Mumbai: On the occasion of the 54th foundation day of Shiv Sena, the party chief and Maharashtra's Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray assured the party workers that his government would win the battle against COVID-19. He asked them not to worry and stand firm with the government in this difficult time. He also hinted at his party’s ambitions for the topmost post in the country, saying that he would be happy to see a Shiv Sainik as Prime Minister.
"A Shivsainik (party worker) is not scared of anything. He stands tall against any kind of storm. These are tough times, but we are doing everything possible," said Thackeray while addressing the first online foundation day rally on June 19.
When Thackeray took oath on November 28, 2019 to head the three-party coalition government in the state, experts believed that the toughest challenge in front of him would be to keep the coalition intact. The awaiting massive health crisis was not a part of anyone’s wildest imagination.
Maharashtra reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 9. The CM had garnered praise for swinging into action quickly, communicating with the people on a regular basis through social media and declaring a lockdown even before the Centre’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown. Former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had tweeted on April 4, "#UddhavThackeray has been a revelation." As opposed to the ‘one-man show’ being run at the national level, Thackeray was regularly seen sharing the platform with state Health Minister Rajesh Tope while addressing people.
However, by April third week, the number of patients began to soar quickly, especially in Mumbai.
The state government chalked out a strategy to control the spread of the coronavirus with the help of the Directorate of Medical Education and Research Department as well as Epidemiology experts in Mumbai and Pune.
Tatyarao Lahane, Director of MERD, told NewsClick that the state government's guidelines have been based on directions from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO).
"We focused on three things mainly. First, aggressive testing in areas where there are more patients. So be it Mumbai, Thane, Malegaon, Pune or Solapur, we did aggressive testing," said Dr Lahane. The number of testing labs across the state was also rapidly increased. "When the first patient was found in Pune, there were only two labs - in Pune and in Mumbai. But now, there are 98 labs all over Maharashtra," he added.
Maharashtra government also focused on upgrading the quarantine facilities by increasing the availability of beds. In Mumbai alone, the state government is working on making one lakh beds for COVID-19 positive patients and 3,000 ICU beds available by June end.
However, sources in the state's Health Department point to one serious lacuna in management. "There is a lack of coordination in cities like Mumbai and Pune. We keep reading stories of how patients are not getting beds. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and state government have arranged beds at multiple locations including Bombay Exhibition Centre Mahalakshmi Race Course. Still, we keep reading such news reports. Because beds are full in the regular hospitals and there is no one to tell the new patients about where to go and which hospital or Covid-19 centre they should visit," they said.
The state government has now come up with toll-free COVID-19 helpline numbers for every city, aimed at providing correct information on the availability of beds.
Observers see two key issues with the handling of the ongoing health crisis by the state government: an overdependence on bureaucracy for decision-making and lack of political unity.
Some Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress leaders had earlier covertly suggested that the CM relies more on the bureaucrats than the political leadership. This was in reference to the extension of tenure granted to Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta and also cancellation of some transfers of IAS officers including Principal Secretary Kishor Raje Nimbalkar.
Nimbalkar was supposed to replace Manoj Saunik as Principal Secretary in the Public Works Department (PWD) headed by Ashok Chavan, a Congress leader. But, his transfer was cancelled at the last minute. This was suspected to be a reason for the tussle between Congress and Shiv Sena. However, Congress has clarified that their issues with the functioning of the government have nothing to do with transfers of any officer.
Some bureaucrats have also been accused of “providing information” to former CM and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis. Congress’s chief spokesperson, Sachin Sawant, had recently tweeted: "Some officers are providing information to Devendra Fadnavis ji and we are aware about it.".
In this context, senior journalist Padmabhushan Deshpande said, "It is finally the responsibility of the political leadership. If your entire political establishment starts talking in one voice, bureaucrats will fall in line immediately. MVA [Maha Vikas Aghadi] government should put its house in order first before blaming officers.”
Pointing to the number of COVID-19 infections in the state—highest for any state in the country—BJP has repeatedly claimed that the MVA government has “failed the battle”.
During a recent press conference, Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis had alleged, “Maharashtra government is not following the guidelines of ICMR. The number of tests has reduced in the state and the government is trying to hide behind false data."
However, senior Journalist Jatin Desai told NewsClick that the MVA government has been performing well on the pandemic front. "I think the state government and BMC are doing reasonably well as far as COVID-19 is concerned. The state is visible and so is the CM and the health minister. Sharad Pawar has been a strength and he is inspiring confidence. But, politically, MVA is not seen as a collective force," said Desai.
The BJP has also been targeting the government for the “dire” situation in the state capital, while posting videos depicting the same on social media. BJP's former Mumbai Chief Ashish Shelar said, “BMC should have done preparations well in advance. There are so many cases of mismanagement. Inadequate beds, ICU wards and even provision of oxygen cylinders are major reasons for so many deaths in the city. The blame goes to Shiv Sena and the state government for this gross failure.”
Shiv Sena leadership, however, has refuted these charges. Rajya Sabha MP Anil Desai believes that the charges are politically motivated. "Mumbai's comparison must be done with the situation in similar cities around the world. Look at New York or London. Then you will realise that Mumbai has done a better job...," said Desai.
"There was a serious challenge in April and till mid-May. But, right now, it looks like the city is in a better position and the speed of the number of new cases is also slowing down. Now, the city has to build more and more resources like ICU beds and ventilators to bring down death rates. That is the task," said Professor Niraj Hatekar.