Over the last few weeks of the lockdown, I was operating from a place of evaluating the government’s performance. Given the amount of information and analysis we have access to in these times, it seems easy to pass judgment on the government. It is also possible to forget the complexity within which the system functions. For example, the fact that the Indian government is not a monolithic system but is comprised of many diverse institutions at the center, state and local level coordinating the response is often overlooked in my day-to-day reactions. However, listening to government stakeholders in The Open Field (a weekly virtual learning space organized by Co.lab^x) helped me build more empathy for the government and a deeper perspective on the problem confronting us.
Thanks to a partnership between Co.lab^x and Indus Action, I had the opportunity to listen to four IAS officers who have been working closely in/with the government to help with the response to COVID19. The edition of The Open Field on 18th April brought together these diverse individuals:
- Abhishek Singh (IAS 1995) — CEO MyGov and CEO National e-governance division, Government of India
- Urvashi Prasad — Policy Specialist at NITI Aayog, Government of India
- Snehil Kumar (IAS 2016) — Sub-Collector, Fort Kochi, Kerala
- Saloni Rai (IAS 2016) — Collector and District Magistrate, Diu
Listening to the dialogue, I realized:
Government officers are humans, like me
We put people on a pedestal just because of the formal position they hold with the government. We think they are less affected by the effects of the lockdown than an average citizen with a similar background. As I was listening to them, the one thing that stood out to me was their situation was no different than my own. On the contrary, it was similar to any other essential worker. I have the option to pause to take care of myself when I need to, but their work is so critical that they cannot rest until the urgent challenges are behind them.
Each of them shared how the government was stretched for human and material resources and was looking for support to be able to solve the urgent crisis at hand. Snehil candidly shared in his closing remarks that he has not taken a day off since the crisis started and was looking forward to the day he could. Abhishek shared how he had struggles with finding enough rooms for all the family members to continue their work online. When I saw the people beyond their designations, I could see they are human beings just like I am. I could empathize with their predicament.
Our concerns are their concerns too
Personal struggles aside, the speakers covered a wide array of challenges they were trying to address. They ranged from the more urgent ones like the crisis faced by migrant workers, the spread of misinformation, reopening the economy after lockdown, to more systemic ones like strengthening the primary health system, supporting small and medium scale enterprises, etc. Yes, some states have done better than other states, just like some nations have done better than other nations. Yet, it was comforting to know that the intention of all the people within the different government institutions was to alleviate the very problems that are on top of the common man’s mind.
Innovation and collaboration are key
Knowing a concern is different from solving one. We expect the government officials to have all the answers and the capacity to act but the reality of this crisis is that they don’t have either. This crisis is massive and unprecedented. No one knows what the best course of action is. Therefore, the need to innovate and collaborate was evident in all their chosen approaches.
For example, Abhishek shared how his organization MyGov was working closely with the government to help disseminate the correct factual information. The platforms that they had created were only possible due to rapid collaboration between the government, public health professionals, technology partners, etc. Snehil shared how community kitchens were used in many parts of Kerela with the help of local Panchayats, State Government Bodies, Civil Society Organizations, and the citizens to help migrants in need.
Small things matter
Besides organizational support, I think the speakers were unanimous in sharing how each of us has a role to play in solving the crisis. Saloni shared that the stronger we are right now in our resolve, the faster we emerge out of the crisis. Urvashi said that everything you can do in your capacity matters.
Some examples of the small things highlighted by the speakers were:
- Rely on authentic news sources in the print media or using the official channels — don’t trust news on social media as the gospel truth
- Support COVID19 patients or other medical professionals working with COVID19 patients, and do not stigmatize them or their communities
- Practicing distancing and follow all precautions based on the recommendations of your ward or district officials
- Support people you know who are in need of essentials, like food
In conclusion, I think it is important to not see the problem as the government’s to solve but see ourselves as a part of the problem and the solution. If we can hold the microscope on the government while holding the mirror to ourselves, we may see the end to the crisis sooner.
My post is not as much about the contents of the learning space itself, as it is about my reflections. The post is based on the comments of the four speakers and captures a glimpse of the government effort. Lastly, it is also not an endorsement of any political party’s effort.
If you are feeling curious to know more about the learning space, do check out the scribing by Neha during the session (below) as well as the video of the talk on Youtube if you want to explore the complete content. You can also read Snehil’s blogpost on the Coronavirus Response in his state.
If you are interested in getting involved with directly supporting the government efforts, MyGov also has a tool for citizens to volunteer in government efforts, share suggestions and ideas, and share solutions with the government.
Here are my other posts about reflections from The Open Field: