Covid-19: Can India pivot from weak frontline state capacity to agile local governance?

By Namit Agarwal*

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s biggest post-Independence health crisis, concerns about State capacity or lack of it were rising. The ability to successfully fight the pandemic, for any nation-state, depends largely on the effectiveness of its local governance system.

Inadequate legal authority, under-resourced and under-trained health staff, and staff with inadequate public health experience are fundamental problems with India’s ability to respond to public health emergencies. Despite having adequate legal authority to collect information about communicable diseases and to impose personal restrictions, States have not been able to use existing laws appropriately because of non-availability of skilled staff with knowledge about public health.

At the core of an effective response to the unprecedented health crisis caused by Covid-19 pandemic lies a thought through strategy, an implementation plan, collaboration within and outside the government sectors and agility of the health system. These are some key facets of State capacity that India unfortunately lacks.

The challenge of policy implementation is not new for India. There is sufficient literature on the implementation challenges and gaps in state capacity. India is categorised as a ‘flailing state’ to account for the dichotomy between India’s elite and well-functioning national institutions on one hand and the chaotic and dysfunctional conditions in local service provisions. There is a growing disconnect between the Union (and State) as the head and its local service provision mechanisms as the limbs. Policy implementation in India emanates from bureaucratic overload. India’s frontline bureaucracy is too under-resourced in comparison with their responsibilities. Bureaucratic norms have a significant impact on policy implementation.

Bureaucratic norms that effectively reduce frontline bureaucrats into “disempowered cogs in the hierarchical administrative culture” pose a huge challenge for an effective local level response to the pandemic. The ‘post-office paradox’ leads to a frontline system almost completely focused and driven by hierarchical command. There is disconnect between block level officers and the local context creating a critical gap in locally contextual and relevant information in times of crisis such as Covid-19. The bureaucratic norms legitimise a legalistic model over a deliberative model without strong institutional mechanisms to support and promote local agility and collaboration. The result of this governance model is a dysfunctional response where Indian bureaucrats at the top are trying to fight Covid-19 with red tape, detached from situation on the ground.

Indian state needs to empower frontline bureaucracy by transforming the existing strict-rule-adherence system and by changing the bureaucratic norms. Changing bureaucratic norms, building trust, and improving worker morale are necessary to address India’s implementation crisis.

There cannot be a bigger alarm, for the Indian state, than this pandemic, to acknowledge the challenges of state capacity and commit to empower frontline bureaucracy at the earliest. India’s National Public Health Policy mentions creating a public health management cadre in States has gained prominence recently. This has potential to addressing the empowerment issue but perhaps not enough to address the issue of norms and promoting agility and collaboration.

Changing norms and cultures cannot be done overnight and fiscal constraints can severely limit well-meaning bureaucratic reform processes. Adopting an agile and participatory approach to local governance might be a gamechanger. A deliberative, participatory model of local governance has proven to work better in some cases versus a legalistic and strict-rule-following governance model that discourages civic input. Kerala’s effective response in containing Covid-19 in the state is an example of how efforts of past decades in empowering local governance mechanisms has paid off.

Lack of political incentives deter investments in building State capacity. The fact that only eight Indian States even had a public health law or even a draft in place pre-Covid supports the argument. Political economy of public health sans pandemic has a self-reinforcing loop where the unorganised users of public health services have a low political influence resulting in inadequate investments. Covid-19 could potentially alter the status quo in the political economy of public health and provide it the much-needed attention.

Examples from Kerala, Kashmir and the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan show how India’s frontline bureaucracy was able to successfully fight the pandemic. Similar examples from Odisha’s disaster preparedness and response also shows that in moments of crisis Indian administration can overcome its limitations and deliver effective governance in some cases. A crisis of such magnitude and scale makes an excellent case for making necessary transformations so that India’s delivers effective governance not as an exception but by norm.

*Working as Asia Policy Lead at World Benchmarking Alliance

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