Governance in the Time of Corona Crisis: Karnataka’s Response

By Supriya Menon | Jul 17, 2020

The Karnataka government which received immense praise for keeping the numbers low and developing innovative methods of contact tracing, is now, drawing flak from different corners. The Chief Minister, who initially seemed adamant in continuing commercial activity and was confident the state does not need to do a 180, has done exactly that with this new announcement.

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As the Karnataka government implements fresh lockdown measures nearly a month after lifting restrictions, the state’s strategy to fight COVID-19 seems incoherent. Even as neighbouring Tamil Nadu remains much worse affected without even the temporary relief that Karnataka had over the last month, with nearly a thousand new cases a day, it appears that Karnataka may be going backwards. While at the beginning of July, the announcement of Sunday curfews, strict policing of physical distancing and revised night curfews were made, this was followed by a fresh announcement of a complete lockdown in at least eight districts of the state from July 14 – 22, a week later.

The Karnataka government which received immense praise for keeping the numbers low and developing innovative methods of contact tracing, is now, drawing flak from different corners. The Chief Minister, who initially seemed adamant about continuing commercial activity and was confident the state does not need to do a 180, has done exactly that with this new announcement. Bangalore Urban is currently reporting the highest number of cases in the state, followed by Dharwad and Bellary districts.

Government Measures


The first positive case, on March 8, was that of an IT employee who returned home after an assignment in the United States. Soon after, Karnataka became the first state to invoke the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 on March 11, the same day that it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). By March 13, a few days following the first COVID-related death of a 76-year-old man from Kalaburagi, the Karnataka government had announced the closing of schools, malls, marriage halls, cinema halls and public events for a week and by March 23, even before the nationwide lockdown was announced, the Karnataka state government had already imposed a lockdown; state-borders were sealed and curfew-like restrictions were already in place. To enforce these restrictions, Section 144 was imposed in Bengaluru and Mangaluru.


What was the Government doing to combat the virus during the lockdown? They set up 31 fever clinics across Bengaluru as the first point of contact for suspected cases. Most of the clinics complained of being understaffed, overworked and not having systems and technology in place to operate efficiently. The initial guidelines for testing were rather stringent, restricting COVID testing only to individuals with recent international travel history.

Between each announcement of lockdown, testing measures have eased and by the second week of June, new guidelines for testing were issued including random testing citing that community transmission had begun. If in lockdown 1.0 the number of containment zones in Bangalore was 24, by June this has risen to 338 of which, 298 are active. Several mobile applications were developed for tracking people in quarantine, for contact tracing, geo-fencing places with a large number of infections and so on. These were supposed to have helped the State to contain the spread of the virus more efficiently than most other states. People returning to the State from domestic and international travel were also required to register on the Seva Sindhu portal. Measures were also put in place to increase the number of hospital beds.

Apart from these measures, the Yediyurappa government had promised free ration for two months on March 22 and by early April, had extended this promise to even those who did not have a ration card, through a token system that was developed. In addition, a 1700-bed facility at the Victoria Hospital was converted into a special COVID-19 hospital; measures to increase the number of testing labs’ were taken; and, a 247 war room was set up at the iconic Balabrooie guesthouse in Bangalore. A team of 25 works from this war room in shifts, while another 40, who make up the IT team, provide technological support remotely.

On-ground reality

However, despite these pre-emptive and technological measures, the number of cases only continued to rise and by Lockdown 2.0, there were 606 cases in Karnataka which rose to 1146 by Lockdown 3.0 and 3221 by Lockdown 4.0 and the ground situation speaks of a grim reality. As of July 14, Karnataka overtook Gujarat to become the worst-hit state in terms of the number of positive cases. The state has added about 2,500 new cases and now has over 44,000 COVID-positive infections.

A recent report stated that a 52-year-old man with breathing difficulty had died after being turned away by 18 hospitals in Bengaluru, citing a lack of beds. The Government claims they have collected 1.5 crore household surveys, but there is no knowing how thorough or factual the information collected is. The BBMP, ASHA workers and citizen volunteers were enlisted to conduct the surveys and it is hard to believe that with an active culture of fear and possible isolation, people would volunteer information about their health.

Despite the warnings’ and advisories about spreading rumours, reports about ostracisation, racial and communal prejudice have resulted in tense situations across the State. A student from the North-East reported being spat upon by a passing rickshaw driver who targeted her for supposedly being Chinese’. A video forward of a vegetable pushcart vendor spitting on his wares created fear before being proven false. A message circulated recently about the owners of a supermarket having been tested positive resulting in several cases in Indiranagar, which was later proven false – the owners were Muslims, who believed they were being targeted for their religious identity. Many on-ground activists during Lockdown 1.0 involved in distributing food supplies and documenting conditions in vulnerable neighbourhoods reported communal tensions and cited that Muslims were being beaten up either for their activism or for receiving food supplies deemed more necessary for Hindu households.

The lockdown has been marked by deep inequalities, a survey by the Azim Premji University found that seven out of ten workers had lost their jobs in Karnataka. With the work of the metro halted, BMRCL which employed a large section of migrant workers found itself unable to pay and house the workers resulting in a mass exodus on foot. A report prepared by trade unions and rights organisations on migrant and informal workers indicates food scarcity, unemployment and housing as concerns. In response, the government passed some orders to prevent landlords from evicting migrants, but it took the government longer to arrange trains for workers who wanted to return home. Maraa, an art collective, based in Bengaluru documented with video footage and written reports the dire situation that the BMRCL workers were in, including an extemporal tussle with the police.

