States Must Be Given More Ownership of India's COVID-19 Containment Strategy

The relative power of the Centre has increased at a time when states need to take independent decisions.

COVID-19 has been instrumental in testing the structural cohesiveness of human systems at the global level. Its shadow over India’s federal system is getting longer by the day and could accentuate the tensions that are endemic to it.

Constitutionally, health is a state subject but a pandemic allows the Centre to assume charge. The Centre has used the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to take control of public health. Understandably, centralisation has been the defining characteristic of India’s efforts against COVID-19.

The Centre has listed the restrictions and activities permitted, and states depending on their judgement can only enhance the restrictions but not relax them without the Centre’s consent. This arrangement has so far worked well, except with a few exceptions of discord. As May 3 approaches and further decisions on the lockdown are taken, the Centre should devolve more control to the states, but retain oversight and intervene only when it considers it must.

COVID-19 will be with us till at least a vaccine emerges. A year plus would be a reasonable period to plan for. The lockdown till May 3 has not only slowed down the spread but also underscored its geographic impact. The overall impact is varied in intensity, but the pandemic is not yet a public health disaster, which is the stage when public health infrastructure is overwhelmed.

Presuming that the most feasible steps to beef up public health measures have been taken, the possibility that the disaster may still come to a pass in some areas is real. But the disaster can be tackled because of India’s size and diversity. Size will facilitate containment and diversity will permit the fashioning of response to suit local conditions.

The leveraging of size and diversity requires deepened cooperation between the Centre and the states. Size can allow for flexibility in restrictions and permitted activities. While restrictions are basically driven by scientific advice, activities to be permitted are shaped by socio-economic factors that are aimed at reviving the economy and restoring other normal activities as possible.

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Social distancing norms, public health safety measures and prohibition of gatherings will have to continue and remain the new normal for an indefinite period. The tension between public health concerns and economic fallouts has so far rested on the shoulders of the Centre. It is time to pass on some of the burden to the states, and loosen the grip of centralisation wherever possible.

Revising the present policy on control through greater decentralisation will pose challenges to inter-state and Centre-state relations. It will also test intra-state relations as people of different districts could themselves be at odds with the state governments.

Greater demands will be placed on Centre-state coordination across several domains. Take the issue of stranded labour. The Centre must on an urgent basis ensure that all stranded migrant labourers are provided transportation. Since the migrant labour force is required to revive the economy, they must also be given a choice to return to their workplaces or native places and transportation provided accordingly. The receiving states can decide the protocols to screen and facilitate their speedy integration. The demands of coordinating any movement of goods and people that may involve several states which could be in different stages of lockdown will be challenging.

The 14th Financial Commission considerably increased the devolution of taxes from the Centre to the state from 32% to 42% but various other central allotments were simultaneously reduced. But with economic growth shrinking and also battered by the prolonged lockdown, the states will now bear the brunt of the burden as the Centre can delay their shares as is the case with GST.

The relative power of the Centre has increased at a time when states need to take independent decisions and need financial resources to spend more on public health infrastructure and restore the economy with each state having its peculiar needs. The plantation sector in the East maybe impacted quite differently from that in the South. A one-size-fits-all approach for restoration cannot possibly work.

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This calls for a different paradigm to be adopted by the Centre and moving away from the proclivity of being in-charge because of the control over the purse strings. It demands a huge shift that will require political will at the Centre and should not left to the bureaucracy to arbitrate. The PM-CARES Fund must be utilised by providing funds to states instead of by central utilisation. This goes against the normal grain of thinking but these are certainly abnormal times.

The lockdown so far has been a public health success and India’s handling of the pandemic has been praised internationally. We are ourselves surprised at the low figures of infection and deaths especially in comparison to the US and EU. Our low testing capacity probably provides deceptive comfort. But the worst may be yet to come and much of our gains have come at significant economic costs.

As of April 28, the infections and deaths are increasing in absolute numbers but mostly within areas already affected. The loosening of the lockdown on May 3 is a necessity, though it will in all probability be a calibrated one. A National Reopening Strategy as suggested by the Takshashila Institution provides a workable way forward, but it cannot be implemented without decentralised execution by the states. But the states too have to involve the districts and the tehsils in a similar fashion.

In principle, most of the centralised administrative pathologies that prevail between the Centre and states are duplicated albeit in smaller measures at the state-district level. In the demarcation of COVID-19 affected areas, the district and tehsil boundaries will be the basis of differentiation between Red, Yellow and Green. States might decide the restrictions and activities under the designated colour but all districts are not the same and therefore with the state’s oversight, districts must decide to allow and restrict any particular type of activity. The closing of barber shops etc., through guidance from Delhi must give way to such decisions taken at the district/tehsil level.

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India’s economy has to be opened up and balanced against the measures necessary to preserve public health. The nation has put its faith in the Central leadership and mostly tolerated the lockdown as a necessary measure. But relief from suffering through unemployment, homelessness, destitution and an uncertain future is also of paramount importance. Everyone does not have to suffer equally; our size and diversity will ensure that.

The strategic shift is to give more leeway to the states to decide what demands they make of their citizens. The Centre’s role must be of the benevolent enabler that should be constantly shifting and lending its weight towards the embattled. This is a war that will test India’s wisdom and patience; for sure it can shape its future.

Lt General (Dr) Prakash Menon, is Director Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat.