Pandemic dismantles Nitish Kumar’s twin myths of good governance and Bihar’s double-engine government

Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar after inaugurating Jaiprabha Medanta Super Speciality Hospital in Patna, on 30 October 2021. The Bihar government’s mismanagement during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic busts the twin myths of Kumar as susashan babu, and of the supposed efficiency of the double-engine government. Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
31 December, 2021

On 30 April, the district hospital in Bihar Sharif, the headquarters of Nalanda district, did not have any beds for COVID-19 patients. There was no ICU, no ventilator or oxygen. The hospital staff told me that they were only collecting samples of COVID-19 suspects which would be sent to the Vardhman Institute of Medical Science that was about thirty kilometres away. VIMS had the only laboratory for testing COVID-19 samples. I met patients suspected of having COVID-19 at the district hospital who had not got their test results even a week after they were swabbed. They would come and check with the staff there every day, they told me.

At least three kilometres from the district hospital is the Beedi Hospital which served as a Dedicated COVID Health Centre. The government had claimed in court that the hospital had “assured oxygen” equipped beds to treat moderate cases. The hospital had a capacity of over 500 beds and yet there were hardly two dozen patients admitted. Veena Prabha, a nodal officer there, told me the entire hospital had been non-functional until a week before. “I fixed the entire place, got staff to arrange some beds and then oxygen cylinders,” Prabha told me.  She said the hospital was only for moderate cases and if any patient turned “severe,” the hospital would refer them to VIMS, 30 kilometres away with no regular transportation available. Prabha, however, was happy that at least oxygen had been arranged by the government. But patients at the Beedi Hospital had other complaints. They told me the doctor came to see them only once in 24 hours. They also had to carry their own cylinders if they needed another one.

On 1 May, when I visited VIMS, I could not see a single doctor in the COVID-19 ward. Nurses would change patients’ saline drips or distribute medicines every now and then but patients’ attendants told me that doctors never visited them. The government had claimed, in a hearing at the Patna High Court, that VIMS would have a functional oxygen plant by 1 May. The hospital set up its oxygen plant only at the end of May. When I was there at the beginning of the month, paramedic staff told me that there were no anaesthetists or technicians to even operate the ventilators. The government had claimed in court on 16 April that VIMS had 14 functioning ventilators. However, on 30 April, the health department invited private hospitals to take the ventilators for their own use. Mangal Pandey, Bihar’s health minister, said that the government could not hire suitable anaesthetists even after three rounds of recruitment. The move put critical COVID-19 care further out of reach of people who could not afford private hospitals.

During my two hour stay at VIMS, I saw two patients dying of COVID-19. The hospital had handed over their bodies to their relatives without following protocol. The bodies were not wrapped in white sheet and were carried bare to personal vehicles by the families. The episodes at the three hospitals in Bihar Sharif in the middle of the second pan-India coronavirus wave demonstrated the failures of Nitish Kumar’s government, both administrative and political.

Rural Bihar is worse off with fewer health facilities than even the dysfunctional ones at Bihar Sharif. Before the 2015 and 2020 state legislative elections Kumar set out a personal political agenda called the saat nischay—the seven determinations. In both he promised to improve the health facilities at panchayat and sub division level. In 2020, it mentioned that, “facilities at primary health care centre, community health care centre, sub division hospital and district hospital will be improved and expanded.”

Health statistics, however, show that rural infrastructure has barely grown since 2005, when Kumar first became chief minister, and in some cases has worsened. On 14 April, union ministry of family and health welfare released an annual report on Rural Health Statistics. According to the report, the number of health centres and hospitals in the rural areas did not see any significant increase from the beginning of 2005. The data showed that the number of sub centres, primary health care centres and community health care centres changed from 10337, 1648 and 101 respectively in 2005, to 9112, 1702 and 57 respectively in 2020. Sub centres are the most basic arrangement manned by a nurse in a rural area—a first point of contact in health system and a link between PHCs and CHCs. The data revealed the sub centres and community health care centres decreased over the last 15 years. The RHS data shows only a minimal growth in the number of primary health care centres. This serves to underline the fact that the deterioration of health care system during the second wave was not only due to a disproportionate rise into the number of patients but a systemic failure of the government over a decade.

