The pandemic proved that the Centre and states have different roles but need to work closely during a crisis, instead of adopting a centralised approach.
The pandemic put both the unitary strengths and the federal assets of India’s political structure to serious test, buffeting the nation from one extreme to the other.One of the significant features of this pandemic was that both globally and locally, it attacked in waves and in different time phases. The beginnings of the pandemic found state governments being too unsure to take any initiative. There were possibly two broad reasons behind this. One was the limited understanding of the virus at the state level and the all-pervasive nature of the virus that did not respect state boundaries. There were also trepidations about what impact it could have on the political future of the ruling political dispensation if steps taken to curb it went wrong. On both counts, it was found prudent by the states to allow the national government to take the initiative. The Centre did not think it had the luxury of inaction that the states seemed to enjoy. Government of India was already armed with the National Disaster Management (NDM) Act 2005, giving it extensive powers of acting nationally through its Ministry of Home Affairs. The Act empowers the national government to issue directives to states and local bodies that are bound to carry out those directives. The central government used these powers to the hilt in imposing a national lockdown and shutting down all movement and activity during the first phase. The exercise of such authority under the Act may be viewed by some as the assertion of raw power by the centre. While that was partly true, it was also a step dictated by the nature of the virus, the dire need to control it, the advice of WHO and national experts, and similar steps undertaken by several other nations.
Government of India was already armed with the National Disaster Management (NDM) Act 2005, giving it extensive powers of acting nationally through its Ministry of Home Affairs.However, the lack of previous experience in the imposition of such a complete lockdown threw up some unforeseen results. One of the fallouts was the financial strangulation of the state governments as their economic activities came to a grinding halt. In the resulting situation, the Centre enhanced the borrowing limits of the states on the condition that the states acceded to carrying out certain fiscal and structural reforms. This was clearly a move that stepped on the states’ powers. However, the states had been caught in such a bind that there was hardly any significant opposition to this transgression. Additionally, a large number of executive decisions that fell within the domain of the states were also taken by the Centre. These comprised the issuance of guidelines and instructions to the states, centralisation of the purchase of medical kits, banning the sale of liquor, closure of public transport and shutting down of restaurants. The complete domination of the states through the NDM Act along with the use of the levers of finance to twist the tails of the states clearly hurt the quality of federalism and heavily tilted the balance in favour of the Centre. A counterbalancing consequence was the open defiance of the lockdown by domestic migrants. The lockdown had abruptly stopped the source of livelihood of the poorest migrants. Bereft of any support system that could help them tide over the disaster, they decided to several hundreds of kilometres, walk with their families, to their hometowns to survive during the pandemic. The failure of the government to foresee the plight of the poorest Indians, pushed into such a situation by the government’s own lockdown, came as a shock. It clearly put the Centre on the back foot and forced it to reconsider the highly centralised strategies it had hitherto adopted.
The complete domination of the states through the NDM Act along with the use of the levers of finance to twist the tails of the states clearly hurt the quality of federalism and heavily tilted the balance in favour of the Centre.The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was more virulent than the first, with the result of it being terribly tragic, and it drove a further nail in the coffin of centralisation. As the virus exposed the inadequacies of the country’s health system, the Centre’s premature celebration of victory over the virus, and its inattention towards preparation for the second wave; the sure-footed Centre was shaken and began to pull away from its steamroller-like use of the NDM Act. Many states launched a fierce attack on the Centre for its failures to contain the pandemic. The Centre’s defence that health was a state subject was on the one hand a feeble excuse in the light of its initial unabashed use of the NDM Act. On the other, it was clearly a revised position that demonstrated that the Centre was prepared to cede space to the states to make their own nuanced decisions. The states, in turn, put more powers in the hands of the local bodies. In effect, the highly centralised administration of the virus of the initial phase yielded space to an increasingly decentralised handling of the pandemic during the subsequent phase. While many have argued that a disaster requires tackling through a command-and-control approach, akin to a situation during war, what the pandemic showed was that such an approach is only partly relevant. The war against the pandemic is actually fought at all levels, including the local. In the area of health, preventive healthcare is the responsibility of the local bodies. Hence, while the Centre and the states have significant roles in coordination and overall direction, local action is vitally important in any success against the pandemic. In this context, a federal and decentralised architecture is ideally suited for such situations. The Indian experience was a vindication of the model, wherein the country began with a centralised strategy, but soon ceded way to a highly decentralised implementation structure going down to the third tier. The Indian experience demonstrated that a centralised model would just not work. One could in summation say that while federalism was challenged to begin with by the forces of centralisation, federalism reasserted itself as the model that delivers good governance.
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Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...Read More +