hands-on, Mantralaya watchers say. That he wears an ordinary halo around him is refreshing.

(The author is a Nagpur-based journalist. Views are personal.)

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