Between April and May, when Bihar suffered among the worst ravages of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patna High Court conducted a string of court hearings to review the state government’s COVID-19 prevention and management strategy. Fifteen hearings and several affidavits that bureaucrats submitted to the court illustrate how the Bihar government mismanaged hospital beds, oxygen and ventilator availability, hospital staffing, public messaging and data about deaths throughout the second wave. The government’s  rare positive moves were only prompted by court orders. The proceedings also emphasise how the Bihar officials  frequently lied to the courts about their pandemic preparation in an attempt to hide  mismanagement. I have detailed the recurrent maladministration and lies told under oath by various Bihar government officials during the proceedings in a previous report for The Caravan.

This systemic mismanagement runs contrary to the image Kumar has groomed among the media and his political allies—one of a development-oriented technocrat who has successfully pulled Bihar out of poverty. News stories often present Kumar as susashan babu, a rare efficient politician who hauled Bihar out of the morass of misgovernance. However, Kumar’s administration failed at multiple pointes in its handling of the second COVID-19 wave, which also exposed structural weaknesses in health infrastructure and bureaucratic inefficiency. Kumar and his government appeared either incapable or uninterested in providing basic medical necessities and spent much of their time advertising false claims to the media, judiciary and electorate.

Kumar was re-elected as chief minister of Bihar for the fifth time in November 2020. The Bihar government is a coalition between the Janata Dal (United), which is Kumar’s party, and the BJP.  Kumar’s election campaigns and reportage often assert that Bihar has a “double engine government,”—a claim that it produces better results for the state because it is allied to the ruling party of the Indian government. This assertion too was largely proven untrue during the second wave as the state and union government coordinated very poorly on oxygen supply and virus containment measures, to the disastrous detriment of Bihar’s populace.

Kumar regularly attended meetings with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, about state and union government responses to the pandemic. On his Twitter account, Kumar said that meetings with Modi on 24 November 2020 and 11 January 2021 were about COVID-19 vaccinations. He did not give details about his third meeting with Modi on 17 March but only posted pictures of the meeting. On the day, the prime minister had asked all chief ministers to be alert to the possibility of a second wave. Modi had pointed to a rise in cases of above 150 percent in 70 districts in just a few weeks. But COVID-19 spiked in Bihar just after this meeting. From 436 active cases on 20 March, the count was 1,579 on 31 March.

Kumar’s alliance with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party seems to work against protecting people during the second wave, particularly by discouraging the early use of a lockdown. Bihar’s health minister is Mangal Pandey, a BJP legislator. In the 15-year-old coalition between Nitish and the BJP, the health portfolio has always been with a BJP legislator. Pandey had twice told journalists, on 31 March and 6 April, that there was “no need of lockdown” and that the situation was “not alarming.”

On 11 April, when cases had increased nearly ten-fold, to 14,695, Pandey repeated that the situation was “not alarming” and that there was “no need of lockdown yet.” Pandey instead argued that the number of confirmed cases had only increased because testing had intensified. The Bihar government’s aversion towards lockdowns seems to be an effect of Modi’s own stance following the unpopular and violently enforced first national lockdown. On 8 April, for example, Modi held another virtual meeting on the COVID-19 situation with chief ministers where he warned of the fast growth in infections but only suggested smaller “containment zones,” and not lockdowns. The heavily advertised “double engine government” appears to have been a major impediment to the Bihar’s government’s ability to quickly react to the sudden rise of the second-wave.

After an all-party meeting on the COVID-19 crisis under the chairmanship of the governor on 16 April, Kumar promised that some of the many suggestions made by the opposition would be considered and implemented. But he went on to ignore all the suggestions and calls for further all-party meetings.  Kunal, the state secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said, “Nitish has made it [lockdown] a personal matter. The governor called an all-party meeting and since then there has been none. It’s an undemocratic government. It doesn’t take inclusive decisions.”

On 15 April, after seeing news reports of COVID-19 patients unable to find hospital beds or oxygen, the Patna High Court invoked its constitutional power of judicial review of the government’s actions to safeguard the citizens’ rights. Over the next month and a half the Patna High Court conducted hearings and pulled the Bihar government up for failing to provide beds, oxygen and other medical necessities. Crucially, the Bihar government was either unable or uninterested in utilising the oxygen provided by the union government on a daily basis.

