Mumbai is without doubt one of the most difficult places on the planet to administer. The city is a veritable tinderbox and is any administrator’s nightmare. It has a population of 20.66 million people, and is saddled with a population density which is 10 times that of Manhattan in New York City. Almost 40% of its population lives in slums and the challenge is now compounded with a raging Covid 19 pandemic. Yet the situation was brought under control in a remarkable way.
At the helm of affairs of this mean achievement is Maharashtra’s first time Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. He has successfully managed the pandemic which in most of parts of the world would have resulted in a municipal catastrophe.
In order to understand the scale of Uddhav Thackeray’s accomplishment, it is necessary to understand the hugely disadvantageous demographics of Mumbai city. According to the World Population Review Report published in 2021, the population of Mumbai grew 7 times over from the year 1950 to its present 21 million. Over 9 million people (41.3% of the population) are living in slums where the population density is high and sanitation facilities sparse. Another challenge is that one of the world’s largest slum clusters, Dharavi, is located in the heart of the city where one million people live in a 2.5 sq.km area. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi.
Uddhav Thackeray and his administration has not just managed to control, but has substantially contained the spread of the pandemic. To achieve this, his administration had the foresight to see the second wave coming and accordingly provisions were made for the logistics, medical care facilities, oxygen and medicines on an immense scale.
Unlike many part of India, there had been no deaths in Mumbai due to oxygen shortage. For Mumbai, oxygen problems were history. While in many parts with the exception of Kerala, administrations were caught napping with their hospitals desperately struggling for oxygen supplies as the body count began ripping through the statistical stratosphere. This was achieved because Maharashtra’s farsighted administration had anticipated the second wave and had created buffer stocks of oxygen, seamless distribution systems and optimum utilization of available oxygen.
Even by global standards, all this is a mean achievement. It illustrates, how Uddhav Thackeray the administrator, efficiently administers. He has a style of governance befitting the demands of a scientific response to conquer a raging pandemic. He goes by the advice of a renowned and experienced medical team. He has bureaucrats like Iqbal Singh Chahal at the helm of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. He relies on an efficient set of bureaucrats who are chosen not for their slavishness, but for their competence.
Importantly, he allows them administrative free play. To illustrate, Iqbal Chahal recounted the challenge of the long night intervening April 16-17 which had kept the administration on the edge. As the oxygen supplies began dipping, 168 patients were evacuated in an emergency operation from Mumbai’s six civic hospitals and rushed in cardiac ambulances to the city’s jumbo Covid care facilities. The transition happened without a single casualty.
Uddhav, always chooses to speak directly to his people. He speaks in Marathi. He speaks in a sincere paternal tone and is forever composed and self assured. He presents the difficult facts honestly, because he understands and respects the maturity of his constituency. And Maharashtra is assured that they will hear the truth from their leader. The covid figures in Maharstra are often unfairly labeled as large by his detractors. That is because Maharashtra, unlike many states, is actually engaged in large scale testing and is making the figures public. It requires extreme courage for a politician to not just get the correct information, but to also transmit the same to his constituents.
He is transparent and shuns obfuscation. This character is innate in Uddhav Thackeray, for he does not fear facts. It is here where his strength lies. He understands that to deal head on against this tidal wave of the pandemic, he needs to get very correct information. By stark contrast, various Chief Ministers like that of Uttar Pradesh were engaged in overt and covert cover up operations resulting in death rates which would shock the senses of even medieval societies.
Uddhav is by nature a gentleman. He has a benign presence and displays an unusually large reservoir of patience for a politician who is facing a garrulous and an abrasive opposition often acting in tandem with the Central government. One journalist attributed his patience to his training as a wildlife photographer where the wait can last for hours for the animal to show up. He does not react to the orchestrations of his opponents. These are to him, unnecessary and irrelevant digressions. Though, this does not deter him from firing the fusillade when the situation or politics demands.
Uddhav is forever in the administrative mode. He is after all the Chief Minister manning India’s financial capital and India’s number one industrial state. To maintain the State’s top position, he adheres to governance and does not yield to the temptations of frivolous public relations exercises. He is conscious of his larger mission, that of ensuring the safe passage of his people caught in the middle of the most dangerous pandemic. So he is in relentless preparation to enable Maharashtra to face the third wave, by creating even more jumbo facilities, installing oxygen plants, and has ramped up the bed strength six times to a stupendous 3 lakh plus isolation beds.
Serious governance and competent administration is what Maharashtra wants and that is what Uddhav Thackeray delivers to the state and its people.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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