Column | Bureaucracy and COVID during interregnum

Kerala witnessed the top bureaucracy holding the reins of the State till Monday, as the political leadership remained under the grip of the election hangover. The period also witnessed the second wave of COVID-19 washing through the State, leaving the people helpless in its wake.

The outgoing cabinet of ministers has been facing unparalleled challenges. Though not a caretaker government, the interregnum has given the government the characteristics of a caretaker.

Developments over the past week were indicative of how bureaucracy, without the support of an efficient political leadership, could affect the State’s administration. Apart from the chief secretary, district collectors and police chiefs in all the 14 districts competed in issuing orders.

Though clamping restrictions was the need of the hour, the orders issued often contradicted each other, and several of them were impractical. Most decisions had not considered the common man, his need for livelihood and travel.

Consequently, the situation warranted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to reach Thiruvananthapuram, forgoing the rest needed after recovering from COVID-19. At a high-level meeting, he instructed officials against creating confusion by going beyond the protocol and making different decisions.

During the initial spread of COVID-19 last year, the chief minister had assigned ministers responsibilities of each district. Though it has been continuing technically, ministers were mostly busy vacating their offices, or in the exit mood.

The eight ministers who were not fielded in the elections were in a different frame of mind. Of them, G Sudhakaran has been facing a stiff challenge from the “political criminals” in Alappuzha than the pandemic.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

Sudhakaran had recently stated without naming anyone that political criminals in Alappuzha were targeting him.

Competition to Yediyurappa

The strangest of the decisions during the interregnum was made by Dr D Sajith Babu, collector of Kasaragod. He made COVID-negative or vaccination certificates mandatory for entering the district’s major business centres, forcing N A Nellikunnu, MLA, to complain against the “senseless” decision to the chief secretary.

Additionally, the district secretary of the All India Youth Front (AIYF), the youth wing of the CPI, criticized the collector on social media. The collector is answerable to the minister of revenue, a portfolio held by the CPI.

Recalling the protest they had taken out against Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa’s decision mandating no-COVID certificate to cross the border at Manjeshwar, the AIYF leader asked whether they need a similar certificate to travel from Kasaragod villages to the towns in district.

Ignoring ground reality

The bureaucracy permitted public transport during the 9pm to 5pm curfew, forgetting the fact that people have been dependent on private vehicles for the last leg of the travel to their residences from bus stops or stands at 90 per cent of the places in Kerala.

The chief secretary’s order curtailing the working hours of big malls and cinema theatres till 7:30pm too created confusion. The Thiruvananthapuram police forced all establishments, including kirana shops, to shut down for the day at 7:30pm. The chief secretary could not implement his order in letter and spirit even in front of the Secretariat where his office is located.

Irony of vaccination centres

The administration, busy monitoring the strict implementation of the curfew, missed the overcrowding at vaccination centres. With the queue management system at vaccination centres getting derailed, tempers ran high and protests raged.

The decision to end spot registration and administer the anti-COVID vaccine only to those who have registered online could not be implemented even at the centres in the capital city. It resulted in the irony of vaccination points becoming breeding centres for COVID-causing coronavirus!

Before and after polls

Incidentally, the bureaucracy that clamped restrictions one-by-one had turned a blind eye towards the crowds during the run-up to the Assembly polls. The government’s attitude before and after the polls will raise several questions.

A huge price will have to be paid for the traditional political leaders’ attitude of withdrawing after votes have been cast. The way forward is very tough for whichever Front that gets the people’s mandate on May 2.

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