As The Caravan earlier reported, the government made false claims and contradictory statements about the availability of beds and oxygen. On 17 April, the Patna High Court examined data previously submitted by the state government which claimed that only about a quarter of the state’s oxygenated beds were occupied. The court called this claim “baffling” because two days earlier, Pratyay Amrit, a close confidant of Kumar who had been raised to the position of health secretary at the start of the pandemic, had already admitted to the court that the state was facing an oxygen shortage. “The contradiction has remained unexplained,” the court said. On the same day, Kumar told an all-party meeting organised by the state’s governor, Phagu Chauhan that he was, “active about availability of oxygen and medicine.” Four days later, the Bihar government submitted to the court that it required 300 metric tonnes of oxygen and that it had forwarded a request for that amount to the union government.

The Bihar government was also unable to satisfactorily explain a severe shortage of oxygen in Patna district. When asked by the court, the state government announced that Patna district, which multiple media reports highlighted was suffering from a severe oxygen shortage, had not requested oxygen from other districts in the state. The court said, “We are unable to comprehend the critical situation of shortage of oxygen in the district of Patna,” since the government said there was no shortage in other districts. On 23 April, the court said that there was clear evidence that showed that the beds the state had claimed were oxygenated were clearly not.

On that day, the Bihar government submitted their estimation of the state’s oxygen requirement based on its bed occupancy and if all its beds were filled. The government told the court that its total oxygen supply stood at 103 MT, far above its own stated requirement, which failed to explain why deaths due to lack of oxygen continued to rise in the state. This suggests that either the data on available oxygen was wrong, or the data on bed occupancy was wrong, or the health system was not allowing patients to access oxygenated beds despite availability.

On 22 April, the state attorney had told the court that the union government had approved an allocation of 194 MT of oxygen daily to the state. However, data submitted to the court showed that the Bihar government collected only a fraction of this amount. The court ordered Amrit to submit a report on the next hearing on why it “failed to receive/obtain full quota of oxygen, as allocated by the central government.” Five days later, the government was still not picking up its quota of the allocated oxygen. The government instead said, “the requirement of oxygen in the state is dynamic in nature and keeps on changing, depending on its actual requirement on day to day basis.” It also continued to argue that the state faced no oxygen shortages.

Following a report by an amicus curie that contradicted government claims, the Patna High Court demanded that Tripurari Sharan, Bihar’s chief secretary file a personal affidavit “dealing with each of the issues” and warned that he would face charges of “perjury” if he did not furnish “true, correct and verified” information to the court. In court, Sharan said the union allotment of medical oxygen had increased from 194 MT to 214 MT, while the state had requested an allotment of 400 MT. Despite the state’s requests for increased oxygen allotment, the affidavit showed that nearly three weeks after the court had ordered it, the Bihar government was still not picking up its full allotment. The government claimed that the absence of special cryogenic vehicles was the measure impediment in procuring oxygen, promising to procure such vehicles from the Jharkhand government. This again points to the absolute fallacy of the idea of a double engine government, where for three weeks, the state of Bihar—which was facing its severest oxygen shortage—and the union government, were unable to muster up infrastructure to transport oxygen that was readily available, while states ruled by opponents of the BJP faced no such problem.

Despite the Patna High Court castigating the Bihar government on an almost daily basis, legislators of Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), as well as bureaucrats, continued to advertise the supposed successful management of the COVID-19 situation. Much of this self-promotion was also embellished by uncritical positive reporting by Bihar’s media establishment. RCP Singh, a retired civil servant turned JD (U) party president, was one of Kumar’s unflagging cheerleaders. Before his career as a legislator, Singh served as a principal secretary to Kumar when the latter was a union minister. In December 2020, Kumar had handed over the party’s command to Singh, and even announced that Singh would likely be his political heir. In July, Singh was also the JD(U)’s nominee for a union cabinet position. Modi made him steel minister in the first cabinet reshuffle of his second term.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Singh seemed to be the JD(U)’s point man for managing Kumar’s image in the media. For example, on 18 April, three days after the court had started reviewing the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, Singh posted four news reports from his Twitter handle. All the reports had quoted Singh saying that Kumar “has been sensitive to corona treatment since beginning,” that he, “has shown quickness in acting against Corona spread” and “has spent 10000 crore on dealing with corona.” In contrast, the Bihar government later, on 12 May, submitted in court, that in the third week of April, the number of active cases was growing by nearly 10,000 daily. Meanwhile, the Patna High Court had already remonstrated the state government for failing to increase the proportion of RT-PCR tests—that have a higher accuracy than the more commonly used antigen tests—and for being unable to get the quota of oxygen that had been allotted to the state by the union government.

