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How the Army rose to the occasion to help the nation fight COVID-19, but once the crisis is over, a Herculean task awaits the govt

There is no doubt that the arrival of the armed forces in the battle enhances national morale, as it remains the most trusted organ of the state. However, the failure of the bureaucracy and lack of involvement of other crucial agencies needs an analysis.

The Delhi High Court, on the 7th of May, turned down the plea of the Delhi government asking the army to set up field hospitals in the city. The Court stated, “It (spread of coronavirus) could completely paralyse them from doing their real job that they are required to do, and we should not forget it has not been even a year since the time that we have had a problem”.

The army is currently running three major hospitals in Delhi, two of them dedicated to COVID-19. The central government stated in the court that a nodal officer has been nominated to coordinate with the Delhi government with regard to the installation of cryogenic storage tanks and their transportation within the national capital. Does the state government bureaucracy lack the capability to even manage logistics within its own state?

The army also announced the setting up of a ‘COVID management cell’ to ensure better coordination in extending support to civil authorities across the country. An army spokesperson stated, “to coordinate multiple facets of staffing and logistics support, an exclusive COVID management cell under a director-general rank officer has been established, which reports directly to the Vice Chief of Army Staff. This will bring greater efficiency in coordinating real-time responses to address the exponential rise in COVID cases across the country”. A similar cell has been established by the air force to coordinate the distribution of all the relief aid coming from abroad.

As the Chinese virus spreads across India, local medical facilities are coming under immense pressure. Hospitals are overflowing and support systems like oxygen, ventilators and critical medicines remain in shortfall. There are daily reports of the arrest of people involved in hoarding essential medical stores, which state governments have been unable to stop. Every frontline medical worker is stretched to limits, however, like true soldiers, they fight on regardless of the risk to their own lives. 

The air force and navy remain overstretched in the transportation of medical stores from across the globe and within India. There are daily reports of the movement of critical items by naval vessels and air force transport fleet. The air force has also dedicated transport aircraft for emergent movement of equipment and medical supplies within the country. In cities where repair of critical equipment, including oxygen generating plants, are needed, army technicians’ step in.   

The armed forces and its medical fraternity are currently the largest contributors in the battle against COVID. Apart from supplementing state medical support systems, they are involved in establishing as also running additional medical facilities established by other organizations, including the DRDO. The DRDO is establishing temporary hospitals in multiple cities. It has limited its role to establishing hospitals, not running them. The state government looks to the centre for staff to run these facilities and the centre pushes the Ministry of Defence. Ultimately, the overstretched armed forces medical fraternity is roped in. 

The staff needed for these facilities are immense. The Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel facility near Delhi airport alone requires over 120 doctors, 50 nurses and far more paramedical and support staff, while the Lucknow and Varanasi facilities require over 60 doctors, apart from other support staff. Many more such facilities are under construction. The staff for running these facilities are largely provided by the army. This has resulted in the army pulling out medical staff from HQs and training establishments, impacting daily functioning. As per reports, the armed forces were never taken on board at the planning stage but pushed on the pretext of there being no option. These new facilities could have been constructed near existing hospitals to save on the employment of dedicated manpower. 

Employing the armed forces when all else fails is not new, nor will the armed forces ever back down, despite all difficulties. However, what is surprising is the complete failure of the government bureaucracy in handling this crisis. It needed a ‘whole of government’ approach, which was evidently missing. The mass of IAS secretaries in Delhi should have coordinated with every central agency and evolved a cohesive plan, which they failed to do. This has led to the government reacting, with no clear end-state.

This is evident from the fact that the second wave has no daily central briefing in Delhi, a hallmark of the first wave. In addition, the political class and state government versus centre blame game only make matters worse. The period between the two waves should have been utilized to build medical facilities and enhance the ability of other organizations to join the battle. Nothing was done. It is easy to blame the polity, however, advice flows from the bureaucracy. The overpaid bureaucracy slept, failed to devise a strategy and advised politicians at the helm. The end result was inducting the instrument of last resort. 

While the government has repeatedly invoked the Disaster Management Act, the latest being at end of April, the National Disaster Relief Force, founded solely for ‘disaster response related duties,’ is missing. It claims to have considerable experience in CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) emergencies. Every battalion includes engineers, technicians, medical staff and paramedics. It could have contributed to resurrecting and maintaining oxygen plants that were non-functional or providing technical support to new hospitals but is invisible. The railways, on the other hand, is boosting bed capacity by converting coaches into isolation centres, run by their own doctors. 

The bureaucracy, which failed to even prepare an effective plan, let alone facilities and rightly advice the polity, on countering the second wave, are those enjoying the highest salary and benefits, including NFU, as compared to those currently inducted to fight the battle. The armed forces are denied similar allowances on flimsy grounds, compelling them to fight their case in court. The nation should be asking why does our overpaid bureaucracy fail us every time.    

The armed forces have rushed in to support the nation, but as soon as the crisis ends, obtaining clearances for rapid deployment, expenditure incurred, hiring of retired medical staff, as also medical equipment procured, will be a herculean task. The same bureaucracy, which failed in determining a strategy and evolving a whole of government approach, leading to the armed forces being rushed in, will place stumbling blocks and make them run from pillar to post prior to releasing funds. This has always happened and will continue to happen. This is Indian bureaucracy at its best.

There is no doubt that the arrival of the armed forces in the battle enhances national morale, as it remains the most trusted organ of the state. However, the failure of the bureaucracy and lack of involvement of other crucial agencies needs an analysis. A whole government approach has ended up as an almost solo armed forces approach. This is evident from the words of the PM, ‘Jal, Thal and Nabh, our armed forces have left no stone unturned in strengthening the fight against COVID.’ 

(The article has been written by Major General Harsha Kakar who superannuated from the army in 2015. A prolific writer, he writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines on national security and international relations. He blogs at www.harshakakararticles.com and can be contacted at @kakar_harsha).

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