NEW DELHI: Those who report on the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare know that Lav Agarwal, a 1996 batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer, is not someone who enjoys the limelight. Instead, he is a quiet operative who prefers to let his actions do the talking.
That’s why the sudden metamorphosis of the 48-year-old, who has emerged as the face of the government during the COVID-19 crisis in India, has surprised many.
The joint secretary in the ministry has been putting out information related to the outbreak, confidently handling queries from an ever inquisitive press and defending the government's actions day after day for weeks now.
Agarwal originally hails from Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and did his B Tech in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi before joining the coveted IAS. He later worked extensively in education and health sectors in his cadre state before being posted at the Centre in 2016.
Some say that in the beginning, he might seem unapproachable and hard to please but that’s only until people working with him win over his trust.
“He takes time to trust people but he is passionate, committed to win and very target-oriented,” said one of his subordinates.
Agarwal, incharge of digital health, international health and communicable diseases, was tasked with briefing the media on COVID-19 due to his ability to answer questions efficiently while revealing only what was required, sources said.
“As a colleague, I would say I am impressed at his ability to handle the kind of pressure that his profile has now thrown at him. Probably the fact that he is a strict disciplinarian and does a lot of exercise, including yoga, is also helping him a lot,” said another JS in the ministry.
Another colleague said that his working hours stretch to nearly 15-16 hours nowadays. “He goes home only to catch some sleep these days. He is in office till very late and usually among the earliest to be in office in the mornings.”
Many in his office pointed out that while the general perception is that bureaucrats are not flexible and often find ways to maintain the status quo, he, on the other hand, loves innovations and disruptive ideas.
Dr Oommen John, a public health researcher with George Institute of Global Health, who has worked closely with Agarwal, too said this quality of his has helped India put its best foot forward in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak as there is not a single day when some innovative approach is not introduced. Many of them being the first across the globe -- for instance, the caller tune to sensitize millions of citizens about the symptoms of COVID.
“The latest is the containment strategy, an outstanding testament of a well thought through and detailed plan of action, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Even our neighboring countries have borrowed ideas from it,” Dr John said.
“He sees the big picture very early in the game and then gets an army of people around him to drive towards that goal. One of the most astonishing qualities that sets him apart within the administration is his ability to take inputs from others, he values and weighs every suggestion even from the most junior level team member.”
Dr John narrated his experience of working with Agarwal to host the global digital health partnership summit in India last year.
“We wanted to showcase India as a global thought leader in digital health. Initially no one believed our vision. We wanted to bring in the world's leading experts and showcase India’s health innovations to the global community and all of this “pro bono” by the experts and exhibitors. It was mission impossible but with Agarwal in the driver’s seat, the core team gave its best efforts and things turned out really well. India took over as the chair of GDHP after the summit and as a collateral benefit, a few of the innovations from that exhibition are being scaled up across the country during the COVID-19 crisis,” he added.
Anil Swarup, a retired bureaucrat, too was all praise for Agarwal.
“I have watched some of the briefings so far and I would say that as a mid-rung officer Agarwal has shown remarkable maturity in handling the situation. I am happy that the government has assigned the bright bureaucrat such a crucial responsibility,” he said.