Three days later, after the Bihar State Human Rights Commission, on court orders, had conducted surprise raids on COVID-19 hospitals in the state and reported a lack of paramedical staff, Singh took to Twitter again to put a positive spin on the narrative. Singh posted image-building news reports extolling Kumar for “extraordinary work” in controlling the outbreak and “working tirelessly on every front such as testing, vaccination, availability of oxygen and medicine.”

Singh’s cabinet colleagues, such as Ashok Choudhary, Bihar’s minister for building construction, and Sanjay Kumar Jha, the minister of water resources, frequently shared positive media stories on their Twitter accounts while their claims were being disproved in court. Choudhary also posted a small video of Kumar visiting a hospital with a dramatic background score. The caption read, “The government of honourable chief minister who always pave way for welfare at all times, at every step and for every citizen. The chief minister is active, putting his all and best efforts, for people’s welfare in the times of a difficult disaster.” In another tweet sharing multiple news stories that were reproductions of the statements of JD(U) leaders, Singh said that the party were facing the challenge of the pandemic, “like lord Ram.”

As the flagrant mismanagement of the pandemic become more apparent, Kumar’s government also began cracking down heavily on journalists who were critical of the government and those who documented how members of the ruling coalition broke the law. In January 2021, The Wire reported that documents suggested the state government advised state police to take legal action against anyone who posted content on social media against the chief minister and legislators of other ruling parties. At least ten journalists have faced cases under serious charges including criminal conspiracy and extortion. Another report in The Caravan also points to police threatening journalists who were critical of Kumar’s COVID-19 management and to frequent cases of censorship.

Kumar earned the moniker sushasan babu largely due to his delegating power to bureaucrats in his administration instead of democratically-elected leaders who formed his government. This has led to a lot of dissension within the JD (U). For instance, Madan Sahani, the state’s social welfare minister, announced recently that he was “resigning in objection against bureaucracy.” Sahani claimed that “officials didn’t listen to him,” and that his position had garnered him support among some of his colleagues, too. Kumar’s style of governance, through media control and bureaucrats, largely mirrors that of his coalition partner Narendra Modi.

Kumar’s preference of bureaucrats over legislators did little to help Bihar through the second wave. On 3 April, Kumar chaired a meeting of the Crisis Management Group—a group of secretaries from the chief minister’s office, the health, home, planning and development departments. The group works as an executive body to implement the decisions taken by a high level committee. Kumar himself headed this committee and included his cabinet colleagues from the health and education departments, as well as the state’s two deputy chief ministers, Tarakishore Prasad and Renu Devi, both from the BJP. These two groups alone managed Bihar’s second wave without any input from subject experts. In the structural hierarchy defined in the State Disaster Management Plan under the state disaster law, there should have been an expert group working as advisors and as a link between the chief minister and the state executives. Kumar preferred to rely on his bureaucrats for ideas to control the epidemic.

On 1 May, Kumar had put 30 cabinet colleagues—half of whom are from the BJP—in charge of monitoring the COVID-19 situation in the state’s 38 districts. The government attorney had claimed before the court on 12 May that “the chief minister, in consultation with the senior ministers, is himself monitoring the situation.” Except tweeting about Kumar’s alleged successes whenever his government got admonished in the court, these ministers appear to have done little as the state suffered its worst loss of life in a century.

On 10 May, the government announced that it had entrusted ward implementation and management councils, consisting of ward members of panchayat and wards, with the responsibility increasing COVID-19 awareness among citizens and to inform the government of any spread of infection. In Nalanda district, I asked a ward member about the council. The member, on condition of anonymity, said he had not heard of any such body. Pappy Yadav, a former councillor in Bihar Sharif city corporation and the district general secretary of the opposition RJD, told me he was not aware of any such council either. Kumar’s moves to include political leaders, whether at the state-level or he ward level, remained on paper while he and his team of bureaucrats retained all power to make decisions.

On 12 April, when Bihar had more than 14,695 active COVID-19 cases, Kumar chaired the eighth meeting of the Bihar Vikas Mission alongside the secretaries of all the state’s departments. The BVM is an institutional arrangement Kumar made to implement his political promises in the field of agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, education, land reforms, water, industry and so on. The absence of subject experts in Kumar’s inner circle became clear when the meeting ignored the overwhelming crisis of the COVID-19 second wave. Kumar tasked the secretaries to “expedite” the works in all the fields under the BVM on “mission mode.” Kumar also asked them to set a target to finish the remaining works. The chief minister’s instructions show that his priorities at the peak of the outbreak remained on his “good governance” image.