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Maharashtra's COVID-19 crisis: Why is Pawar missing in action?

June 12, 2020 11:11 IST
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The most experienced administrator in the country seems to have sat back and allowed bureaucrats and policemen to manage the lockdown, observes Jyoti Punwani.

IMAGE: Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar. Photograph: PTI Photo

Over the last few weeks, Sharad Pawar has been all over the news. Urging speedy opening of the lockdown; advising the Centre on how to revive the economy...

This is as it should be. Thrice CM of Maharashtra, thrice Union minister with key portfolios, founder of his own national party, head of the powerful BCCI for three years -- there is little that this man does not know. The presence of Pawar is surely an asset to any government in a crisis.

But look at how Maharashtra's capital is reeling under the coronavirus crisis.

Mumbai's COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing.

Every day brings horror stories of frantic searches for ambulances, beds and ventilators in understaffed public and private hospitals, and astronomical hospital bills.

Rules on testing and quarantine keep changing. Undoubtedly, the situation is beyond control of whoever's in charge.

Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray

IMAGE: Sharad Pawar, right, and Uddhav Thackeray, centre, with Nationalist Congress Party, Congress and Shiv Sena leaders in Mumbai, November 25, 2019. Photograph: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI Photo

Who is in charge?

In these ten weeks of the lockdown, Uddhav Thackeray has been the only visible figure of authority.

But notwithstanding his obvious sincerity, it's clear that all the CM wanted is for the lockdown to continue, for he knows, as well as any doctor in Mumbai, that cases are probably going to rise and rise.

So why has the most experienced politician in India not been guiding the fledgling CM, whom he himself placed on the chair?

When the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress together formed the government last November, everyone knew Sharad Pawar was the power behind the throne; the guarantee of the stability of the strange new coalition.

Sharad Pawar's strengths as an administrator and his command over bureaucrats are legendary. Additionally, there is probably no one of importance with whom the 79-year-old strongman is not familiar, and not just in Maharashtra.

Yet, Maharashtra's citizens are left wondering, where is this strongman when we need him most? The most experienced administrator in the country seems to have sat back and allowed bureaucrats and policemen to manage the lockdown.

IMAGE: Sharad Pawar inspects the COVID-19 quarantine facility at the Bandra Kurla Complex, north west Mumbai. Photograph: Sharad Pawar/Twitter

While on the streets, the face of the lockdown has been the lathi and megaphone wielding policeman, in the corridors of power, it is the names of Ajoy Mehta, Praveen Pardeshi, Iqbal Singh Chahal, Suresh Kakini and Kiran Dighavkar, all bureaucrats and officials, that appear most frequently in the news.

Hardly any elected representative has made news, apart from the CM and the health minister. Indeed, activists distributing food to the needy have found the phones of corporators and MLAs switched off.

On May 16, Pawar did something sorely needed: He made ministers in charge of different areas of Mumbai and its suburbs.

What happened thereafter?

IMAGE: Sharad Pawar in a video discussion with M K Stalin, president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on the COVID-19 crisis in the country. Photograph: Sharad Pawar/Twitter

Nobody knows as Mumbaikars continued to struggle to find beds and ambulances in every area. Even while announcing this decision by his leader, NCP spokesman Sanjay Tatkare made the party's priority clear: 'Along with health, the economy is also the main wheel,' he said.

The irony is that not just the crucial health and home portfolios, but all the portfolios that matter during this pandemic, are held by Pawar's men. And on all these fronts, Maharashtra has failed.

Be it providing food to those rendered jobless overnight, to preventing sackings and evictions, Maharashtra's performance has been poor.

On April 15, Pawar asked the Centre to channelise the wheat lying in the FCI's godowns to the needy.

Yet, in his own state, it was NGOs who provided 83.56% of the food distributed to those rendered jobless overnight, according to an India Today state-wise analysis of a reply filed in the Supreme Court by the Centre.

Maharashtra did not even let ration card holders access the Centre's free rations till they had bought the state's quota.

The minister in charge of food and civil supplies? NCP veteran Chhagan Bhujbal.

On May 29, Pawar brought to the Centre's notice the 'complete breakdown' in the realty sector caused by the 'massive outflux of labourers'.

But what did his government do to halt this outflux?

A one-time payment of Rs 2,000 each to 767,000 construction workers, out of the 1.218 million workers active before the lockdown.

The grand announcement by NCP Labour Minister DIlip Walse Patil that Rs 153.40 crore had been paid didn't say that Maharashtra was sitting on a corpus of Rs 8,500 crore, the Construction Cess collected from builders.

The only action taken against the widespread layoffs across industries in Maharashtra was notices to those companies where unions complained.

Did anyone get their job back? Or were they compensated?

IMAGE: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray with Sharad Pawar. Photograph: PTI Photo

Inability to pay rents was a big factor driving migrants out of the city. But neither the housing minister (Jitendra Awhad), nor the social justice minister (Dhananjay Munde), both NCP men, intervened, either to rein in landlords or provide alternate free housing.

Awhad can't be faulted for he was himself hospitalized for COVID-19. On his recovery, he thanked the CM and Sharad Pawar for their daily monitoring of his health.

If only Pawar had monitored the condition of the state's hospitals as meticulously!

Would any hospital management have dared refuse his directive to obey the state's orders taking over 80% of their beds and capping COVID-19 treatment costs?

All through the lockdown, Pawar addressed his followers on Facebook and Twitter, but all he mouthed was advice about the need for social distancing and masks.

What about rations, dwindling savings, lack of water? Surely the thousands who ensure a Pawar family win in every election needed reassurances on these crucial aspects?

IMAGE: Sharad Pawar assesses the damage caused by cyclone Nisarga in Harihareshwar town. Photograph: Sharad Pawar/Twitter

Now that he has made his presence felt, Pawar has chosen to focus on the revival of the fortunes of business barons, such as the owners of educational institutes (external link).

He even thought fit to forward an open letter written by the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India to the PM. Did this powerful group really need Pawar's help?

Imagine the impact if he had instead forwarded to the PM the two reports brought out by the Stranded Workers Action Network on the condition of migrant workers during the lockdown!

Pawar's suggestions on reviving the economy: Encouraging e-commerce, telemedicine, online entertainment, the manufacture of household gym equipment, are geared to the upper middle class.

Some jobs would be generated through these sectors, but wouldn't many more be created by building more public hospitals and lots of cheap public housing? This crisis has shown how vital these two areas are.

What has emerged as most important though, is ensuring universal food security. Enough studies have found that doing so helps economic growth.

Surely the country's seniormost politician knows this.

But let's not forget it was Sharad Pawar who declared as food and agriculture minister in the UPA government, that it was not possible to implement the Supreme Court order to distribute surplus foodgrains to the malnourished free of cost, even if they were rotting in the government's godowns (external link).

As Ghalib said: 'Hum ko unse wafaa ki hai umeed/ jo nahin jaantey wafaa kya hai.'

Production: Aslam Hunani/

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