“COVID response: Bengaluru is overlooking every management lesson from history”

op-ed: mismanagement of covid

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Bangalore COVID Hospital Problems
Turf wars and frequent transfer of bureaucrats have made the handling of COVID difficult in Bengaluru. Pic: Javed Anees, Wikimedia Commons

“Read up. You really should. There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” These are famous lines from Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’. A problem or its solution have all transpired before. But have we missed the lessons?

It has been nine months since the first case of COVID-19 was reported from Wuhan, China in November 2019. The problem took a life of its own and knocked on India’s shores through Kerala in January 2020. It became Bengaluru’s problem in March of 2020.

While Bengaluru started out well in keeping the pandemic under check, we later slipped into chaos. We have struggled with its management.  Lockdowns, restrictions, dissemination of information, healthcare – we have wrestled with every aspect so badly that Henri Fayol is calling from his grave, offering free lessons in management. Because at the end of the day, effective management is the only thing that will allow us to beat this problem.

But where did we go so wrong? This isn’t the first time our city has faced a health crisis. The bubonic plague of 1898 wasn’t minuscule. What are the lessons we missed from history? What are the parallels?

I return to some of Fayol’s 14 principles of management, because sometimes we have to start from the basics:

  • ‘Stable tenure of personnel’ – Personnel planning should be a priority

When the bubonic plague broke out in Bengaluru in 1898, K Madhava Rao was appointed to the newly-created post of Plague Commissioner. He took over in 1898 and held the post till 1901, before being promoted as the Diwan of Mysore. In 1895, Ronald Ross, Nobel laureate in physiology, was recalled to Bengaluru on special sanitary duty to contain the frequent cholera outbreaks at the time. He stayed on until he was posted to Secunderabad in 1897.

Let’s look at the current scenario. City Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao was transferred in less than a year (he had taken over in August 2019). This is in line with the spate of transfers we have been seeing of late. A fortnight ago, the government had abruptly transferred about 60 IAS officers and 200 KAS officers who were involved with various levels of COVID management.

I elucidate on some of them here. The BBMP core team that led the fight against COVID included five IAS officers – Dr M Lokesh, Ravikumar Surpur, D Randeep, Hephsiba Rani Korlapati and Basvaraj – led by BBMP Commissioner B H Anil Kumar. M Lokesh has been transferred as Excise Commissioner, and Ravikumar was posted to the Agriculture Department. BBMP Commissioner Anil Kumar too was shunted out less than a year after he took over. Captain P Manivannan, who was the Principal Secretary of both the Labour Department and the Department of Information & Public Relations, was similarly shunted out. 

  • Division of work’ – Diving work among individuals leads to specialisation, which increases their skill and efficiency, and hence the output

The transfers of officers who were part of the core team that initially controlled the pandemic, certainly throws a spanner in the works. But if that isn’t enough to derail management, the officers who replaced them also hold other portfolios.

In 1898, the special post of Plague Commissioner was created so that there would be focused attention on the problem. Whereas N Manjunath Prasad, who just took over as the BBMP commissioner, already has two other portfolios to manage. So, forget allowing for focused attention, we don’t even have a whole Commissioner. What we have is one-third of a Commissioner to deal with a problem of this magnitude.

Similarly, when Maheshwar Rao who took over from Manivannan, he was already the Principal Secretary, Department of MSME and Mines. He was brought in at the height of the migrant crisis, when the Labour Department was struggling to deal with the situation on the ground.

  • Subordination of individual interests to the general interest

Reynold Ross, when he linked the poor sanitary condition of the city to the cholera outbreaks, brought out a document emphasising the short-sightedness of the government in waste management. Short-sightedness of governments is a problem even today, hampered further by political interests.

A large part of the recent transfers have been attributed to the turf war between MLAs and corporators ahead of the BBMP elections. The supposed turf war between R Ashok and C Ashwathnarayan, the corporators demanding a more visible role, are all not helping create solutions.  

Similarly, we can examine each of Fayol’s principles – Scalar Chain, Order, Initiative, Esprit de Corps, Unity of direction, Unity of command, etc. – and find enough examples of how each of these have been breached.  The flareup between Ashwathnarayan and Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao, BSY’s anger with Anil Kumar – you don’t have to look to hard, it’s all right there. Writing them all would make this article too long.

Fayol’s principles no longer hold prime position in management texts because they are considered common sense these days. One has to wonder just how common they are. Because it seems like we are currently writing the script for Kissa Kursi Ka Part 2 –  the political satire movie from 1977 that was banned and whose prints were burnt for mocking the then-government.

The movie, a poor man’s Jaane Bhi Yaaron, has a plot very reminiscent of the mismanagement of our times. In the movie, the government is dealing with a rat problem. Its harbinger scheme of buying cats from a foreign country in exchange for Indian dogs goes kaput because corruption has meant that no cats were delivered. They then come up with another solution – offering a certificate and cash prize to people depending on the number of dead rats they produce. Needless to say, the idea goes to hell in a handbasket very quickly, and chaos ensues. It is a predicament like the one we find ourselves in. 

About Manasi Paresh Kumar 106 Articles
Manasi Paresh Kumar is Engagement Editor for Bengaluru Citizen Matters.

8 Comments

  1. Ministers + CM masking behind quarantine. MLAs gone hiding, Corporators seen only during lockdown I & II to grab ration boxes.officials became stray dogs. Who will bell the cat. Its Cat O 9 tail story

  2. It’s a very nice article pointing the issues. But the issues will never be addressed. It’s not just a problem in Bangalore but in all the places. The effort and analysis of auther is appreciated.

  3. Now that is something we need to read, excellent insights but action needed. Lives at stake

  4. Well analysed. Politics, of the dirtiest kind, has been the bane of Bengaluru. We have been lurching from one crisis to another With mismanagement writ large over each. Personal needs (everyone knows what they are) have overriding precedence over public welfare.

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