Federalism is a big casualty in India’s fight against COVID-19

The root cause of the mismanagement of the pandemic is practicing top-down and coercive, instead of bottom-up and cooperative, federalism.

The seemingly united front on the surface put forth by the Union and state governments in India’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have given the impression that federalism in the country is robust during crisis/disaster management. But in actual practice, it is not so. Under the Constitution, public health is a state subject and therefore all matters concerning the prevention, containment and treatment of an epidemic disease should be dealt with by the states. For this purpose, there is a special law called Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987 (EDA).

Section 2 of the EDA gives power to state governments to take special measures and prescribe regulations if the state or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease, if the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose. These powers include lockdown, quarantine, and restrictions on mobility. Section 2A of this Act gives power to the Union government to regulate and restrict international travel as well and impose restrictions at ports of entry for any ship or vessel leaving or arriving.

Therefore, while state governments should be at the forefront, central government is to perform certain core supportive roles. These include international travel and exports; screening at ports of entry; testing strategy and criteria; treatment and drug protocols and the global procurement of emergency supplies. And since the Union government controls the ‘cash-chest’, particularly after the GST rollout, it has the responsibility of bankrolling the healthcare and humanitarian measures undertaken by the states.

What is the track-record of the Union government in the performance of its core duties? First, the haphazard travel restrictions and double-standards. It was not until March 22, 2020 after much confusion and chaos, and with a total of 2,92,142 cases confirmed across more than 150 countries globally, that India finally suspended all international travel, more than two months after it issued its first travel advisory. More than 1.5 million people had entered India between mid-January and March 24 when lockdown was imposed. None of them were screened for anything other than high temperature.

Second was the extreme shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), especially masks and coveralls, which are essential for safeguarding healthcare workers, and are mandatory under WHO guidelines for Covid-19 treatment. Equally alarming was the shortage of testing kits and delay in domestic production. As a result, even as infections spread, 123 state-run labs were operating at just 36% capacity, while the 49 accredited private labs managed just an average of eight tests each. The Union government’s attempts to start domestic production of testing kits were slow and lethargic. The approvals process itself was started as late as March 23, at a time when India had a total of 471 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Perhaps the most spectacular disaster was its testing policy, with India conducting the lowest level of tests in the world at a rate of 10.5 per million people.

A research paper written by a group of ICMR scientists in February 2020 recommended against “coercive, top-down quarantine approaches which are driven by authorities” and instead batted for a community-led method. Accordingly, in the spirit of true federalism, cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the Prime Minister, in consultation with state chief secretaries, announced a nuanced ‘lockdown regime’ on March 23 to contain the corona pandemic in a staggered manner, starting with the shutdown of 78 districts/cities across the country identified as hotspots.

But shockingly, on March 24, the Prime Minister threw out all canons of federalism and declared a full nationwide lockdown with just four hours’ notice, thereby ushering in a humongous human disaster. There was no consultation whatsoever with state governments who were to implement the lockdown. Overnight, millions of urban migrant labour were exposed to double jeopardy — life and livelihood — and made into street beggars and mendicants. On the rural side, MGNREGA jobs crashed to 1% of normal and 18 million households employed under this scheme lost their livelihood. The immense misery inflicted on the people India still rankles.

This draconian lockdown was imposed by invoking the omnibus Section 6 (2) (i) of the Disaster Management Act-2005 (DMA) which empowers the central government “to take such other measures for the prevention of disaster, or the mitigation, or preparedness…” The stated purpose of invoking DMA nationwide was to contain the spread of the virus through strict enforcement of ‘social distancing’, which was already being done by state governments under EDA. The Prime Minister’s anti-federal practice only led to police brutality in enforcing the lockdown, resulting in massive exodus, overcrowding, cluttering and congestion.

As the deadline for the 3-week lockdown was approaching, the Union government became panicky because the coronavirus curve — instead of flattening — was spiralling out of control. When India went into lockdown, it had only around 500 confirmed cases and around 10 deaths. At the end of three weeks, as per figures given by State Health Departments, these became 10,439 and 358 respectively. To cover up this serious failure, the Union government claimed that if we had not locked down, we would have at least 8,00,000 infections by April 15. These numbers seem to have been conjured out of thin air to justify the lockdown.

A horrendous human crisis stared at the face of the central government and the Prime Minister wanted help. So, suddenly he became ‘federal’ and started ‘consulting’ state Chief Ministers through video conferencing, seeking opinion for extending or ending the lockdown. But whenever the Prime Minister ‘consulted’ with the Chief Ministers, state governments were made to look like subordinates and mendicants. Also, instead of decentralising disaster management, which was the need of the hour, the Prime Minister centralised it further. He created an opaque ‘PM Cares’ Fund and coerced all government, public and private contributions towards this fund to the exclusion of legal, duly constituted Chief Minister’s Relief Funds! Even procurement of life-saving medical equipment and kits was centralised.

Despite the warnings of a second wave from experts and many countries facing the same, the central government did nothing to prepare for it. On the contrary, it claimed premature victory over the pandemic. Mass public gathering, religious, political and others, were allowed to suit the vested interest of those in power, as the vulnerable population got into the second wave. Over 1.8 crore new cases were registered across the country, in a span of 60 days, since March 1, 2021, as against a total caseload of 2.9 crore COVID-19 infections in India. This is higher than the total cases in the US (48.7 lakh) and Brazil (65.7 lakh) put together. Fatalities in the second wave were nearly 60% of all officially accounted COVID-19 deaths in India. India has also recorded the highest number of deaths due to post-COVID complications, like secondary lung infections, cardiac complications, black fungus and pneumonia.

The blame of gross mis-management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heart-rending agonies of mass deaths caused during the second wave due to criminal negligence in providing healthcare facilities like hospital beds and oxygen, and the hundreds of dead bodies floating in River Ganges, rests squarely on the Union government centralising all powers and authority and indulging in micro-management. Even in procurement and supplying of critical vaccines, there was chaos and confusion resulting in corruption and favouritism. In the event the name of India is in the “Hall of Shame”.

The root cause of all these is practicing top-down and coercive, instead of bottom-up and cooperative, federalism.

MG Devasahayam is a former Army and Indian Administrative Service officer, and chairman, People-First. Views expressed are the author’s own.