As the initial hesitancy over taking the vaccine shots turned into urgency with an exploding second wave, it became amply clear that vaccines were in short supply. Further, as the Centre announced opening up the vaccination window for those in the 18-45 age bracket, one could sense the impending acute shortage it would trigger, rendering that step simply into an arduous wait for most. Curiously, what was also discernible was the Centre shedding off its responsibilities, letting states procure vaccines directly from the manufacturers and at a higher price than what has been charged from the central government. When several states like Delhi and Maharashtra expressed their wish to float global tenders for the vaccines, it symbolised an astounding step in the direction of passing the buck to the states in the midst of a crisis which has rather seen a further overall pulling of the centralising strings over the last one year. It raised the alarming possibility of states competing among themselves, with private clinics, and other countries in a bid to get the vaccines, with vastly different resources and curve-trajectories of caseloads and deaths. Could it be attributed to the inherent flexibility of India’s federal structure or a mere contingent devolution necessitated by an unprecedented pandemic?
To answer it, and before doing so, we need to situate it in the historical context which established the federal structure and gauge the uniqueness of the Indian model. Pointing towards a populace irreducibly stratified along the lines of religion, caste and language, among others, the British, during a substantial part of its reign, brushed aside demands for national self-determination. To counter this, and in effect underline the potential nation inhering in us, the Congress leadership emphasized the need for a centralised administration capable of maintaining the unity of the nation. However, in order to build a broad-based nationalist movement and take all religious and linguistic minorities along, and prevent a fatal fracture of the anti-colonial mass, the leaders gradually reconciled to a federal structure in the would-be state. Gandhi’s inclination towards decentralisation and the onerous task of including several princely states also tilted the scales further in federalism’s favour. While Lucknow Pact and Nehru Report reflected this, official acts, as well as proposals like the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms,1919, Government of India Act,1934 and the Cabinet Mission Plan, 1946, also contained decentralising provisions, albeit in a markedly increasing degree respectively. The period of constitution-making modified this overarching push as the partition of the country, its attendant bloodshed, national security imperatives and planned economic development motives tempered the federal nature with a clear centralising spirit. Crucially enough, as pointed out by Ambedkar, the union hadn’t been formed out of an inter-state agreement and neither do any state have the right to secede. Amid all these, notwithstanding unitary features like an integrated judiciary, emergency provisions and centrally appointed governors, what still ensured the survival of the underlying federal system was a constitutionally backed demarcation of the legislative powers of the Centre and the states, thereby ensuring almost complete autonomy of the states with respect to matters listed in the States List.
With bouts of President’s rule in states imposed often arbitrarily, gradual strengthening of the Union List, and blots such as the 1975 National Emergency, there has been an unmistakable whittling down of the states’ power vis-a-vis the Centre. Economic liberalisation and political regionalisation leading to the dawn of the coalition era in the 1990s provided a boost to federalism with states now vying for private investments and the central government, having regional party leaders as well among its ministers, encouraging it. Dismantling the previous policy regime of centrally directing public investment and keeping its private counterpart at minimal levels, the Centre, as well as institutions like the World Bank, now encouraged inter-state competition in parameters like ease of doing business as a way to spur economic growth. Competitive federalism now became a palpable phenomenon, notwithstanding its unequal growth accruing to the states in the process.
After a single party viz. the BJP managed to form the government in 2014 and 2019, there has been a renewed centralising push. On the economic front, the introduction of a nationwide GST in 2017 (it had been in the anvil for years) abolished the collage of several taxes across the country and heralded a standardised tax structure. While it does take into account revenue requirements and concerns of the states, the acrominy last year over the GST compensation dues to the states signalled friction points embedded in the tax regime which can aggravate in times of crisis when revenue sources greatly dry up. The demonetisation exercise in 2016 demonstrated the centralising tendency even more when about 86% of the currency notes were rendered redundant in one go, sans any consultation with the states. On the political front, the centralising zeal has been more pronounced. Abrogation of Article 370, hasty passage of farm bills and weakening of the powers of the Delhi government through the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act, 2021 has portrayed the clear intent of the central government in this regard.
Thus, when it came to combating a national pandemic, it was obvious that the centre would spearhead efforts. With the resources and the institutional capacity needed to do so, its primacy of responsibility was uncontested. However, just as the states have to manage the local bottlenecks during economic reforms or establishment of industries, in the pandemic too, the states have had to direct the micro-level efforts at containment, testing, etc. Local initiative and innovation have always aided the overarching effort. In the first wave, the lockdown was imposed and ancillary directions passed on the basis of the Disaster Management Act, 2005(DMA) and the colonial era Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Social distancing guidelines were issued by the National Disaster Management Authority. It’s evident that the states had little room for deviations while crafting the broader policy responses to the raging pandemic.
As the first wave subsided and vaccines started trickling out for the public, it was widely expected that a central procurement, decentralised distribution and universal and free coverage would be the way forward. A sharp spike in cases leading to the second wave and widening of the vaccination window to more age groups belied such hopes. When manufacturers announced a three-tier price structure for the Centre, states and private hospitals/clinics, it stoked confusion, and fears of already cash-starved states running out of vaccines in the eventual run. Such a stunning volte-face of central policy between the two waves is both unfortunate and inexplicable. Internally, aggravation of the Covid situation warranted just the opposite response from the Centre while externally, even countries like the USA with more relative weight to the states in the federal polity, and with less welfarist thrust than India, have rolled out free vaccination drives and much more generous public spending like cash transfers to revive the economy. Setting aside questions of purported lack of fiscal headroom, even a display of intent in that direction would have sent out a positive and assuring message. Instead, we now have states floating global tenders in a scramble to get the vaccines. Even the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), essentially an urban local self-government body, has taken this route to expedite vaccination. As opposed to a sweeping national lockdown last year, the states were given the liberty to draw up their own restrictive guidelines after the onset of the second wave, but the foremost task of vaccinating the people in earnest has laid bare the wide cracks in the cooperative model envisioned by the constitution-makers, which, contrary to a competitive or convenient approach, should be the driving principle in trying times like now.
By Ritabrata Chakraborty