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Monday, April 06, 2020

Street-level officials in India's Covid-19 response

by Smriti Parsheera.

In a federal union of 28 States and 9 Union Territories, divided into over 700 Districts, translating policies into effective implementation is testing in the best of times. But when a country of 1.3 billion people comes to a near halt, as witnessed after the Prime Minister's announcement of a 21 day lockdown, the implementation challenge becomes all the more significant. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks remind us that policy outcomes are determined not just by decision-makers sitting in the corridors of power in the Central and State Governments but also by the street-level officials who intermediate the everyday relationship between the citizen and the State.

The term "street-level bureaucrats" was coined by Michael Lipsky in 1980 to describe the host of front-line public workers who interact directly with citizens, often enjoying a substantial level of discretion in the execution of their functions (Lipsky, 2010). In the present context, this includes various district-level officials, police officers, social workers and other members of the local administration, all of whom have have become the first point of contact between the individual and the State's constantly evolving response to the Covid-19 crisis (See Shah & Misra, 2020). In Lipsky's analysis, street-level workers often lack the time, information, or other resources that are necessary to properly respond to individual cases. They therefore invent their own devices "to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become(ing) the public policies they carry out." (Lipsky, 2010). In the present situation, these pressures would include shortage of staff and protective equipment, while facing greater risks of exposure; uncertainty about the course of the virus and the policy response; and reports of attacks faced by health workers and police personnel while discharging their functions.

The Covid-19 situation has many of the ingredients of what Kelkar & Shah (2019) define as a "hard policy problem" -- problems that involve some combination of a high level of discretion, a high number of transactions, high stakes and high secrecy. Three of these four sources of complexity are present in the lockdown.

The stakes involved are high on account of the challenges posed to the life, health, livelihood and liberty of citizens.

The response involves a fairly large volume of transactions, including provision of health care services, tracing and isolating contacts, and ensuring adherence with quarantine and lockdown conditions.

In some cases, Government policies have reduced the level of discretion that might have otherwise been available to front-line actors. For instance, stating that only those who meet the specified inclusion criteria will be eligible for testing reduces the discretion in the hands of doctors and testing centres. However, as we illustrate ahead, there are many transactions where the officials on the ground enjoy a substantial degree of discretion in the implementation of the stated policy.

Role of street-level officials in the lockdown

To implement the lockdown, various States have issued regulations and orders under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, imposing restrictions on the operation of establishments and movement of people. At many places, orders have also been issued under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC). This provision allows District Magistrates and Sub-divisional Magistrates to "direct any person to abstain from a certain act or to take certain order with respect to certain property in his possession" if this is required for reasons of health, safety, public order, etc. These measure prohibit individuals from stepping outside their homes unless it is for providing or availing an essential service, and from assembling in groups. A list of essential services, which includes groceries, hospitals, chemists, e-commerce services, etc., has been indicated in the orders.

While the letter of the orders might seem to make it clear as to what are the permitted and restricted activities, every police officer who encounters a potential detractor on the street gets to make some important choices. The officer will decide whether the person should be heard and, if appropriate, left off with a reprimand. Should legal action be initiated for violation of Section 144 of the CrPC or relevant provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Indian Penal Code? Or, as seen in several reports from the initial days of the lockdown, should violators be given an instant taste of the law through the use of brute force and humiliating physical punishments? While it may be easy, and legitimate, to classify these actions as forms of State violence, it is also important to recognise them as the actions of individual actors (acting on behalf of the State).

Visuals of overcrowded boarding points and packed buses carrying stranded migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have been a stark reminder of the gap between the policy messaging on mandatory social distancing and the ground reality. What role did the officials on the ground play, or should have played, in this process?

In a symbolic distancing of the policy from the implementation, the Ministry of Home Affairs reacted with the suspension of certain officials in Delhi who were held to be responsible for the lapses. The Ministry also passed an order imposing a country-wide ban on further movements of migrant workers. This order mandates State Governments to provide food and shelter to those in need and quarantine facilities for migrants arriving from outside. Again, there are bound to be many differences in the ways in which this order will be implemented by the police and local administrators in different parts of the country. For instance, some areas may still permit movements under exigent circumstances or allow relaxations for those who are already in transit. Similarly, the facilities available at the shelters, including regard for the differential sanitation and safety needs of women, will also be determined at the ground level.

Front-line officials are also playing an important role in determining the attitude towards individuals coming from outside the region or those who have had contact with coronavirus patients. Are they to be regarded as "Covid-19 suspects" who will be shunned and disinfected, as seen in the Bareilly town of Uttar Pradesh? Or are they just individuals who face a higher risk of infection and therefore need specific monitoring and care? The local administration in Himachal Pradesh has, for instance, tried to adopt the latter approach but, like in many other parts of the country, this comes with insufficient checks to safeguard individual privacy.

