How shoddy COVID response corrodes EPS’s ‘good governance’ badge

From unsuccessful lockdown measures to lack of coordination between officials, TN government has been unable to manage the pandemic with the same efficiency it displays during disasters or in social development and economic governance

Although the EPS-led government has rejigged its strategy after a few false starts, the damage seems to have been done with Tamil Nadu recording the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in the country. Photo: PTI

One of the abiding facts about Tamil Nadu is that it has been a well-governed state. Over the years, the epithet gained currency as the state managed various crises admirably. Whether it is natural disaster, social development, public health, education or economic governance, Tamil Nadu has been the best among the large-sized states.

But the current handling of the coronavirus pandemic by the state government has left many of these achievements in tatters. The state has the third-largest number of infections in the country, the death rate is gradually going up and the hospitals in Chennai are fast running out of beds as the pandemic is nowhere near its peak.

An exasperated Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, while answering a question last week seemed to reveal his state of mind when he said, “Only God knows when the COVID-19 outbreak would end in Tamil Nadu.” After some false starts, the state has rejigged its strategy, but it appears that the harm is already done.

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Where are TN’s troubleshooting skills?

What happened to the famed state administrative machinery which has done remarkably well in the past? For instance, the state managed to recover quickly from the Tsunami of 2004 which had caused huge devastation. It had a mixed record as far as the 2015 floods were concerned. It lost property but did manage to save many lives. The state has also managed to face severe cyclones without much loss of lives.

Last year the state topped the “Good Governance Index” released by the Centre, commemorating the birthday of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was assessed on performance in 10 sectors — agriculture and allied sectors, commerce and industries, human resource development, public health, public infrastructure and utilities, economic governance, social welfare and development, judicial and public security, environment and citizen-centric governance.

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The ranking came as a lifeline for the chief minister who was facing a perception deficit due to his party’s poor performance in the local body elections. Subsequently, the chief minister managed to emerge as numero uno within his party AIADMK by sidelining his number two, O Panneerselvan, who continues to have an eye on his chair.

Tamil Nadu’s response to COVID-19 seems to prove the point that state-sponsored rankings cannot be a true measure of a regional government’s performance. The state in the past had managed to achieve the recognition based on three pillars — an efficient bureaucracy, a socially-conscious political leadership and an aware citizenry. All the three at present seem to be on the decline.

The state’s bureaucracy led by IAS, IPS and state-cadre officers is known for its detailed workings. The state could deliver its social programmes to the poor due to this efficiency. The plans were designed by a responsive bureaucracy. The state had enjoyed good law and order situation again due to good administration. This is now dimmed by the custody killing of a businessman father-son duo in Tuticorin. But clearly it’s the political leadership that seems to be slipping. The citizenry that used to adore its star-studded leadership is now restive.

Confused response, flawed administration  

The COVID-19 response itself had many flaws. The chief minister eagerly supporting the central government, banged plates and spoons in solidarity on the day of ‘Janata curfew’. He did manage to take a few steps to prevent the outward flow of migrants when the Tablighi Jamaat was discovered as a cluster. A large number of members of the jamaat returned home. After initial faux pas, the state quickly corrected itself and stopped naming the infected to avoid a communal flare-up.

Lockdown and subsequent contact tracing worked for a while when the disaster struck Chennai in the form of Koyambedu, the wholesale vegetable market. The infection spread from the facility though it was well known that it was a disaster waiting to happen. The traders rushing to districts took the infection along with them.

Initially, the state health minister C Vijayabaskar became the face of the state’s fight against COVID-19. The chief minister would accompany him on a few occasions. As the number of cases caused by the Tablighi Jamaat cluster begun to wane, the chief minister perhaps became overconfident and announced that the pandemic was on the wane. He had to eat his own words as just the opposite happened. As a solution, he replaced Vijayabaskar by Beela Rajesh, the state health secretary, as the person who would brief the press daily. It is speculated that the CM had to take this step as his other cabinet colleagues were getting queasy over the daily press coverage Vijayabaskar was getting.

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The secretary proved to be a disaster as infections continue to spread. It was alleged that she was not getting along with the Chennai Municipal Commissioner, which is important because of the state capital being declared a hotspot. As infection in Chennai increased, the chief minister brought in J Radhakrishnan, an IAS officer who had made his name in 2004 Tsunami relief works as special nodal officer.

But then the chief minister did not stop there. Soon he deputed five of his cabinet ministers as in-charge of various zones in the city. The pandemic did not respond to these shuffles. It took a while for the CM to realise that too many cooks were spoiling the broth. Beela was replaced by Radhakrishnan. But the chief minister scored another self-goal by declaring a 12-day stringent lockdown from June 19 when most of India had begun to unwind following the announcement of Unlock 1.0.

It was seen as a decision which he took independently without looking over the shoulders at the Centre. But the damage was done. Poor middle-class citizens fled Chennai towards districts and villages. Migration 2.0 has fuelled the spread of infections within the state as the jobless, unable to pay rents or provide food for their families, rushed towards small towns.

The chief minister’s poor grip over bureaucracy was revealed as district collectors began to impose their own diktats, preventing entry of migrants from hotspot Chennai which only further stigmatised the hapless people. Anyone coming from the state capital was a suspect for those in the hinterlands.

To be fair to the administration, it is now conducting the largest number of tests compared to any other state in the country. The state has been conducting nearly 35,000 tests a day which is equivalent to a full month’s test of West Bengal. But with increased tests, the number of cases are also on the rise.

Related news: COVID-19 contact tracing: A race Chennai seems to be losing from start

But all is not lost. The positivity ratio remains constant or even shows a decline on some days though the number of tests has increased. With Radhakrishnan back at the helm, the state’s response now appears more coordinated. But Tamil Nadu is still not out of the woods.

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