A fine balance: How Covid-19 pandemic tested Centre-state relations

The pandemic has undoubtedly ushered the era where both the Center and the state governments have worked in collaboration and cooperation.



Yatan Sharma


Division of powers between the Centre and the state government (s) delineated in the Constitution of India, laid down the basis for federalism in India. Taking inspiration from Australia, we have embodied three lists, namely - Union, State and Concurrent list in the 7th Schedule of our constitution with the intent to give Centre an edge over the states. This Quasi Federalism has engendered the tussle between the Union and states. The states that were persistently demanding more autonomy in decision making - what Rudolph and Rudolph termed as the demand for ‘economic sovereignty’ in the pre pandemic era - are now cooperating with the Centre to fight the invisible enemy. Implicitly, the Covid-19 pandemic has metamorphosed the relations between Centre and states and propelled them to work in close collaboration.

Despite health being a subject enumerated in State List, states have been following the guidelines issued by the Center. However, there are two acts that have legitimized Centre’s intervention. First is the Epidemic Disease Act 1897. It enables the Centre to restrict entry and exit via sea and air. The act also empowers states to take a call on educational institutions, markets, religious or any other gathering etc. The second is the Disaster Management Act 2005. It authorizes all tiers of government to act in compliance with the local needs and their own capacity. For instance, the governments of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi and Kerala had announced closure of educational institutions prior to the declaration of nationwide lockdown. Despite education being a subject of concurrent list, the Centre didn’t intervene. Similarly, when the Centre made an announcement for the implementation of nationwide lockdown, none of the states resisted it. Indeed, they lauded the Centre for taking appropriate measures promptly. Comprehending the exigency of the apocalyptic situation, all states strictly followed the guidelines issued by the Centre. Such level of cooperation and coordination between the Union and state governments has never been seen before in the history of republic India.

Another silver lining that could be drawn out from the pandemic is that the system of vertical asymmetry (a flexible federation where the Union government possesses more power than the state government) has been accepted by the states. Not disappointing the states, the government at the Centre has been leading the Union from the front and is trying to cater the needs of every section of the society. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has pre-paid the April installments of the shares that states had in the central tax and duties. It accounted for around Rs 460 billion. Taking a giant leap in this direction, a package of Rs 20 lakh crores has been announced by the central government to revive the stagnant economy and to provide fiscal assistance to the sectors that are worst hit by the lockdown. Catastrophic cyclones like Amphan added fuel to the fire by severely impacting the states of West Bengal and Odisha. Despite facing a financial crunch, the Centre allocated the fiscal assistance of Rs 1,000 crore and 500 crores to the states, respectively. Realizing the exigent need for unlocking the economy, both the Centre and state governments have once again demonstrated the prevalence of harmonious relations. The Centre has now put down the ball into the states’ court by allowing them to make independent decisions on a majority of the subjects in accordance with the local conditions. They are free to take a call on imposition of lockdowns as well.

There were instances like the movement of migrant workers, demand for more fiscal support by the states and demand for additional health care equipment etc. that triggered the rift between the Centre and states. In addition, the state government of West Bengal accused the Union government for violating the norms of Disaster Management Act 2005 by deploying their health workers in the selective districts without the consent of the state government. Nonetheless, these instances have failed to digress both the parties from their common objective of protecting the masses. The pandemic has undoubtedly ushered the era where both the Center and the state governments have worked in collaboration and cooperation, instead of competing with each other. This collaboration testifies the very first article of the Indian Constitution, which reads: ‘India i.e. Bharat, Shall be a Union of States.’

(Author is an Intern with Academics4NNation. He is a student of Political Science, University of Delhi.)

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