The author's own, admittedly privileged, interaction with the local administration in District Kullu of Himachal has been that the authorities are in regular touch with those placed under home quarantine. This includes phone calls and visits from teams consisting of doctors, the local police, ASHA workers, panchayat members and land revenue officials. Without exception, the interactions have been courteous and reflect a sense of responsibility towards ensuring the health of the individual and the community. These positive steps are, however, marred by the awareness that the personal data of the travellers, like their name, phone number, address, etc., is being freely circulated on local WhatsApp groups. Similar reports have also emerged from places like Delhi, Nagpur and Ajmer. While some States, like Karnataka, are deliberating pushing out this data, the violations in many other cases are more likely the result of indiscreet sharing by those who gained access to the data in the course of their official functions. Given that India's legal and enforcement framework around data protection remains deficient, urging local officials to prevent the dissemination of this information might be the most effective check at this point.

Finally, a number of street-level actors will also have to step in to ensure that the relief measures announced by the Finance Minister actually end up reaching the intended beneficiaries, in a fair and timely manner. To the extent that these benefits have been tied to existing schemes, functionaries like operators of fair price shops and gas distributors under the Ujjwala scheme, who discharge public official-like functions, will be responsible for intermediating access to the promised entitlements. Through the last decade, the focus of systems like Aadhaar has been on increasing accountability and reducing the discretion available to such front-line actors. The Covid-19 crisis might, however, be a time to temporarily suspend the insistence on precise targeting through technical tools, even if this leads to some increase in the discretion available to street-level officials.

The way forward

The examples given above illustrate how officials who may not traditionally be regarded as "policymakers" have a profound impact on the ways in which most Indians will navigate their lives in the coming months. How we come out of this unprecedented crisis will depend not just on the government’s policies, its available resources and citizens' cooperation but also the individual choices made by various front-line actors. Policy design for Covid-19 should take this into account, applaud the role of street-level officials, and compel them to act in ways that are compassionate and preserving of individual dignity. This perspective would be a useful addition to the Prime Minister's public addresses, the text of official orders, all the way to local coordination meetings at the district level. Traditional and social media also need to play a more responsible role in bringing out both the violence being inflicted by the authorities, as well as the positive stories of compassion and care shown by some front-line workers.

Recognising the complexities of implementation at the ground level is one element of better planning. It is a reminder that loose wording of legal instruments, of the kind that we often see in India, can end up resulting in unplanned and undesirable outcomes, from the perspective of policymakers and the public. Therefore, instead of treating the implementation stage as something that is distinct from policy planning, the planning process itself needs to account for the challenges of policy-making in high-stakes, discretionary and transaction-intensive scenarios. While this may not always be possible because, as noted by Pritchett & Woolcock (2004), practices that are discretionary and transaction-intensive in nature are by definition not amenable to be standardised and (easily) replicated, policy-makers should try to anticipate the incentives and actions of front-line agents, to the best extent possible.

Another appropriate response to the present crisis would be to initiate a systematic review of the legal framework under which the various elements of the current policy actions have been taken. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which has been the basis of the Covid-19 response by many State Governments, is a case in point. It is a skeletal legislation that consists of only five sections including one that allows the State Government to take any measures to prevent the outbreak, or spread, of a "dangerous epidemic disease", a term that is not defined under the law (Kaur, 2020). In fact, the law does very little other than specifying the broad powers of the Government, immunity for any of its actions, and legal consequences for non compliance. In particular, it does not define the scope of the measures that may be prescribed under it or lay down requirements like adherence to basic human rights, proportionality of adopted measures, transparency, accountability or redress mechanisms. A few years back the Central Government had initiated a move to replace this law with the proposed Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Act, 2017. Critics were, however, of the view that the proposed draft remained equally deficient in most respects (Rao, 2017). Similarly, there is a need to develop standard operating procedures on the acceptable conduct of police forces in times of public health emergencies, and incorporating these in police training programmes.

We recognise that the monopoly on violence, and not compassion, is at the essence of the State. This makes it all the more important to push for appropriate checks and balances in the exercise of any emergency powers by the State. When it comes to the role of street-level officials, their actions are motivated not only by the directions issued by the State but also by the incentives, uncertainties, pressures and threats faced by them. Better policy planning should account for these factors and address them while designing the policy response.


Kelkar & Shah, 2019: Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy, Penguin Allen Lane, 2019.

Kaur, 2020: Harleen Kaur, Can the Indian legal framework deal with the Covid-19 pandemic? A review of the Epidemic Diseases Act, Bar and Bench, March 27, 2020.

Lipsky, 2010: Michael Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, 30th Ed., Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 2010.

Pritchett & Woolcock: Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, Solutions When the Solution is the Problem: Arraying the Disarray in Development, World Development, 32(2), 2004, 191–212.

Rao, 2017: Menka Rao, A new bill on public health emergencies allows for dubious restrictions of citizens' liberties, Scroll, March 31, 2017.

Shah & Misra, 2020: Kadambari Shah and Prakhar Misra, Covid-19: Importance of street-level bureaucracy to fight the pandemic, Moneycontrol, April 6, 2020.

Smriti Parsheera is a lawyer and technology policy researcher. She would like to thank Ajay Shah and Rudra Chaudhuri, and an anonymous referee, for valuable inputs.

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