This article was first published in The Mint.
Following Adar Poonawalla’s statements to the British media, on 3 May India’s government issued a media release stating that it had placed new orders for 110 million doses of Covishield and 50 million doses of Covaxin from Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, to be delivered over the next three months. Refuting allegations that fresh orders had not been placed, the government revealed that these purchases had been paid for in advance in the last week of April. The release also noted the government’s previous order of 100 million and 20 million doses of the two respective vaccines, of which 87% and 44% had been fulfilled as on that date. The earliest order was perhaps placed in January, after vaccines received regulatory approval and before India’s vaccination programme started in the middle of that month.
In contrast, the British government ordered 90 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as early as May 2020, enough to cover 67% of its population. The same month, the US government ordered 300 million doses, adequate for 46% of its population. By September 2020, Japan, the EU, Australia, Canada, Germany and Brazil had all placed significant orders. Now here’s the most important part—all these countries placed orders for a vaccine that didn’t exist back then. These were not purchases. They were bets. Of course, by placing such large bets, they reduced their risks as more money raises the likelihood of the development of a successful vaccine.
So it should not surprise us that India ordered its first vaccines in January, after they came into existence. It should also not surprise us that the order quantities were small, for without a directive from the top political level, the system dare not commit to more than the production capabilities of manufacturers.
None of this is to absolve political lapses. But if we are to secure better governance outcomes, we must understand the limitations of our administrative structures and decision-making culture. As we saw over the past decade, it is a comforting myth that enacting a legislation, securing a Supreme Court verdict or electing different leaders will change outcomes. Unless we reform how India is governed, the structures, processes and culture of government, we will continue to be disappointed by what the system actually delivers.
Take another case. Given that healthcare capacity is exhausted in many places and families and civil society groups are frantically arranging vital supplies from across the country and abroad, it would be prudent to remove all duties, taxes and bureaucratic friction on them until the pandemic is under control. Yet, while the finance ministry waived customs duties on many medical goods, GST is a different matter. Many goods received as donation for free distribution are tax exempt until 30 June, but firms and non-profit organizations that buy them even for free distribution are not automatically exempt. Chief secretaries of states have been asked to appoint nodal officers so that “entities desirous of importing COVID relief material for free distribution may approach them for certification”. I am sure that ministers and civil servants know that the best thing to do at this time is to waive GST and paperwork on anything remotely related to healthcare, and not sit in judgement on whether the item is useful for covid treatment or not. Yet, they find this extremely difficult to do, for the rate structure is not the only thing that is complicated about the GST framework.
If a system works, it is because the outcomes of the actions of its good people outweigh those of the bad ones. If those good people do not have the power, authority and incentives to act, then the system does not deliver. We cannot depend on exceptional, courageous, heroic and career-suicidal officers. All officials should be able to exercise judgement within their scope of duties and act in the public interest. The pandemic highlights the need for a fundamental rethink of our administrative goals, structures and processes. From national defence to public health, India has been let down by the inability of our government to act early, take necessary risks and procure what’s needed.
Political responsibility is easy to identify, and in elections we have a regular accountability mechanism. Whether and how citizens choose to exercise it is another matter. What is less obvious is the task of re-engineering government that has been overdue for two decades or more. It would be a shame if the immense pain and suffering we are now going through does not push us to pay attention to it.