Iqbal Singh Chahal took over as Commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) during an especially challenging time: Maharashtra was going through a devastating Covid wave, with Mumbai contributing the bulk of the infections and deaths, and his predecessor Praveen Pardeshi had just been shunted out. Chahal had no option but to hit the ground running.
Two years later, during which Chahal was lauded for his role in controlling the pandemic, the 1989-batch IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre has been empanelled in the rank of Secretary by the Government of India, and is the subject of a book, Covid Warrior, authored by Minhaz Merchant, and describes how he helmed the fight against Covid.
With the term of the corporation ending on March 7, Chahal has been running the BMC, the country’s richest municipal corporation over the last two months, as administrator until elections are held in September-October.
While he described the empanelment a “milestone” in his career, it remains to be seen whether that translates into a new assignment for Chahal, who has about four years of service left. Sources said he would definitely be around for the elections to the BMC.
Calling the empanelment a routine annual process carried out by the Centre, an official from the state government said, “After empanelment, the officer can be posted in the Central ministry only if there is a vacancy. Also, before being posted in the Union ministry, an NOC from the IAS officer as well as the state government is required.”
The official pointed out that in 2017, then municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta along with at least five IAS officers from the state were empanelled, but none of them joined the central ministry.
The official also said Chahal has been empanelled along with nine other IAS officers across the country, including Rajiv Jalota of the Maharashtra cadre.
While his management of Covid-19 won him laurels, as Commissioner, Chahal faced the wrath of the BJP and Congress, both Opposition parties in the Shiv Sena-run BMC, as they alleged several large-scale irregularities in awarding contracts related to procurements made during the pandemic.
Earlier this month, the two Opposition parties alleged corruption in a Rs 26,000-crore Sewage Treatment Plant (STPs) project in Mumbai.
The Congress had also alleged political interference in the BMC, saying Chahal takes all decisions with state Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
Yet, it was his handling of the pandemic that won him recognition, with even the Supreme Court of India appreciating him for handling the oxygen crisis during the second wave of Covid-19.
Chahal also set up ‘Covid War Rooms’ in each BMC ward to manage bed allotment in hospitals, which helped ease patient anxiety and chaos over beds.
Besides, his ‘Dharavi Model’ of curbing the virus in one of Asia’s largest slums earned Chahal praise from the World Health Organization.