Enable the Covid-19 task force to take decisions
Last week, a harried Supreme Court (SC), faced with a clutch of petitions and high court (HC) orders on the handling of the pandemic, announced a National Task Force (NTF) to lay down the broad policy for the allocation of medical oxygen to the states in a week, and submit the broad contours of a national plan in six months to fight Covid-19 in the present and the future.
The 12-member task force, comprising domain experts, inspires confidence. However, its advisory nature will leave the decisions again in the hands of the central bureaucracy, which is in the eye of the storm. Citizens want a professional, unbiased body to take decisions for which NTF — in its current form, or with additions of other experts as the need arises — is suitable. And, therefore, for a range of reasons, what is needed is for SC to award NTF with wide-ranging powers on a range of policy issues related to Covid-19 to enable it to take decisions.
For one, quick decisions — possible through a body such as NTF — are the need of the hour. Take an example. In March 2020, 11 empowered committees were set up under secretaries of the Government of India (GoI) to combat the Covid-19 surge. Yet, out of 133 oxygen plants proposed to be installed, only 33 came up, and the committees could do nothing. In November, a parliamentary standing committee voiced concern over the shortage of oxygen supply, intensive care unit beds and other facilities. And still, when the second wave hit with full force in March, we were unprepared. Now, take the fight between Delhi and the Centre over the oxygen quota, where it is the judiciary which took the decision of allocating 700 MT oxygen per day to Delhi. These may be different issues — installing capacity and determining distribution. But compare the sense of urgency now with the complacency of the past year, and it reveals what quick court-monitored decisions and commitment can do.
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Two, there have been individual and local level successes, especially on oxygen supply. Some states such as Kerala, Odisha and Chhattisgarh managed to maintain their oxygen reserve and even help other states. A young collector of Nandurbar set up three oxygen plants in his district and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation commissioner is being applauded for his sheer tenacity and ingenuity in fighting Covid-19.
But individual acts are not enough, and a central body has to take a host of decisions in fighting the menace on a daily basis. For instance, the next fortnight will remain crucial for oxygen supplies and allocation, and it is important for NTF to do this on a daily basis than sit down and deliberate over a policy. There are daily imponderables to be considered which may not be covered by a policy — which can wait to be evolved in more peaceful times. There is already a committee, under a secretary to GOI, looking after oxygen allocation. The secretary can present the status report every day to NTF and take orders. States will be satisfied and concentrate on their efforts too, rather than bickering over central policy and directions.
Three, this expert panel can also assume a more active role in framing India’s vaccine policy (which, remember, is also a subject of judicial hearing at the moment). Given the rupture in federal relations on the question of vaccines, let the distribution of all vaccines be decided by NTF, involving a dynamic bottom-up and top-down approach. Let the onus be on NTF to strategise the systematic vaccination of the population, on the basis of existing and perceived severity of the disease, for various demographic segments, in various geographies.
Four, NTF is equipped to offer medical expertise, given that a lot of confusion persists over protocols regarding Covid-19. On the one hand are statements of doctors and experts, cautioning citizens to use therapies such as remdesivir, tocilizumab, and plasma sparingly and in only specific circumstances, if at all. On the other hand, doctors are freely prescribing these to patients in home isolation. NTF needs to look into it this urgently and issue a national advisory. Through regular media briefings, NTF can also alert the public about the progress in genome-sequencing and what we know about the variants.
Five, foreign medical supplies, in the form of aid, are arriving regularly, and a GOI committee is looking into distribution of these as per norms. Lest it gets embroiled into another controversy over delays and bias in allocation, let NTF take up distribution after hearing the committee on a daily basis.
NTF should be the focal point of all Covid-19-related decisions for the next six months. It has the competence and unbiased image to take quick decisions on important pending matters. A host of committees already exist to back up NTF with all the information and wherewithal required for implementing its decisions. In a virtual world, two short meetings a day can decide on all urgent matters.
Critics may label empowering NTF as an instance of judicial overreach and undermining the authority of the elected executive. However, SC has set up empowered bodies before, such as the one for clearing encroachments in Delhi. A calamity calls for extraordinary measures and the SC’s decision will not only dissipate Centre-state wrangling but also complement their efforts, since NTF would rely largely on government data and resources for taking unbiased, professional decisions.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer, who served as Central Information Commissioner and Special Director, Intelligence Bureau
The views expressed are personal
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