While some workers managed to find seats on the Shramik trains after registering themselves on the Seva Sindhu portal and managed to return home on the few trains that plied, the government’s volte-face in early May to cancel trains from Karnataka to other parts of the country, created unrest across several parts of Bangalore. This decision, taken at the behest of builders who were worried about the labour exodus, drew the government a lot of criticism from several fronts. This also resulted in migrants walking thousands of kilometres with no money and little or no food.

Some trains that took the starving workers back to their homes reported a strange phenomenon of carrying back new workers, looking to find work in cities like Bengaluru. Meanwhile, 600 odd migrant workers from Kalaburagi found themselves homeless when their houses were torched down by men claiming they were asked to do so’ when questioned.

Sex workers forced into unemployment due to the lockdown have also found relief only in NGOs and activists. Sangama, a Bengaluru-based NGO, distributed grocery kits to transgender communities and sex workers early in April. Sangama, like several other independent organisations, has used online platforms to raise funds for basic healthcare and targeted community needs. One wonders how much the government has disregarded when such large-scale efforts to provide basic supplies are being carried out by neighbourhood and non-governmental organisations with no government funding. Pourakarmikas (sanitation workers) who have had little respite since the lockdown found that besides being provided with masks and gloves, very little was ensured to enable the infrastructure of their work to resume during the lockdown. With no public transport, the closure of the state-sponsored Indira Canteens and no additional wages, the work of cleaning up the city was thwarted, not just endangering the community but also pointing to the government’s ill-conceived planning.

Communication strategies

When the COVID-19 spread reached Italy, and then swept over half the world quickly, several countries responded to it with varying degrees of urgency. India, it appeared, acted quite quickly declaring an early lockdown. But why does a government enforce lockdown measures? At best a lockdown buys time, either one waits for the virus to die or uses the time to strengthen systems so that when commercial activity begins, they are equipped to handle the rise in cases. While India might have acted quickly, sudden announcements and overnight changes, have since the announcement of the first lockdown, led to a series of events that produced far greater economic catastrophe than the effects of the virus itself. The measure of smart governance is in its ability to prepare for the worst. Despite the fact that some states seem to have done better than the others, praying for the best seems to be the favoured tactic of most governments.

Unlike the neighbouring states of Kerala and Telangana, where the chief ministers provide daily updates through press briefings, in Karnataka, missing leadership, misinformation and poor communication with key announcements and changes being made on Twitter seem to have caused more confusion than it has done to build public confidence. Especially at a time when different generations seem to access news in different ways, the lack of an integrated communication strategy has caused much damage (both at the national as well as state level). For instance, in the middle of the lockdown, the Chief Minister changed his spokesperson for COVID-19 after his Health Minister and Education Minister kept contradicting each other on Twitter. During the migrant worker crisis too, change in the decision over first organising Shramik trains and then refusing to let the workers leave, and then agreeing once again only to then begin construction work forcing the workers to make a choice to stay and earn money, is another instance of lack of leadership. A week before announcing new lockdown measures and expressing concern about community transmission, the Chief Minister held a walkathon to promote wearing masks. A group of people walking together albeit with masks isn’t the best way to promote social distancing or reasonable safety precautions, one would think.

Infrastructural shifts

The Chief Minister’s announcements are largely warnings, promising mobility in exchange for caution. The State has launched a job portal to tackle the increasing unemployment rates even as people are encouraged to work from home. The increase in hospital beds has also come with some negotiations with private hospitals agreeing to extend the insurance of health workers in exchange for reserving 50 percent of beds for COVID treatment.

Schools and colleges remain shut in Karnataka, which was also the only state to have banned online classes for primary classes (I‑V) based on the recommendation of academic and health experts. However, days after the ban, the order has been reversed and a new order stating that educational institutions can conduct online classes has been brought out, with a set of temporary guidelines on the duration and mode of conducting these classes. Private schools still believe that the government is proving to be an impediment in education.

In the meantime, SSLC exams began across 2879 centres in Karnataka. Despite thermal screening, distancing and other precautionary measures, one teacher deputed on board exam duty, was tested positive in Bagalkot and at least 50 people, including students and teachers, are at risk in Bagalkot. With the surge in cases over the past few weeks, both parents and students are equally anxious, and this does nothing to help the exam-related anxiety that is already prevalent.


The state has been witnessing a see-saw of events over the past month with lockdown restrictions being lifted and then re-imposed. The initial lifting of restrictions, especially for most commercial enterprises, had meant that the city saw traffic snarls again, even with most IT companies shut. Long queues outside crowded restaurants, reopened malls, and a general lackadaisical attitude toward personal safety including not wearing masks had become commonplace again. There was not much physical distancing or roving police vehicles trying to ensure it during the unlock phase’ like they were in the first phase of the lockdown (albeit with unnecessary force in certain cases). It remains to be seen how much of this will make a return appearance during this phase of lockdown. Some news reports suggest that more stringent lockdown measures will be enforced or that there could be an extension of the current lockdown despite what the Chief Minister has promised. While the new lockdown might not be as drastic as the first or the second phase, any major changes may cause some unrest with new systemic changes across the board, even as the current sentiment amongst people seems to resonate with B. Sriramulu, the State’s health minister’s statement that Only God can save Karnataka!’

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation.


Supriya Menon is an alumnus of the MA Development Program at the Azim Premji University (2011−13). She is based in Bangalore and is currently part of the team that focuses on education programs at the Wipro Foundation.