Mumbai Municipal Commissioner transferred as COVID-19 cases increase sharply

Published : May 09, 2020 15:11 IST

Former Mumbai Municipal Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi (right) at Poddar Hospital to inspect the arrangements for the COVID-19 ward on April 16. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

More than 40 days of lockdown, and Mumbai has 12,167 COVID-19 positive cases and 463 COVID-related deaths. The number of cases are still increasing and the lockdown may be extended. The pressures on Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray are huge. Something had to be done and since there is little scope in the actual war against the virus, there had to be a token gesture. What more obvious action than sacking the man in charge? And so, Praveen Pardeshi, Municipal Commissioner since May 2019 with 29 years of service and a good record in disaster management, has been posted to the Urban Development Department. He has been replaced by Iqbal Chahal, a 1989 batch officer who was in charge of the Urban Development Department.

So why was a man with good governance credentials removed from his post? It is understood that he has been made a scapegoat. Pardeshi’s transfer is being made out to be just one more IAS transfer but of course it is not. Thackeray has been put in a spot by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The number of COVID cases has been rising, that is the natural course of the disease, but the BJP is using that politically to challenge Thackeray. Thackeray had to be seen to be doing something, and it had to be big.

Pardeshi was the Collector of Latur when the massive earthquake hit the town in 1993. He focussed on rescue and relief operations and was commended for his work by the UNICEF and Medicines Sans Frontiers. He was noted for his innovative and compassionate thinking—orphaned children were found foster homes within the villages and not sent away to alien places. To protect their land rights, property laws were amended so that land was safe until the orphans attained legal age. Homes were designed according to the villagers’ needs so that cattle sheds were nearby and grain was stored within the house. People were educated about seismic construction principles and taught to build their own homes. The World Bank later took on this model for their rehabilitation housing programme.

After Latur, Pardeshi became a disaster management expert. He went on to become Global Head of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Geneva Post Conflict Recovery Unit and Senior Co-ordinator, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction for Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, working on policies that aimed at mainstreaming disaster reduction in development programmes. He also implemented post-conflict recovery programmes in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan, Angola, Congo, Nepal and Ivory Coast.

During the pandemic, Pardeshi has been de-populating slums so that physical distancing becomes more of a possibility. Huge quarantine centres have been set up all over the city. Fever clinics outside containment zones help survey potential cases. Retired medical personnel have been asked to come back, private hospitals and doctors have been roped in and a cap has been put on private hospital fees so as to help COVID-19 patients. These are just some of the actions he has initiated. He has also pushed himself and his staff to work long hours.

There is one slip-up though that Pardeshi seems to have made. He reversed the orders given by the Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta (his predecessor at the Municipal Corporation) regarding the opening up of liquor shops. This was a watershed in Mumbai’s lockdown with thousands of people breaking health safety laws. The order was reversed by the end of the day but as an experiment it backfired badly. It gave the anti-government lobby a strong handle to say the crisis was being badly handled.

The days leading up to May 8 were tense for Mumbai. Increasing numbers of positive cases, the possibility of the lockdown extending into June and rumours that the Army may be called in led to the usual surge in panic purchases. When Thackeray addressed the public on May 8, he needed to focus on where the government was going with the lockdown measures and the medical status of the State. While he did present the calm and measured demeanour that he is now recognised for, he did not present a path forward. In a largely weak speech, he focussed on the repatriation of migrant workers to their home States and the tragedy near Aurangabad where 16 migrant workers were run over by a freight train. He assured people that the Army was not being called in but also said the police were exhausted and he may ask the Centre for help. What he did not do was focus on the pandemic and the government’s plan of further action, which is what the people were waiting to hear.

In a way, there was nothing new to say on the pandemic except that the numbers were rising. This in itself was a pointer that a change of plan was required. While additional testing, preparation of quarantine facilities, and so on were welcome, they were not solutions. The government was being reactive and not proactive. In a sense, it is being led by the nose when the people want it to take charge.

A good takeaway from the happenings of May 8 would be for the government to take a proactive step on the medical aspect of the virus. There are enough respected medical professionals who have been saying that a lockdown is not the answer to the virus.

From the government’s point of view, taking a bold step such as opening up might be seen as political suicide. Certainly, the number of cases will surge. But they are surging anyway. Whether or not the larger public will respond positively to this thinking is anyone’s guess. For politicians it means taking a chance, but the clutch of power is perhaps too strong for any bold initiative to be taken.

The BJP will be hoping that Thackeray will weave his own shroud. The Centre continues to be the big boy in the game. It has a one-point agenda to destabilize the Maharashtra government and so it has been throwing a spanner in the works wherever possible. It has not provided trains to take migrant workers back to their home States despite Maharashtra asking for this since early April. It has delayed testing kits and PPEs for the State and has been silent when the government asked it for extra funding on an emergency basis. These are all ways in which the Centre is turning the screws on the Maha Vikas Aghadi and politicising a public health crisis. Removing Pardeshi was just a part of this game.

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