Even as Unlock 1.0 gets under way, there is one state that can either uplift India or set it back severely in the tough battle against COVID-19: Maharashtra. India’s richest and second most populous state accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and has a 30 per cent share in its direct taxes. Politically, it is the second most important state after Uttar Pradesh, sending 48 members to the Lok Sabha. But, with 72,300 infections and 2,465 deaths till June 2, the state now has the dubious distinction of topping the list of the country’s COVID-19 hotspots, accounting for 34.8 per cent of the nation’s total of 207,615 cases and 42 per cent of the 5,815 total deaths. Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, has emerged as the epicentre of the pandemic in the state, registering 43,492 cases and 1,417 deaths as on June 2. If there is an exponential rise in Covid cases in the next couple of weeks, it could have catastrophic human and economic consequences not just for the state but for the nation as well. Maharashtra has now become a crucial test case of India’s ability to handle the COVID-19 outbreak.
In its hour of crisis, the man in the hot seat is the state’s chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray, 59, who is also facing his biggest test. The once reluctant politician was catapulted to the chief minister’s chair at the end of November last year after his party, the Shiv Sena, ditched its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and entered into an unusual post-electoral arrangement with traditional foes, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), in a 36-day backroom political drama. Thackeray, whose party has controlled Asia’s richest civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), since 1997, has little administrative experience of his own. But he now runs a coalition government that has three former chief ministers who shaped the state’s destiny, Sharad Pawar, Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan. Not to mention a dozen ministers in his cabinet who have 15 years of administrative experience. That should have been enough answer to those doubting his and his alliance partners’ ability to help the state navigate these difficult times. Unfortunately, that has not been the case so far.
That Thackeray had no state-level administrative experience before he took the top job is no exception in the state, the highest post his immediate predecessor, Devendra Fadnavis, had held before he became chief minister from 2014 to 2019 was the mayorship of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. After being sworn in as chief minister, Thackeray evolved his own style of functioning as part of which he decentralised power away from the chief minister’s office, a move that provoked his critics, including Fadnavis, to deride him for being “laidback and hands-off”. The NCP’s Ajit Pawar was made deputy chief minister and the alliance partners were allotted 30 out of the 40 berths in his cabinet. Thackeray decided he would not hold any major portfolio himself and apportioned the party’s share among Shiv Sena strongmen and his son Aaditya Thackeray. Before the Covid crisis hit, Thackeray would attend the CM’s office in the state’s Mantralaya for barely five hours a day, preferring to operate mostly from Matoshree, from where his father and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray moulded the party into a powerful force in the state. With wife Rashmi reportedly taking an active interest in politics, the unspoken buzz among allies and foes alike is that the “Thackeray kitchen cabinet” runs the state.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty
THE INEXPERIENCE SHOWS
The COVID-19 crisis that erupted in March, barely three months after Thackeray assumed office, is proving to be a trial by fire for the first-time chief minister. Initially, it singed his reputation badly. Rather than the roaring tiger that symbolises his party, Thackeray for weeks seemed like a deer caught in the glaring headlights of the pandemic. Afraid of losing his thunder, he turned down a proposal by NCP supremo Sharad Pawar to form a COVID-19 steering committee under the leadership of his trusted man, the water resources minister Jayant Patil. It proved to be bad politics, as the Maratha strongman subsequently chose to keep his distance at a time his guidance would have strengthened Thackeray’s hand in dealing with the Covid challenge. Rumours were rife that a section of the NCP was disillusioned with the alliance and willing to exit it to join hands with the BJP and form a government, something Pawar hotly denied.
The cracks in the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) appeared even wider when the Sena’s other alliance partner, the Congress, too started making noises about being ignored. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said, “We are supporting the government in Maharashtra but we are not the key decision-maker.” Opposition leader Fadnavis was quick to cash in on the seeming lack of cohesion in the alliance by launching a statewide Maharashtra Bachao (Save Maharashtra) campaign, alleging that Thackeray was not in command of the situation.
Indeed, Thackeray seemed to be floundering in the first month and a half of the crisis. Rather than tap the wealth of experience in his cabinet, he had not called a cabinet meeting till June 2, the chief minister seemed to be relying more on a clutch of senior bureaucrats, spearheaded by chief secretary Ajoy Mehta, for advice. Defending his style of administration in a recent media interaction, he asked, “What’s the harm in that? Have I taken any wrong decision? I am not a Bollywood hero who needs to be seen everywhere. I like to work in silence.” To which Fadnavis countered with a swift riposte: “Political leadership must give direction to the bureaucracy’s wisdom. Uddhavji has failed on that front.”
With NCP supremo Sharad Pawar at a book release function in March
To be fair to Thackeray, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi formed 11 empowered groups of senior bureaucrats and experts to work as his front-line team to meet the Covid challenge. But it was the battle among the bureaucrats Thackeray trusted that pushed Mumbai to the brink of a Covid disaster. The then BMC commissioner Praveen Pardeshi, a competent but headstrong officer, was at loggerheads with chief secretary Mehta on how the city should combat the pandemic. The result was that infection rates in Mumbai grew from 7 to 18 per cent in April even as deaths climbed to 1,068 on May 15 from 16 on April 1.
While COVID-19 cases were growing exponentially not only in Mumbai but across the state, Thackeray seemed mostly worried about getting elected to the legislative council to retain his chief ministership. The Constitution mandates that a minister become a legislator within six months of taking oath if he wants to continue in office. Thackeray had to do so by May 27. Nine council seats were vacant, but the Election Commission of India (ECI) was in no mood to conduct elections for them in the middle of the pandemic. Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari turned down the Maharashtra cabinet’s recommendation to nominate Thackeray to one of the two vacant seats in the council. A desperate Thackeray called the PM on April 29 to look into the matter. The next day, Koshyari wrote to the ECI requesting them to conduct polls for the nine seats. Eventually, Thackeray was elected unopposed on May 21. No one knows what transpired between Modi and Thackeray but the chief minister has been a livewire of action ever since.
A COVID-SIZED CHALLENGE
To be sure, no one expected any miracles from Thackeray or the state administration considering that Maharashtra, especially its capital, Mumbai, was a ticking time bomb of COVID-19. The more than 300 slums in Maximum City house eight million, or 45 per cent of the city’s population. Dharavi, its biggest slum, has 750,000 people in an area of 2.1 square kilometres. With several people crammed into tiny houses (some as tiny as 8 ft x 10 ft), ‘social distancing’ is near-impossible. “It is unfair to compare Mumbai with Delhi when it comes to handling the pandemic, because Mumbai has just a 10th of Delhi’s area,” says economist Ajit Ranade, a member of the Maharashtra government’s task force on reviving the state economy. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region has over 30 million people living in 6,355 sq. km, compared to the National Capital Region, where 46 million people live within 54,984 sq. km. “In that sense, Mumbai is more comparable to New York,” says Ranade. (See Viral Cities.) Even in a country like the US that has advanced healthcare, the number of cases and deaths has been high, he said, highlighting the challenges before the state government.
Political commentator Sudheendra Kulkarni also maintains that Thackeray cannot be held responsible for the stressed public health infrastructure as he has been in office only for six months. According to him, the three-party coalition government had to face its greatest test almost at birth. “If we look at the political uncertainty he faced and the stress on health which is the work of previous governments, I’d give Thackeray high marks,” he says.
Queue at Kasturba Hospital in Mumbai. Photo by Milind Shelte
A baby in Dharavi gets his temperature taken by a health worker in a hazmat suit
However, several of the state government’s decisions were also poorly implemented. Deputy CM Pawar had announced on March 21 that the poor would be given three months’ ration through the public distribution system. The decision, however, was implemented only on April 24. The government also failed to provide essential supplies in Mumbai’s containment zones. In Bandra (East), residents staying a stone’s throw from Matoshree say they have not got fresh vegetables for two months. “We purchase milk online but fresh vegetables are a distant dream,” says Prakash More, 46, a resident. The government-mandated centralised vegetable stalls instead of dispersing them. Such decisions led to crowding in public places, defeating the very purpose of the lockdown.
TAKING CHARGE, FINALLY
With his chief ministership secured and to counter the mounting criticism of his government’s handling of the pandemic in Mumbai, Thackeray began to move swiftly to stem the rot. On May 8, he replaced BMC commissioner Pardeshi, an IAS officer of the 1985 batch, with his junior I.S. Chahal, an officer from the 1987 batch. Chahal rose to the challenge with some quick decisions, including tying up with Uber to make 456 ambulances available on its platform (see Mumbai Shows the Way). Thackeray then proceeded to tackle the shortage of beds in the city and the rest of the state. The healthcare system was already stressed, there were only 69,000 beds in state-run and civic hospitals at the end of April for a population of 120 million, and 10,000 of these were for Covid patients. The number of Covid cases had crossed 41,000 with 1,454 deaths, and no sign of ‘flattening the curve’. Videos aired by the media showed a Covid ward in a major government hospital not just overflowing with patients but with the recently deceased lying next to those undergoing treatment.
