Excessive centralisation, lack of social support: A volunteer recounts Delhi govt's bungled COVID-19 response

Like many Indian cities, Delhi faced a brutal second wave of COVID-19 infections in the last month—marked by SOS calls for oxygen, beds, ventilators, and drugs. During April–May, Delhi recorded the most cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. At the height of the second wave, as a volunteer myself, I registered a patient of Sp02 level of 70 and falling, on a waiting list of 200+ at one of the city’s government hospitals. After two days of waiting, and trying multiple hospitals, the patient passed away. As a volunteer, I registered helplessness, but having spent the last seven years working on development issues across multiple states and cities, I decided to try and unpack Delhi’s pandemic response through an administrative lens.

What was fundamentally different about the crisis in Delhi was the government’s response to it. In the past, Kejriwal’s popular moves have included challenging the hike in Delhi’s private schools’ fees in  court, dedicating a budget for investing in government school infrastructure and teacher training, providing water and electricity sops, and building over a thousand mohalla or neighborhood primary health centres. In these ways, the organisational acumen and operational savvy of the Kejriwal governance model has been notable.

However, the Kejriwal’s government's performance has badly fallen short in its dealing with the second wave of COVID-19, and at a great cost to Delhi’s citizens. First, the government kept its coronavirus response approach centralised, unlike a ward-level decentralised approach seen in other cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. No helpline was officially advertised by the government as a portal for citizens to get essential drugs, oxygen, beds, and support on COVID-19 management. It advertised hospital helpline numbers, requiring patients, attendants, and volunteers to make upwards of 200 calls across Delhi’s chain of government and private hospitals to get the latest information for a single ICU or ventilator bed at the peak of the pandemic. The government launched a “Delhi Corona app”, which was supposed to reflect officially verified information, but was hardly used.

While the situation was harrowing in most cities suffering from a shortage of beds, oxygen, drugs and more critically, reliable, and dynamically verified information, nowhere were citizens as helpless as in Delhi.

As a volunteer, I was in close touch with employees within the Delhi government set-up who were organised in a shadow warroom to verify leads, equipped with almost as much information as any other citizen volunteer. In fact, in verifying leads for oxygen, beds, home ICU set-ups, a volunteer categorically told me he could not mention he was employed with the Delhi administration. Another volunteer told me that they had little idea how many teams were operating and who to call if they themselves faced an emergency. In fact, he said it was easier to use Twitter or Clubhouse to get the latest leads than the government set-up. Another volunteer told me how the first week was spent in understanding the oxygen capacity of hospitals in Delhi, and the state of infrastructure in each.
Most volunteers spoke anonymously, given the strict instructions to not discuss the government response.

Besides the points discussed above, it is also important to point out that the Delhi government’s approach was to treat the citizen as a beneficiary rather than an equal stakeholder. Citizen volunteers and civic groups providing relief on the ground were not included or invited into the government response in any form. The citizen was kept at bay, existing government dashboards were updated too late, even basic services such as oxygen in hospitals were not guaranteed.

Delhi’s approach was in stark contrast to those in Mumbai or Bengaluru. Mumbai is now well recognised for its ward-level management, which was emulated by other states like Karnataka. The Karnataka government set up a ward-level Covid management system with Ward Decentralised Triage and Emergency Response (DETER) Committees in all 198 wards in Bengaluru. The ward level committees consisted of BBMP officials, ward officials, volunteers, and civil society organizations.

To be fair, Delhi has a complex jurisdictional structure which hinders local organisation. The Delhi Municipal Corporation has systematically been disempowered and the power struggles between the three different municipal authorities in Delhi are well-known. Further, Delhi has a poor track record in healthcare infrastructure—according to a report, it ranked at the bottom in a comparison across India’s top 8 metropolitan cities. The latest blow to the Kejriwal government arrived during the peak of the crisis- through the GNCT Act, the Delhi government became the Lieutenant Governor, which increased the complexity of obtaining permissions for essential COVID-related protocols. The complex political economy of Delhi, its fractured bureaucratic cadre and diminished administrative capacity is a reality.

However, one cannot blame structural deficiencies alone. Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party has had a long history of on-ground organising and has been known for its strong, extensive volunteer networks from its early days. It’s baffling to see that none of those networks were pressed into action, a Covid crisis administration protocol was not drawn up, and most importantly, citizens were not included in any governance whatsoever. In fact, it was the Indian Youth Congress and its leader, Srinivas B V, who ended up playing a critical role with a well-organised team of volunteers drawn from hyper-local party networks.

Finally, it is also important to recognise that vulnerable citizens were given little by way of social support in Delhi. In April, NGOs wrote to the government pointing out unavailability of PDS rations even for cardholders, and the ineligibility of non-cardholders such as migrant workers to access them. Delhi’s subsistence relief to migrant workers- Rs. 5000 to registered construction workers- applies to less than two lakh construction workers, while the total number of workers in Delhi is estimated to be upwards of fifty lakhs. Non-construction sector workers such as those in the hospitality sector, employed in domestic services, or other industries such as brick kilns are not even officially acknowledged.This reflected on the ground—eight lakh workers left Delhi in the first four weeks of the lockdown due to lack of wages and rations.

While certain long-standing administrative issues might be difficult to resolve for the Delhi government, the Kejriwal administration must return to its populist roots. It can do so in three ways. First, it should institute and run an open helpline and communications centre which is open to all citizens by IVR, text, phone. A larger cadre of officials should be deployed to ease the burden of disease management on citizens. While government administrative capacity cannot be scaled up overnight, this is precisely the window for Delhi to welcome its large groups of citizen groups, RWAs, civil society organizations to set up decentralized response units, reducing the administrative overhead. Kejriwal ought to look back at his own party’s large volunteer-led organising groundwork to lay the conceptual foundation for a citizen-oriented government response. Finally, it is absolutely imperative to have non-exclusive policies for catering to the basic subsistence needs of vulnerable families. The government must immediately implement open community kitchens instead of relying only on PDS ration delivery and accelerate large-scale registration of unorganized workers, in line with the Supreme Court judgement on 24 May.

The Delhi government, in the context of the curtailment of its powers, must re-invent and re-assess it popular support. Covid management will be key. The reducing volume of cases is the right opportunity for the Kejriwal government to reflect on its missed opportunities in the second wave and prepare to mitigate a repeat of the catastrophic human and social cost that we, the citizens of Delhi, have witnessed.