Mysterious are the ways of Indian bureaucracy. One would expect them to pull together, abandoning petty politics and intrigue, in the unprecedented times we are in, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. But that’s like asking for the moon, it seems.
How else to explain the transfer on May 8 of Praveen Pardeshi, Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, India’s most populous city and commercial hub which is home to some 18 million people, about 55 percent of whom live in slums. Mumbai is also capital of Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised
Pardeshi swapped jobs with Iqbal Chahal in Maharashtra’s urban development department. Ever since the national lockdown March 24 onwards – now extended to May 17 – Covid-19 cases
have been rising in Mumbai. On May 10, Mumbai recorded 875 cases, taking the city’s total to 13,564. And, with 19 patients dying on May 10, the city’s death toll rose to 508. Many patches of this 603-sq km, densely populated (21,000 people/sq km) port city on India’s west coast have now been marked out as Coronavirus ‘hotspots’.
Praveen Pardeshi had good credentials to lead Mumbai’s fight against Covid-19, having successfully handled a crisis of global proportions in Maharashtra years ago as a young civil servant. In September 1993, as Collector or chief of Maharashtra’s Latur district, Pardeshi had won appreciation for overseeing relief and rehabilitation efforts after a devastating earthquake hit the region, killing some 10,000 people and injuring 30,000.
It was here that I first met him, as an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent covering the earthquake. After an almost non-stop 480-km drive eastwards (in a hired car with driver) from Mumbai, I reached Latur, and one of my first visits was to the collector’s office for inputs to file my
Pardeshi updated me on the situation and, hearing that I had just arrived by road from Mumbai, very kindly offered – and I willingly accepted – to accommodate me in his large government bungalow in Latur. Thanks to this courtesy, I could begin filing stories right away instead of having to look for a hotel in earthquake-hit Latur city, and got a valuable head start over the competition. We kept in touch over the years and also met in Gujarat, while he was part of the relief and rehabilitation efforts after the January 2001 Bhuj earthquake which also I was reporting for AFP.
In May 2019, then Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, as head of the state’s previous BJP-Shiv Sena party government, appointed Pardeshi as Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner, to head the city government – India’s richest – with an annual budget of Rs30,600cr (US$4.4bn). One of his first tasks was to turn around Mumbai’s loss-making public bus transport system which used to carry some 4.5 million passengers daily in 2004-05 but was now down to 2.2 million despite adding more buses over this period. Passengers preferred sharing more expensive rides in private taxis and autorickshaws. So, bus fares were slashed 50 percent, air-conditioned mini buses were introduced between office/residential clusters and the nearest suburban train/subway stations. Within five months daily bus passengers increased some 65 percent to 3.4 million. For the first time in years, bus inspectors did not have to stand outside train stations and use loudhailers to cajole passengers to ride public transport buses.
When the BJP lost power and its former ally now turned foe Shiv Sena took charge of Maharashtra in November 2019, heading a coalition with former foes now turned allies Congress and NCP parties, Pardeshi was retained as Mumbai city chief. Usually, a new government appoints bureaucrats of its choice to important jobs such as heads of the police or administration in Mumbai. So, why was Pardeshi removed in the midst of Mumbai’s fight against Coronavirus? Whispers are that he was a victim of bureaucratic intrigue that focused on Mumbai’s rising Covid-19 numbers. As a senior bureaucrat once told me, half in jest: “Show me the man and I will show you the rule”, to illustrate how caprice often dictates how bosses deal with subordinates. Whispers are also that he was hobbled by the three sets of political bosses from the state’s three-party ruling
coalition. Perhaps Shiv Sena boss and Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has the answer!
(Madhu Nainan is a senior journalist-editor based in Mumbai)