In mid-May, Thackeray held an urgent video conference with the CEOs of private hospitals in Mumbai. Several of the major private hospitals had shut down as the epidemic thinned the ranks of their staff. The media was also full of stories of private hospitals charging COVID-19 patients exorbitant rates. Hours before the meeting, two top bureaucrats, health secretary Dr Pradeep Vyas and Dr Sudhakar Shinde, CEO of the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Arogya Yojana (MJPJAY), the state’s flagship health insurance scheme which provides free medical treatment, had sent the CM a list of hospitals that held huge cash surpluses.
At the meeting, Thackeray initially appealed to the CEOs to accept the state government’s proposal to treat COVID-19 patients in their hospitals at government-approved rates (roughly a 10th of private hospital fees). When they rejected his proposal, he raised questions about the large bank deposits of some of the hospitals. Cornered, the CEOs agreed to the proposal, leading the government to issue a notification on May 21, paring down treatment rates in private hospitals. The government also took control of over 900,000 hospital beds (private and public), including 8,500 ICU beds in 37,000 hospitals across the state.
Meanwhile, three decisions that Thackeray took, forming a state-level task force of 11 expert doctors, conducting death audits and preparing hospitals began to produce results. A task force led by former KEM Hospital dean Dr Sanjay Oak created protocols for treatment and clinical management that included types of treatments to be provided to different kinds of patients. It also had advice for doctors across the state on the line of treatment. The death audit helped find the gaps in treatment, revealing that around 35 per cent of the deaths were due to patients getting admitted to hospital at the last stage. An awareness programme to get patients in early for treatment helped. Maharashtra’s death rate had come down to 3.37 on May 31 against 7.5 mid-April. “The acceleration of disease has stopped. Had we not taken these measures, the number of cases would have reached 550,000,” claims Mehta.
Another area where Maharashtra has made progress is in the number of COVID-19 testing laboratories. From just two in March, their number stood at 77 on May 31. These laboratories were set up in 15 of the state’s 36 districts. In his Facebook address on May 31, Thackeray said the number will touch 100 by June-end. Encouragingly, the 72,300 cases on June 2 are half of what a central team visiting Mumbai and Pune at April-end had predicted. It had said the state would see 150,000 cases by May-end, going by the doubling rate of seven days for the disease at that time. “The numbers are less than predicted. That means the machinery is working,” says chief secretary Mehta.
A BATTLE FAR FROM OVER
Yet the battle is only half won and much more needs to be done in the health sector. On June 1, to the embarrassment of the government, an unidentified man in his 50s lay unattended for five days on the footpath outside the BMC-run King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital in Parel, an IV syringe in his left hand. The same day, Asma Mehendi, a pregnant 26-year-old resident of Mumbra on the outskirts of Mumbai, died in an auto-rickshaw after trying and failing to find an ambulance to take her to hospital. While investigating these cases, BMC’s Chahal assured: “The hospitals have told us they will take in all patients. If there are no beds available, patients will be placed in buffer zones, but no one will be turned away.” Chahal says he is not worried about the rising numbers as long as the administration is able to manage things. “Numbers should not scare us,” he maintains. “People should not die uncared [for] on the roads.”
Apart from Mumbai, cities like Pune and Malegaon are emerging as major areas of concern for the state administration. Pune has emerged as the state’s second largest hotspot, the number of Covid patients in the city has touched 7,000. But here, too, the recovery rate has gone up to 54.8 per cent while the mortality rate has come down from 10.03 per cent on April 15 to 4.8 per cent now. “There is no shortage of beds or ambulances. From the first day, we started reaching MoUs with private hospitals and are now freeing up ICU beds by moving patients with mild symptoms to other healthcare centres,” says Shekhar Gaikwad, commissioner of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). But it remains a long haul, with the administration’s claims often not matching up to reality.
