Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Apr 30, 2020
More states are beginning to relax lockdown restrictions to restore normalcy with preventive measures. How did a country of 1.3 billion, with large slum population and rural poor, put up such an inspiring fight?
COVID-19 and cooperative federalism in India: So far, so good As the global pandemic continues to envelop and threaten nearly all countries including the rich and medically advanced west, India is among handful of nations that has able to check the spread of virus as of now. Not long ago, a highly cited study by Johns Hopkins University had predicted that India was likely to have a mammoth 12.5 crore to 24 crore people affected by novel coronavirus.  Although the university later disassociated with the forecast of the study, this had caused panic in India’s policy circle. The study has turned out to be too alarmist as till April 28, India’s total number of positive cases were around 31000 and deaths nearing about 1000. While most of the reported cases are from 15 cities and some 80 districts, a number of states like Kerala, Goa, Odisha seem in control of the pandemic and more and more states are beginning to relax lockdown restrictions to resume normal economic activities with necessary preventive measures in place. How did a country of 1.3 billion with large slum population and rural poor put up such a fight? What is the real game changer in India’s management of pandemic? While analysts credit such a turnaround to a host of factors such as higher level of immunity due to long history of BCG vaccination and vast exposure to variety of pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, the key factor seems to be India’s firm decision to impose a complete countrywide lockdown before community transmission was set in. Importantly, with some exceptions the lockdown involving more than 1.3 billion population has been strictly enforced. The Covid-19 response tracker by the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government recently termed India’s lockdown a perfect 100% in the world. For this, the due credit goes to the Union government and states and most importantly country’s federal system that provides the institutional architecture for enforcing such a herculean task. India’s flexible federal structure which has come handy in an emergency situation. Unlike the United States, another large federal country where the Washington and states are engaged in a vicious battle to keep their controls, India’s unique band federalism has allowed for a swift and coordinated response to tackle the pandemic. Of course, due credit has to be given to the crisis itself which has sunk the differences between Centre and states on issues that in normal circumstances would have taken months to mend.

A Federalised Response to Pandemic Management

A quick glance at the trajectory of responses would vindicate the flexible nature of Indian federalism coming handy in a crisis. In a first, several Indian states announced lockdown and sealed their borders announced even before the Central government took any decision. The Centre took an unprecedented decision on its own to announce a nation-wide complete lockdown with few hours’ notice. There was no prior consultation with states before the lockdown was imposed on 25th March. It caused serious supply chains breakdown and importantly migrant workers chaos. This has been somewhat handled, albeit with less efficiency, but handled. How did the Centre and state and in what format put up a joint response? This has been accomplished with the help of two key instruments: The Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA), 1897 and the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), 2005 which provides broad legal architecture to take a variety of emergency measures to contain the pandemic. While there are legitimate concerns with regard to vagueness of the existing acts in situation like the covid pandemic which requires locking up people, these instruments prove handy nonetheless. These have been further helped by the fact that while health remains a state subject (providing states major responsibilities for health service delivery), infectious disease control is in the Concurrent List requiring federal government’s leadership and strategic and resource support. It needs to be mentioned that the 1897 EDA allows both the central and state governments to regulate the spread of epidemic diseases. While the Centre can take preventive emergency measures to control epidemic diseases at ports of entry and exit, states are constitutionally empowered to adopt  preventive administrative and regulatory measures to check the epidemic. In this regard, the EDA, 1897 empowers states to impose restrictions on mass gatherings, shutdown recreational activities and educational institutions and can order businesses to work from home. A number of states including Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha were the first to use epidemic law to impose partial lockdown before the federal government announced full lockdown on 24 March. Once full lockdown was announced by the Centre, it directed all the states to invoke Section 2 of the EDA, 1897. The same goes for the protocol and enforcement of 2005 National Disaster Management Act or NDMA.  The NDMA is placed in the Entry 23 of the Concurrent List thereby all tiers of government including the third tier institutions such as municipal and rural local bodies are empowered to  contribute in disaster management and mitigation activities. Thus, NDMA has empowered both the Central and state governments to impose lockdown and regulate the movement of people and goods nationwide. The broad architecture and flexibility of twin acts have allowed both Centre and states to address pandemic in diverse ways. While the Centre and its key ministries such as Home and Health have taken the lead in developing protocols and advisories, states are autonomous enough to act in their own ways. For instance, Kerala has developed its own model, so also Odisha and Rajasthan. Even district administration in Agra and Bhilwara have done well to contain the infection within the broad federal framework.

Dealing with Post-Lockdown Challenges

Yet enforcing lockdown is still the easier part of the fight. The spread of virus played its part in pushing both the Centre and State to forget the differences and enforce the lockdown. With Centre and states venturing to phase out the restrictions and weighing on developing modalities and processes for post-lockdown phase, a rigid and uniform approach from the Centre may not work. This is where two acts will fall short in providing direction and mechanisms to reduce frictions. For instance, the central guidelines may work in Delhi but may not work in Kerala or Odisha. As an example, recently the central advisory allowed e-commerce companies to sale non-essential goods, but after facing opposition from small shop owners, MHA revised it within hours creating chaos. This also happened during the initial relaxation of restrictions. When Kerala took a decision to allow restaurants to open based on its own risk assessment, the state was pressured by the Centre to cancel such permit. In short, these decisions should be best left to the state and local governments. To sum up, for a large federal country of a mind-boggling diversity, India’s ability to fight Covid-19 pandemic largely rests on how well it manages its Centre-state relation. When compared with other large federal countries such as the US, the country has done very well to minimize the frictions and provide a sense of direction to the states. However, tackling Covid-19 as seen from the experience of other countries would require a differential and agile response across states and the Centre has at best to play the role of a mentor in providing leadership and resource support. The rigid approach as evident in lockdown phase would prove a major hurdle. States must be allowed to lead in terms of reviving economy, generating income support, jobs while contain the virus at the same time. In short, the real cooperative federalism which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been espousing for many years is now put on test and the Centre must walk the talk on this.
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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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