February 25, 2021
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Key Officials Missing: Has Odisha's War On Corona Been Hijacked By Select Bureaucrats?

Much of the problem the state is witnessing today is due to the highly centralized, opaque and whimsical decision making

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Key Officials Missing: Has Odisha's War On Corona Been Hijacked By Select Bureaucrats?
Beneficiaries stand in a queue, maintaining social distancing, to collect ration at state government PDS ration centre during the nationwide lockdown, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
PTI Photo
Key Officials Missing: Has Odisha's War On Corona Been Hijacked By Select Bureaucrats?

What began as a trickle is fast becoming a torrent. And the torrent is now threatening to sweep away everything on its path, including all the roadblocks painstakingly put up to prevent its entry and spread!

The first positive case of coronavirus in Odisha was not reported till as late as March 17 and the tally stayed at just five till as recently as last Thursday, giving the state government the bragging rights as an ‘early mover’ in preparing for it. But with 15 new cases in a single day on Friday and another 18 on Sunday, the state is ‘making up for lost time’ as it were and is fast catching up with other states in rising numbers.

Worryingly for the government, Bhubaneswar has emerged as the epicentre of the deadly virus in the state with no less than 32 out of the 39 positive cases detected so far (two of whom have now been cured) from the capital city. Within the city itself, Bomikhal has emerged as the hotspot with as many as 19 cases reported from this crowded area alone. The posh Suryanagar area is the other hotspot in the city with eight cases. Both these areas have now been sealed and an intensive cluster containment exercise has been launched. Even more worryingly, the virus has even reached villages in the interiors, making containment far more difficult for the authorities than it is in a city like Bhubaneswar. From Jajpur in central Odisha to Kalahandi in the west, several villages and clusters are getting their first taste of ‘shutdown’, ‘sealing’ and ‘cluster containment’.

With the numbers threatening to go through the roofs in just the last three days, the state government’s claims about having put in place measures to arrest the spread of the killer disease have suddenly started sounding rather hollow.

On Sunday evening, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik sought to reassure the people of Bhubaneswar that comprehensive and foolproof cluster containment measures were being taken in affected areas and appealed to them to not panic. But such is the panic created by the massive spurt in cases since Friday that the people of the city appear unwilling to take their chief minister’s assurances at face value.

“How can we not panic when nearly 30 positive cases have been reported in the city, 19 of them in Bomikhal alone? We are told the 16 new cases reported today (Sunday) were those who had come in contact with the three identified on Friday. Who knows how many people the 16 people who tested positive today had come in contact with,” asks Bhagirathi Pattajoshi, who lives in Laxmi Sagar, adjacent to Bomikhal.

Much of the problem the state is witnessing today is due to the highly centralized, opaque and whimsical decision making. To cite just one example of the whimsical decision making, on Thursday, Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) revealed the identity of the person from Suryanagar, who had tested positive for the virus, breaking the government’s own principle of keeping the names of victims under wraps. The authorities sealed the entire area on the ground that it was necessary in ‘larger public interest’ because the person had no recent history of travel outside the state. Barely 48 hours later, the same BMC revealed that even though the person himself had no history of travel outside, one of his family members did go to Kolkata recently. The day after the sealing of Suryanagar, the BMC sealed the whole of Bomikhal after three positive cases were identified there, but chose, for reasons that are yet to be explained till now, to withhold the identity of the victims.

A big reason for the government getting caught off guard on the rapid spread of the virus in the state was the fact that the entire political class, including ministers and ruling party MLAs, has been completely sidelined in the war against Corona. Senior cabinet ministers are calling up journalists to find out more than what TV channels are reporting!

In all previous disasters, including Cyclone ‘Fani’ last May, they were the government’s ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, providing valuable inputs on the actual scenario. But with a handful of officers calling all the shots, this crucial link with the ground has now been snapped completely, making the government's job all the more difficult. All feedback now comes from the district administrations, which can never be a substitute for the crucial inputs that political representatives provided in previous disasters.

In all previous disasters, it is the Special Relief Commissioner (SRC), who is the point person for the government. But during the biggest disaster, the state has faced so far, SRC Pradeep Jena is nowhere to be seen, or heard. His job has now been usurped by a high-sounding Strategic Committee manned entirely by bureaucrats. Amazingly, the SRC is not part of this committee, which comprises a handful of hand-picked officers who are considered ‘men for all seasons’, whether it is the Asian Athletics, the Hockey World Cup or the War on Corona. The point to note is that none of the babus, including its Chairman, Finance secretary Ashok Meena, has any previous experience of handling a health crisis. Even Health secretary Nikunja Dhal, who should have walked into the committee because of the nature of his job, is not a member!

On Saturday, media circles were abuzz with stories of Dhal being asked to go on leave. But when Outlook asked chief secretary Asit Tripathy about it, he dismissed it as ‘totally baseless’. While the committee does have a member from the Health Department, it is not the secretary but ‘a representative’ who could be anyone from a junior officer to even a clerk! And Health Minister Naba Das is missing in action too!! 

It would, however, be wrong to attribute all the ills being seen today to the committee because the real power centre lies elsewhere. And no, it is not Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik as you may expect, but the man who virtually runs the state on his behalf: his trusted private secretary VK Pandian. In fact, Patnaik himself has been reduced to just recording and releasing videos almost on a daily basis, either appealing to the people to stay indoors or warning them of stern action if they fail to do so, blissfully oblivious of what is going on. A camera crew is stationed at Naveen Nivas for the job.

Odisha prides itself for being among the better prepared states when it comes to tackling disasters and gives credit to its "single line of command". But there is growing perception that the line does not start with the CM, but an official in the CMO.

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