In the densely populated town of Malegaon in north Maharashtra, infections are rising rapidly. “Malegaon has a population density of 19,000 people per sq. km, four times that of an average Indian city,” says Suraj Mandhare, collector and district magistrate of Nashik district. The sea of migrants walking along the Mumbai-Nashik highway to return to their hometowns also possibly contributed to the increase in the number of infections. Deputy Collector Nitin Mundaware, who is in charge of migrant rehabilitation, says shelters were set up in the district and the onward travel of migrant workers was facilitated by buses and trains. “We set up 29 shelters and helped 70,000 stranded migrant workers travel by buses and trains,” he says.
However, former CM Fadnavis continues to allege that there is no overall coordination among various government departments and that the state government has not made good use of the aid package of Rs 28,000 crore provided by the Centre. Transport minister Anil Parab, though, dubs this figure as “imaginary” and says the Union government helped with only Rs 6,649 crore and it has been utilised. What is cause for worry for the Shiv Sena, particularly in Mumbai, is the low morale of its cadre, especially after the death of their zonal head in Vile Parle, Shashikant Patkar. He apparently collapsed in hospital and died even before he was tested. Thackeray will need to focus on reinvigorating his party to do much more on the ground.
THE ECONOMIC CHALLENGE
The economic setback Maharashtra and Mumbai have suffered due to the COVID-19 lockdown is enormous. The commercial centres within Mumbai, including Nariman Point, Central Mumbai (Worli, Parel, Lower Parel, Prabhadevi and Dadar), Vikhroli, the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Andheri, Goregaon and part of Navi Mumbai, saw near-zero activity. Mumbai houses some of the country’s largest corporate groups, including Tata, Aditya Birla, Mahindra, Godrej, RPG Enterprises, Hinduja and JSW, all of whom stopped production of non-essential goods, and created work from home options for those in administrative and IT functions. “The top lines of companies have become zero,” says Seshagiri Rao, joint MD of JSW Steel, which has four manufacturing plants in Maharashtra, at Dolvi, Tarapur, Vasind and Kalmeshwar. The only silver lining, as D.K. Joshi, chief economist with Crisil, points out is that the “rural areas of Maharashtra have been less impacted by the pandemic. So even if big centres are affected, technically, the units in rural areas can open”. However, since manufacturing has complex linkages with other units, some of which operate from the red zones, industry was in near-paralysis for two months.
To revive industrial units, experts say the state and the Centre should start paying all pending bills. Government-owned firms owe Rs 5 lakh crore to the MSME sector. There is a case for supporting businesses with cash, since those who have suffered losses will not be in a position to take fresh loans. Income tax refunds need to be given early instead of waiting till September to issue refund certificates. Ditto with GST refunds. “Parts of the economy will revive if infrastructure starts quickly. Moreover, spending is likely to be higher when the economy reopens due to pent-up demand,” says Ranade.
Joshi feels Maharashtra should manage economic activity along with the virus. This can be done through better social distancing protocols and awareness. It will mean higher costs of production, but will still be better than keeping economic activity completely shut down, “because then it won’t recover”. Former CM Prithviraj Chavan says the state and central government should present the budget again with revised outlays. “The state government needs to prioritise its expenses. Even if the industry is operational, there will be no demand for luxury items,” he says. He feels the government needs to pay people cash to bolster their spending capacity. “It should also offer sops like concession in taxes and waiving land rent to the industry.”
Thackeray is aware that economic recovery is as important as flattening the curve of infections in the state. Borrowing a line from freedom-fighter Lokmanya Tilak, he announced ‘Mission Begin Again’ on May 31. In the first phase, from June 3, outdoor physical activities like cycling, jogging, running in open public spaces have been allowed between 5 am to 7 pm. In phase two, from June 5, all markets, except malls and market complexes, were allowed to open between 9 am and 5 pm. In the third phase, from June 8, all private offices can be opened with 10 per cent strength. However, schools, colleges, educational training and coaching institutes, metro, rail, cinema halls, theatres, gyms, swimming pools and auditoriums will stay shut. While these are good measures, in the months ahead, Thackeray will have to work even harder and seek the help of his cabinet colleagues and the Centre apart from the cooperation of the people. As even Kulkarni, otherwise a staunch critic of the Shiv Sena’s policies, says, “Thackeray has become inclusive and dynamic after forming the government. He is earnest and communicative.” In that perhaps lies the hope of the state getting back on its feet again.