Image Courtesy: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Introduction

In 1946, during the Constituent Assembly Debates, one of the central questions was whether the states should be given autonomy to promote decentralisation or it should come from a firm central authority. The pro-strong center supporters were well aware that federalism was essential to absorb huge diversity but simultaneously gave it a Unitary Bias to counter cessation tendencies. Jawaharlal Nehru also claimed that “It would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace, coordinating vital matters of common concern and of speaking effectively for the whole country in the international sphere.”

However with time, new challenges of global nature like disaster management and climate change do not respect state boundaries. Pollution, epidemics, and conservation issues ignite the uncomfortable tension between the government’s decision-making processes at the Center-state-local levels. Further, when India’s success in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is based on active collaboration between the Centre and the States, its commitment to federalism is put to test. This article will show how Indian Cooperative federalism was tested by a case study from 2020-2021.

Comparative Case study: 2020 and 2021

2020: Nationwide lockdown in March forced down by Centre

A nationwide lockdown was forced by the Centre on 24 March 2020 via Dominant party federalism. The federal government proclaimed a national emergency without consulting the states, demonstrating a flagrant contempt for federal principles. The states were disempowered by centralised advisories from the Ministry of Home Affairs. In the first week of April 2020, states were told not to buy any safety kits because procurement would be handled by the Centre and distributed to the states. (The New Indian Express 2020) As a result, many states had medical safety equipment shortages, and many doctors and nurses tested positive for COVID-19. (Alaknanda Shringare 2021) The constitutional legitimacy of the lockdown was questioned because health policy is a state responsibility.

The nationwide lockdown also ignored the livelihood concerns of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were left without a job, food, or transportation to return to their village. The economic damage inflicted by the 68-day countrywide lockdown pushed the national government to launch a phased reopening from June 8 onwards. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic was primarily left to the states to manage.

Several states used a more localised strategy to deal with the pandemic. The case of Goa provides a good example. Patients began to increase in Goa in early June after a brief period as a recognised green zone (from April 17 to the end of May 2020), and Vasco, a city of 100,000 people in South Goa, quickly became the epicenter of these cases. Panchayats in Vasco and other regions of Goa had been requesting a lockdown regularly due to an increase in cases. Since the state administration did not respond to these demands, some panchayats passed resolutions declaring lockdowns in their respective areas. Many questioned the validity of such lockdown, claiming that only the federal and state governments have the authority to proclaim a lockdown. So, panchayats were obliged to reconsider their decision or ask inhabitants to participate in a “voluntary lockdown.”

2021: Nationwide vaccination drive

For vaccination, a strong centralised working was and even now is required. But the Centre muddled the vaccine procurement process that seems to change every week and vaccine supplies ran out every day. Due to differential pricing, the central government paid the lowest, the state paid more, and private players paid the highest price. The Centre and state governments gave contradictory figures for the number of vaccine doses ordered and procured. States claimed that they have been asking for vaccines, but Centre is delaying on their part. On the other hand, the Centre said that they had granted the required number of doses, but there is mismanagement. In the middle of all this, the common person is caught, who doesn’t know which door to knock.

Conclusion: Lessons

“Centralisation” and “Decentralisation” cannot become definitive mantras for governance. The Constitution itself came in when a strong centre was needed to address a poor, diverse and divided nation. As India became more stable and state capacity improved, decentralizing and letting local concerns be handled locally emerged.

The main argument of the case study boils down to the “timing” of both mantras. In 2020, probably a more decentralised procedure would have been better, and in 2021 Centre should spearhead the vaccination procurement. Some experts claim that if initially, local authorities were encouraged to follow lockdown in the contaminated Indian regions, the situation could have been handled better. However, COVID-19 is a global catastrophe, and even G7 superpowers botched to mitigate this deadly virus. So, central government intervention was and is critical for mitigating the impact of the pandemic.

The lesson forward is that States should be empowered in a pandemic situation to act swiftly through a clear legal framework. State representatives should be included in technical teams while preparing pandemic management plans. The COVID-19 compelled the Indian government to re-evaluate its functions, performance, and priorities. In a heavily populated country like India, enabling decentralised initiatives can help provide better strategies to deal with such pandemics.

Works Cited

Alaknanda Shringare, Seema Fernandes. 2021. “COVID-19 Pandemic in India Points to Need for a Decentralized Response.” SAGE 5. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0160323X20984524.

The New Indian Express. 2020. As per new circular, states depend on Centre to procure COVID-19 medical equipment. 9 April. Accessed August, 2021. https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/apr/09/as-per-new-circular-states-depend-on-centre-to-procure-covid-19-medical-equipment-2128010.html.

This article was written by Research Interns, Aastha Rathi and Saumya Avasthi under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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